It's a pleasure to be here, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee.
I'm new in my position. I was put in this position at the end of April. We perpetuate the memory of our aboriginal veterans. We also promote a federal government program, a youth development program, that is referred to as bold eagle. Bold eagle is for youths 16-29. The vehicle is six weeks of reserve basic training. It gives the young adults a leg-up. Since I've been on board, I've worked with the bold eagle program for about the past year. The past president got me involved, and I've assumed his position of bold eagle coordinator for Alberta.
I released from the military in 2008. They had a civilian, and I can't remember if he was with the Legion service office, or was a person hired for the transition process, but I remember going in and meeting with the gentleman....
Pardon me, I feel like I'm in the principal's office.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
He wanted to bring a point up. He said he noticed on my documentation that I identified as being from one of the indigenous groups. I said I was. He said I needed to be aware that to access benefits, now that I was going to be out of the service, there might be interdepartmental wars. Veterans Affairs would say, “He's status Indian, so that's your responsibility.” Then Indian Affairs would come back and say, “No, because he's a veteran that's your responsibility.”
I don't know what impact that's had on me. I know I have struggled since I left the service. It's hard going back to school, which was my intention. I had actually started university, but I was getting memory triggers from some of the material presented in classes, namely English. It was quite interesting. Who would have thought that a math question would invoke a trigger, and it did in one instance for me, so.... That's where I'm at.
There's another issue, since I got on board. I was talking with an elder a few weeks ago at a powwow, and he mentioned that there are actually aboriginal veterans living on the street in Edmonton. I did some checking, and there's an organization in Edmonton, Boyle Street, that deals mainly with the homeless, and I did point out that there are in fact aboriginal veterans there. I think, with the historical context of colonialism and where there's a high proportion of indigenous peoples in the bigger cities, that rings true.
I did some further checking, and I talked to the Royal Canadian Legion. They indicated that there were some aboriginal veterans who had approached the office trying to access benefits, and they were able to help them out to the extent they could. That's something I want to pursue further when I get back to Edmonton.
The issue is that on one level, we have an indigenous person, and then we have a person who served in the military. I can speak only for myself, but there's a bit of a matter of pride about coming forward and asking for help and stuff like that.
It's been very interesting since I assumed the position of presidency, so to speak. I'm definitely learning more and more. We are marginalized. We're a small demographic, and there's lots to find out there.
A week and a half ago I was up at Gift Lake for a job fair to promote the bold eagle program, and earlier this year we buried a World War II veteran out in Driftpile. I went to his grave, and there's still no marker on it. I don't know if it's a matter of money issues with the band or the family, but I think we'll be able to get Veterans Affairs or the Legion to help out with a suitable grave marker so people will know that, yes, this guy served in the army. Actually, from the stories I've been told, he landed in Normandy on D-Day.
I'm open to questions.
It's an honour to meet you, sir. Before I get started, since we're studying aboriginal veterans, I think it's appropriate to acknowledge that we are on the unceded territory of the Algonquin and Anishinaabe people. Like Mr. Ellis, I just travelled the country. I was in Korea with Mr. McColeman and Mr. Eyolfson and the where we had the chance to travel with veterans, including some aboriginal veterans. It was a great experience to better understand our veterans and see our veterans through the eyes of Korean people, and how much they appreciate the service. I'm sure the people in Bosnia feel the same about the service that you've done, sir, and thank you.
Also thank you for your voluntary work here, taking on this new role. It's very important that we have people like you doing that in serving our veterans.
You talked about obstacles first nations veterans face and the pride. Maybe you could elaborate some of those challenges, barriers, you might face that the Government of Canada might be able to help address in VAC, in serving our aboriginal veterans.
In my opinion, it would definitely help. I have a hard time connecting sometimes within the different indigenous groups. I feel like sometimes I'm caught between two worlds, really. I'll give you an example. I was invited to the elders group for the World Indigenous Games last year. We were sitting down for our gala dinner, and I was sitting with the elder who had invited a couple of us aboriginal veterans.
I sat down at the table, and they asked what the moniyawwas doing there. Moniyaw is Cree for “white man”. The elder indicated that I was a status Indian, and they upped the ante, saying, “Oh, you think you're better than us.” I was sitting there eating my food and there were comments like, “Oh, look at that. You use a napkin and you hold your knife and fork correctly.” I finished eating and I said, “Yes, you're right; my father is white. But you know who taught me table manners? My mom.” After that, it was good. No one gave me a hard time after that.
Sometimes when you go into the communities there's that resistance, and when I encounter it, it's a painful reminder of the historical context and the colonialism that's still very pervasive.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
My name is Phillip Ledoux. I'm a member of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veteran's Association.
I have here a brief history and vision statement for the first nations veterans. Our vision is to bring equality to all our SFNVA members and to close the gap in the quality of life between first nations and non-first nations veterans and their families. The mandate given to us by our membership is to monitor and participate with first nations' leaders to bring positive change to the quality of life for first nations veterans and their families; redress historical wrongdoing; promote unity; address common concerns; develop a collective voice for first nations veterans and their families; preserve the history of first nations' contributions to Canada's safety and well-being; and promote the warrior ethic among first nations people, especially youth.
One of the historical promises was that first nations veterans agreed to serve when first nations were under no obligation to defend the crown. First nations veterans exceeded our original agreement and continue to exceed our agreement to this day, while the crown continues to ignore our service and sacrifice.
For example, first nations veterans were promised they would receive one half section of land and $2,300, while non-first nations veterans received one half section of land and $6,000. In exchange for our service, veterans were provided lands that were already spoken for within treaty, while non-first nations veterans received prime unencumbered lands.
The current situation is that despite the ongoing mistreatment of first nations veterans, we continue to serve our communities without the support of the crown. First nations veterans are called upon to provide a wide variety of community services, such as speaking engagements, honour guards, ceremonies, public engagements, reconciliation events, powwows, community events, to name only a few. We go when we are called even though in most cases it is at our own personal expense.
For many of us, these are our retirement years yet we cannot rest because there is so much work to do. Every year our numbers dwindle, and what will happen when we are no longer able to respond to the call?
The First Nations Veteran's Association submitted a proposal for support back in September 2017. Again, we have received no response from the crown. Because we are veterans and have lived through armed conflict, we see the wave of mental health needs facing our communities and a supportive response is required.
Mental health issues, specifically PTSD, remain a growing crisis not only for veterans, but first nations communities. The SFNVA is often called upon to provide mental health services, supports, and PTSD interventions, but we are entirely unfunded and the need is great. We need help and we call upon the government to honour the promises of the crown to provide support to meet the ever-growing needs of not only the veterans, but Saskatchewan first nations in addressing the crisis in mental health.
I would like to thank the standing committee for allowing me to speak about these critical issues.
Mr. Chairman, in December 2017 we submitted a proposal to Hon. , Veterans Affairs Canada. It was a five-year projection for funding to support our veterans dealing with mental health, PTSD in its various forms. To date we have not even received a response. This is disheartening to us, but we continue our struggle.
Just this past year at the 100-year anniversary of Vimy Ridge, the Saskatchewan first nations veterans took it upon themselves to do a major fundraising. We were successful and we managed to send 20 first nations veterans to Vimy Ridge, for their 100-year anniversary, at our own expense. We never received five cents from the government. We raised approximately $190,000 to send 20 veterans for 10 days to the battlefields of Vimy. Ms. Veronica Morin, the lady sitting there, was a part of that group.
Good morning. My name is Veronica Morin. I would first like to thank you for the opportunity to allow me to speak on behalf of myself, my family, and other widows and families like mine.
Through the Jay Treaty and section 289 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, my late husband, Sergeant Darby Morin, became a U.S. Army soldier in 2004. He was killed in action on August 22, 2009 during his deployment in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York.
We have two sons together, one of whom was born on Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. I made the choice to move back home to Saskatchewan where we were from in order to have family support, because we had no family stateside.
I would like to acknowledge that I am aware of the differences between the U.S. and Canadian care support systems for military families, and based on my experience of having both countries work together in bringing my husband home to be buried on our reserve, I assumed the Canadian support would carry on after the funeral. Both countries' military personnel were in attendance, including political delegates like our former premier of Saskatchewan, Brad Wall.
During my transition between the countries, I quickly realized I was completely alone in my search for support. Nobody, including my family members, knew how to help me with my needs. Due to my U.S. income, I was unable to obtain affordable child care. During my short stay in Fort Drum after my husband's passing, I took advantage of the on-post free child care so I could have a little time for myself to grieve and deal with the loads of paperwork.
My children were three years old and 18 months at the time of their dad's passing. My oldest was a daddy's boy and had to deal with his memories of his dad, and the youngest currently deals with the lack of his memories of his dad. I didn't expect free child care in Saskatchewan when I moved home, but hoped for access to benefits the Canadian military might offer their widows and their dependants, so I tried to apply for a subsidy for daycare. Because of my non-Canadian income, I did not qualify for this. This was also an issue with trying to obtain financing for a reliable vehicle and loans.
I began to deal with suicidal thoughts from feeling like a hopeless case and the stresses of not having the time I needed to deal with my grief, my physical health, and my own well-being. These issues started a cycle of anxiety and bouts of depression. I was not only grieving the loss of my husband, but also the loss of our military lifestyle, our support, and my self-identity without my husband.
What my sons and I needed was support specifically for military loss and our transition to civilian life in another country. This is not always a welcoming country to us as aboriginal people, and my sons are always still talking about wishing they had a place like TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors stateside, where they could meet and relate with other kids who have had their parents pass away in the service as well.
I even went as far as reaching out to the Dundurn base and Hugh Cairns Armoury in Saskatoon for any support and inclusion they might have to offer us. The response I always got was that they were not able to help me because we were a U.S. military family, and I never met anyone who understood my explanation of why my husband was a Canadian native fighting for the U.S. forces and how that was even possible.
As an indigenous family, I always saw us as equal to U.S. and Canadian Armed Forces, and I had a hard time accepting that this was not the case.
My sons and I have had to deal with more than just our losses. I also found myself now having to try to explain racism and discrimination to my sons according to their age levels. I had never imagined that my six-year-old would come home from school telling me how he tried to colour his hands with a beige crayon so that he could look like all the other kids in his school.
At the same time, my older son was beginning to display signs of depression. He stopped wanting to talk about his dad with me, which hurt because he was the only one who had the same memories as I did of our family life. What hurt more was seeing him put his head down and try to avoid recognizing his dad's memory at the Remembrance Day ceremony at the schools. I always made sure that the schools had a wreath for indigenous vets. My son acted ashamed to even mention that his dad was a native vet.
My husband was a very proud native soldier and always made it known that he was representing our country in our community of Big River reserve and our first nations people. He would have been so upset with me if I didn't man up to make sure his sons didn't lose their native pride.
I've been trying to keep up with the information provided to our country through the Veterans Affairs website. I had even sent an email last spring inquiring about why the names and profiles of my husband and other widows' husbands weren't listed—for example, army reservist Corporal Derek Smallboy from the Big River First Nation and army Private Kyle Whitehead from Pelican Lake First Nation.
I had also inquired about the vetfit program as a healthy outlet to physically work out my grief. The email correspondence stated that they would get back to me in 90 days with an update of a new gym they would work with. This email was sent prior to January 2018, and I've recently inquired about it again only to be told that they still didn't have any updated information for me. I have personally tried and made an honest effort to seek help for myself and to try to help anyone else who was going through what I was going through in dealing with the military.
I spend a lot of time with the widow of the late Kyle Whitehead still, and the widow of the late Derek Smallboy is actually my aunt. They always come to me thinking that I have information for them, and I don't. All I have is the information that I have found for myself, which I don't even know where to look for, but I'm constantly still trying.
Even for mental health support, I have tried so many different counsellors to try to meet my specific needs with my military loss. Eventually, I found a counsellor who had made an offer to research support suitable to my family's needs. I'm happy to announce that my counsellor of five years, the past five years, has informed me that she is moving to a new position for a new mental health program starting this week offered to military vets dealing with PTSD and mental health issues.
I just want to let everyone know that I'm so thankful for having the opportunity to come here, because with the last nine years and everything that I have dealt with, I have personally made it my own endeavour to try to use my loss as a tool to bridge the racial gap. I grew up mostly on the reserve. I know what it's like to live in both worlds, and I'm very open-minded. I understand that a lot of non-native people, non-indigenous people, have a hard time trying to communicate this too. I get that; I understand that. I try to do the best I can to use this as a tool to open it up, to talk about things openly and forgivingly.
Again, thank you so much for this opportunity.
Thanks to you both for your service.
My condolences to you and your family for your loss.
As we travelled across the country this past week, we learned an awful lot more about issues that have come about. Some of what we heard is similar to your story, Veronica. A lot of our first nations, it appears, both in the present and in the past, have crossed to the United States and served in the U.S. A question we've asked ourselves many times is “Why?”
I'm just wondering whether either of you could answer that for us. It would help me, at least, wrestle with understanding why that is.
Veronica, do you want to go first?
I want to say to both of you how impressed I am and we are that you faced issues in your lives, very different situations, and you decided not to sit back and hope something happens. You've come all this way to speak to us, and Mr. Ledoux via technical hook-up, and I think it's laudable that you're not going to let wrongs go unrighted.
I think we owe it to you, as the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and all parties, and I'm sure we all agree that we'll get a response. We may not be able to solve everything but we'll certainly take the issues we've heard and see that the powers that be understand them and hopefully come up with solutions for you.
In your case, Veronica, with your children, you've gone through a rough patch. My hope is—because my son's now 35 and he's doing other things—that they will grow into a new kind of respect for the history of your family. Do you see that?