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We will remember them

Travelling to Netherlands war cemeteries upon the invitation of Veterans Affairs Canada and the Royal Canadian Legion, Dutch Branch 005

A ceremony at a war cemetery in the Netherlands. Photos provided by Carol Arnold.

By Carol Arnold, teacher, Salt Spring Island

My brother and I got the call from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) in August: would we be willing to join a delegation that would go to the Netherlands in September to visit the gravesite of our uncle? A week-long trip was being organized by VAC to bring some of the closest living relatives to the gravesites of 13 Indigenous soldiers who died in the last stage of WWII. This came about after a group of Canadian, Indigenous, and Dutch individuals created the Indigenous Legacy Project earlier in the year. The Indigenous Legacy Project is a “research and remembrance initiative to identify and mark the graves of Indigenous soldiers buried” across the Netherlands. (1)

Growing up, our mother kept her older brother’s memory alive, telling stories about his suffering at a residential school near St. Albert, and how he ran away to get back to his home at Lac Ste. Anne. She told how he fled the school in winter and ran 26 miles to get home only to find “them” waiting for him when he arrived. The residential school he attended was run by Catholic nuns who assured my grandmother that her son would be getting an excellent education.

In 1940, barely 19 years old, my uncle Joseph Norman Letendre enlisted in the army, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. The records described him as a Cree speaker, “labourer,” and musician. He was known for his athletic ability, especially as a runner. On April 12, 1945, he was killed in action in a fierce battle near Holten where he is now buried alongside hundreds of Canadians who died liberating the Netherlands.

Dutch school children honour the gravesites of Indigenous soldiers.

The journey to the city of Deventer, located near two of the great Canadian war cemeteries in the Netherlands, Holten and Groesbeek, brought solace to my brother Richard and me; solace for the gaping hole left by Norman’s untimely death so close to V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, May 5, 1945. We were comforted by the company of the other 27 Indigenous family representatives, moved by the ceremonies, and enriched by hearing the stories of their loved ones, which were so similar to our own. We were touched as well by the outpouring of gratitude by the Dutch mayor, school children, and teachers. They continue to honour the sacrifice of so many young men who came from afar and liberated them from the Nazi tyranny. They told us of how they had lived in fear, and were starving and sick when the Canadians arrived. To this day the cemeteries are kept immaculately groomed, often by classes of school children. In fact, school children participated in two of the ceremonies held for us: first at Holten, and then at Groesbeek.

Canadian dignitaries accompanied us and spoke at the three ceremonies held in as many days. The speeches from the Assistant Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Ambassador to The Hague fully acknowledged the differential treatment the Indigenous soldiers experienced, and they expressed regret on behalf of the Canadian state and people for the long delay in fully making gestures of restitution to the soldiers’ families and communities. It is essential we remember this suffering and sacrifice on November 8, Aboriginal Veterans Day.

November 8 is now set aside for special recognition of the contributions made by soldiers like my uncle. It is well known that one motivation for joining the war was for young recruits to escape the experience and memory of residential schools. Residential schooling, in fact, resulted in recruits being limited to enlisting in the army, deemed as too poorly educated to join the navy or air force. Keep in mind that WWII ended in 1945, yet Aboriginal people did not get the right to vote in Federal elections until 1960! Benefits of land and loans that were given to non-Indigenous veterans upon their return to civilian life did not flow to their Indigenous counterparts. Furthermore, enfranchisement for enlisted Indigenous men meant they lost their identity, and this often meant they did not or could not return to their reserves.

We must also acknowledge that it was Indigenous activism that ultimately brought about change: the major amendments to the Indian Act in 1951, citizenship and voting rights in 1960, and, “recognition of their sacrifices and restitution for grievances over veterans benefits from the 1970s to the 2000s. Perseverance [by the activists] paid off, with a consensus report accepted by both First Nations veterans groups and the government in 2001, followed by an offer of a public apology and offer of compensation in 2003.” (2)

My uncle was Métis, and Métis and Inuit veterans’ “grievances ha[d] not received the same hearing [as First Nations]. In recent years, however, Indigenous veterans have gained much greater recognition in local and national acts of remembrance, including Aboriginal Veterans Day on 8 November (inaugurated by Winnipeg’s city council in 1994) and a National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa (unveiled in 2001).” (3) They are forgotten warriors no longer.

Thirteen soldiers’ family members were found and invited to make this journey in September. My brother Richard and I were given the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to our uncle’s final resting place. This meant a great deal to us, as we always felt that Uncle Norman’s life was deemed insignificant, my mother and grandmother’s grief and loss, insignificant. This feeling was echoed by many of the other participants. Close to where I now live is another family whose home is Saanich; they too were able to honour their uncle Edward Underwood. His great nephew Kelly is the partner of BCTF member Ginny Underwood. We are all connected in so many unseen ways.

Mark the day and remember the contributions and losses of Aboriginal Peoples. We owe them so much and we need to tell their stories.

Indigenous Legacy Project participants.


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