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Legion marks Indigenous History month: Past, present, future

Jun 30, 2022
The Royal Canadian Legion is helping mark National Indigenous History Month by sharing how Indigenous traditions percolate through the organization today, how they are shaping the future, and how an historic law from the past affected Aboriginal comrades and the Legion.

National Remembrance Day Ceremony

Past decisions
have evolved into a more positive outlook

OTTAWA, ON, 30 JUNE 2022 – The Royal Canadian Legion is helping mark National Indigenous History Month by  sharing how Indigenous traditions percolate through the organization today, how they are shaping the future, and how an historic law from the past affected Aboriginal comrades and the Legion.

A misunderstood story resurfaces occasionally, about how Legion branches in Canada once disallowed members of Indigenous communities to enter their premises. This action was true because of the legal framework that existed at the time. An early version of Canada’s “Indian Act” placed restrictions upon status Indian people – including Aboriginal Veterans who had served in the Second World War. The act’s alcohol ban meant they could not visit places where alcohol was served – including at Legion halls.

“They served, they sacrificed, they died equally, but they come home and can’t even have a beer together anymore,” says Dr. Scott Sheffield, an expert on Canadian Indigenous military service and Veterans at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia. “Overseas they were one of the guys…but when they came home their Veteran status was still second fiddle to their Indigenous status,” he adds.

Sheffield explains how Legion branches were strong advocates against Canada’s restrictive Indian Act and policies after the war, and were one of the “leading voices” in a broadly-based nationwide call for post-war reform. “A lot of voices were raised, Indigenous people were serving, but not being served that well at home, and Canadians acknowledged maybe we should be doing a better job,” he recounts.

The liquor ban resulted in Indigenous Veterans missing out on camaraderie and access to important advice about post-war benefits - since their informal support networks were essentially cut off. After the act was modified in 1951, the liquor ban was lifted says Sheffield, though not all agreed with this move – including some Indigenous communities. He acknowledges that even after the ban was lifted, the segregation felt by some Indigenous Veterans lingered and combined with societal prejudices that returned as war-time solidarity waned – with lasting effects in some cases.

“That most difficult history is behind us, though we recognize that complete societal and organizational healing and change can take a long time and there is a lot of work to do,” says Legion Dominion President Bruce Julian. “I can assure you that our Indigenous comrades and their customs form an integral part of our organization’s fabric today, and we are constantly looking at what we can do better to recognize their history and support a positive future.”

For example, at the organization’s 2021 Dominion Convention the Legion pledged at all levels to support and collaborate with our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities in the areas of cultural and heritage awareness, understanding injustices and commemorating loss. The resolution reaffirmed the Legion’s commitment to lasting transformation.

Placing Wreath

Each November, the Legion organizes Canada’s National Remembrance Day Ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, and each November 11, fallen Indigenous comrades and their communities are honoured – through the recognition of the land on which the ceremony takes place, the reading of the Act of Remembrance in an Aboriginal language, and the act of wreath-laying to honour Indigenous Veterans.

As a member of the Métis Nation and the President of the Legion’s OSI Special Section, RCMP Veteran Trevor Jenvenne brings his cultural understanding and traditional healing methods - like Sun Dancing and other practices - to his role in helping Veterans living with operational stress injuries.

“I’m always thinking more along the lines of traditional healing, and I understand that it doesn’t work for everybody, but it worked for me,” he says. He notes the importance of consulting with doctors, but also of being mindful of a Veteran’s traditions and their culture.

Jenvenne prefers to look ahead rather than look back, believing that negative Indigenous history needs to be viewed through the lens of a time when there was less knowledge and enlightenment. Within the context of how people and their thinking have evolved, he says: “Look how far we’ve come.”

Even so, the past does affect the present and vestiges of the early Indian Act period remain in the minds of some. Jenvenne shares how some Aboriginal Veterans still do not feel comfortable visiting Legion branches. “We need to start over,” he asserts. “This is day 1, let’s fix it now.” He believes it is possible through collaboration and by listening as intently as the OSI Special Section group does when members share their stories. “The biggest thing is, we sit and listen to everybody,” he says.

Op Harmony” is a Dominion Command committee focused on just that. Its members are looking at overall equity, diversity, and inclusion within the Legion. They are researching new policies and programs to establish and grow Legion relations with a range of traditionally marginalized groups, including Indigenous peoples.

“We’re not perfect but we’re certainly open to becoming better informed and doing a better job of reaching out,” says committee chair and Legion Grand President Larry Murray. He describes the team as enthusiastic and creative, with one of its key advisors being the leading member of Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones. Among its goals, the committee would like to foster new relationships between the Legion and Indigenous communities both nationally and locally.

“It would be good to know that in communities where the Legion is present, we have a solid relationship with local Indigenous communities based on mutual trust and respect - we’re there for each other, and they know it,” describes Murray.

In some regions across the country such relationships are blossoming, with Aboriginal communities already embraced in meaningful ways. At the Legion’s British Columbia/Yukon Command, among other examples, branches are encouraged to acknowledge the Indigenous territories where they reside, and to include local leaders in First Poppy presentations and at community events.

Dominion President Bruce Julian emphasizes the Legion’s stance when it comes to relationships with all cultures, including Indigenous ones. “We have a renewed focus on ensuring everyone is treated with respect at all times,” he says. “Our branches are intended to be welcoming places to gather for camaraderie and for support.”

While it is not possible to rewrite the past, the future of ongoing relations with Indigenous communities is essentially a blank slate. The Legion is now setting the stage for a powerful new foundation, one that our Indigenous friends will help build.

About The Royal Canadian Legion

Founded in 1925, the Legion is Canada’s largest Veteran support and community service organization. We are a non-profit organization with a national reach across Canada as well as branches in the U.S. and Europe. With 250,000 members, many of whom volunteer an extraordinary amount of time to their branches, our strength is in our numbers.

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