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Governor General of Canada / Gouverneur général du Canadaa




Speech on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the National Aboriginal Veterans War Monument

Ottawa, Thursday, June 21, 2001

History is important. And history is what this Monument is all about.

It is about the history of Aboriginal veterans and the places where they served in Canada's uniform with honour and distinction, at home and abroad, in time of war and in keeping the peace. It is about a much unknown, almost ignored, but glorious history. As Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces, I want to express on behalf of all Canadians our pride in this history. And it is particularly fitting that we mark it on National Aboriginal Day.

Most Canadian schoolchildren have heard of the great warrior Tecumseh, who led the Six Nations in alliance with the Canadians and the British against the Americans in the War of 1812. And many too have heard of Joseph Brant, the legendary Mohawk warrior who fought on the side of the British during the Seven Years War with France and the American Revolutionary War.

But how many have heard of Lieutenant Cameron Brant? At the age of 28, Lieutenant Brant lost his life while commanding a platoon of the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion near Ypres in 1915. He was the great-great-grandson of Joseph Brant.

Few people know that in 1884 – almost 120 years ago – Canadian Natives assisted British troops overseas during the siege of Khartoum in the Sudan, rallying to the call for volunteers to accompany and guide British soldiers up the Nile River. Of the 400 Canadian boatmen who responded to this call, known as the "Nile Voyagers", 56 were Mohawks, mostly from the Khanawake Band in Quebec and 30 were Ojibway from Manitoba and Northern Ontario.

Canadian Aboriginal soldiers served in the velds of South Africa during the Boer War a century ago. They also served in the mud and trenches of the Great War of 1914-1918, earning medals and participating in every major land battle.

The 1918-19 Indian Affairs' Annual Report stated.

"In this year of peace, the Indians of Canada may look with just pride upon the part played by them in the Great War, both at home and on the field of battle. They have well and nobly upheld the loyal traditions of their gallant ancestors who rendered invaluable service to the British cause in 1776 and in 1812 and have added thereto a heritage of deathless honour which is an example and an inspiration for their descendants."

In the Second World War, Aboriginal servicemen played a significant role in all the services. Later in Korea, they served in a brigade group, the Canadian Army Special Force for Service, which was raised by voluntary enlistment and trained as part of the regular army.

This spirit of service and sacrifice continues internationally to this day, with Aboriginal soldiers deployed in peacekeeping missions around world.

And it continues here at home. I see it in the Rangers and Junior Rangers, who help to establish a sovereign presence for Canada in our Far North.

The thousands of miles that Aboriginal soldiers travelled over the course of more than two centuries to help defend this country make up a thousand memories, so many of which have been ignored or lost.

Yet these are the details of our history which we must remember, which we must commemorate. In the witness of all of the people gathered here today – and in the special witness of our proud Aboriginal Veterans of the First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit.

For, as much as this Monument commemorates specific battles and campaigns, it also honours the eternal spiritual elements that are so essential to the culture of Aboriginal peoples. For it has been erected by Aboriginal people themselves. Its message of respect and honour will travel in the four directions and be heard by all who listen. It is a message of remembrance; it is a Calling Home.

Recently, the Nisga'a people, in part of their landmark treaty, repatriated the Nisga'a artifacts. As Chief Joe Gosnell said: "Many of the artifacts are sacred, living objects we will be able to share with our children. Repatriation means bringing our ancestors home."

We should look at this Monument as bringing home the memories and history of the Veterans and the Fallen who served with such honour and distinction in all branches of the armed forces. We respect and honour these brave warriors.

I guess we all wonder why so many thousands of volunteers came from Aboriginal bands, communities and land across Canada during our time of need, during our time of war. They came from some of the most remote parts of our country – in some cases, quite literally right out of the bush. Some barely understood the French and English to which they were instantly exposed.

And far too many – hundreds – were awaited by death. They stood shoulder to shoulder in mutual reliance and trust with their fellow soldiers. They paid the supreme sacrifice, so that we could all live in peace, in security and in freedom.

Those who returned had fights. The trenches of the First World War ravaged some veterans with tuberculosis. There were also the scars of the mind and spirit.

To these soldiers, we can now say – you are with us again, your whole spirit joins us here where the Eagle sees all.

This is a living Monument to all the indigenous peoples of Canada. It is also an awakening to all Canadians on this National Aboriginal Day. May the harmony of the natural world and the strength of Aboriginal peoples' beliefs and dreams prevail.

I found a wonderful poem written by an anonymous Aboriginal author, and I'd like to quote it to you.

"The drum beat
steady and deeply resonant
reaches into the past, present and future:
pulsing with medicines
the drum is our heartbeat,
a golden glow that always moves
beneath the surface of all that takes place.

Everywhere there is war,
But streaming from the four directions,
the sky is filled with legions of thunderbirds
young and old sacrificing life
to restore peace and love."

May we all bring home these historic memories of our ancestors and elders as we honour the Aboriginal Veterans today. Where our foreheads touch in understanding and respect. As we walk together in the peaceful summer forest.

"Somewhere deep within the earth a very old grandmother
will decide that it is time to wake us up.
She will take us in a waking dream
beside the lake, and gesture to the granite floor,
and the floodgates will open."
Updated: 2001-06-21
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