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Only equal on the battlefield: Efforts underway to honour Indigenous veterans

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  • Francis Pegahmagabow went to a recruitment office almost immediately after war was declared in 1914.

    The Ojibwa sniper from Wasauksing First Nation of Parry Island would serve with the 1st Infantry Battalion and went on to become one of the most decorated soldiers in the First World War.

    When he returned to Canada, his reputation as a brave soldier counted for very little and he didn’t receive the same rights or benefits as his white comrades.

    “They’d gone from being a soldier to just an Indian again,” said Scott Sheffield, associate professor at the University of Fraser Valley and author of a report on First Nations veterans that prompted a federal government apology in 2003.

    Indigenous people were part of every 20th-century conflict Canada was involved in and served in the Canadian military at a higher per-capita rate than any other group.

    About 4,000 First Nations men served in the First World War. After the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, they returned to Canada still unable to vote and largely shut out of the meagre benefits on offer.

    Although veterans were eligible to borrow money through the government for farm land, it was almost impossible for First Nations veterans to qualify.

    “Worse than that, around 80,000 acres of reserve land that was good for farming was actually taken away from reserves, mostly in the Prairies, and largely given to white settler veterans,” Sheffield said.

    That didn’t stop Indigenous people from taking up the call again when Canada joined the Second World War — about 4,300 enlisted.

    Thomas (Tommy) Prince, a member of the Brokenhead Ojibwa Nation in Manitoba, enlisted in 1940 and eventually was assigned to the Canadian-American First Special Service Force, known as the Devil’s Brigade. He became a legendary sniper, was awarded multiple medals and also served in the Korean War.

    Back in Canada, Prince ended up living in shelters and on the streets of Winnipeg until his death in 1977.

    After the Second World War, Indigenous veterans couldn’t get information from trained veterans affairs counsellors, and had to go through their Indian agent. It was difficult for them to connect with non-Indigenous comrades because they weren’t allowed in legion halls.

    They were also unable to get a loan-grant combination that helped veterans set up careers and businesses.

    But Indigenous men and women continued to enlist and serve in the military — from NATO duties during the Cold War to more recent tours in Afghanistan.

    Now an effort is underway to honour their sacrifice.

    Randi Gage, a Saginaw Chippewa from Michigan and a United States army veteran, organized the first Aboriginal Veterans Day in Manitoba in 1993. She wanted a day to honour them in their own communities but still allowed them to gather for Remembrance Day ceremonies.

    Nov. 8 was chosen because the number turned sideways is the Metis infinity symbol and it’s connected to some First Nations teachings, Gage said. She wrote letters to communities and veterans organizations to spread the word about the event.

    “Most of the letters came back the most racist, disgusting: ‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’, ‘What makes you so special?'” she said.

    But the event went ahead with a handful of veterans.

    The next year, National Aboriginal Veterans Day was inaugurated by Winnipeg’s city council. Gage said thousands of people attended to honour Indigenous veterans.

    “To see the pride in those guys, it still gets me today,” she said, starting to cry. “It started the discussion. It started people talking.”

    The 25th Aboriginal Veterans Day is being celebrated Thursday but Gage said there is still more work to do.

    The federal Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs has launched a study of benefits for Indigenous veterans.

    Veterans Affairs said in an emailed statement it is committed meeting the needs of Indigenous veterans and is talking to Aboriginal groups to determine the way forward.

    Meanwhile, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is holding a photographic exhibition, presented by the Embassy of Belgium, to celebrate the diversity of those who fought for the Allied effort. It includes images of Maori soldiers from New Zealand, Sikhs from the Indian Army Corps, and a photo of Indigenous recruits and elders from File Hills, Sask.

    A photo of Inuk sniper John Shiwak, who died on the battlefield in 1917, also hangs on the wall.

    Peter MacLeod, the museum’s director of research, said he hopes it changes the perspective of people who fought in the First World War.

    “There is a huge story there about the diversity of the Canadian corps and the war effort in general,” he said. “This exhibition … makes Canadians a bit more aware of the diversity in our country’s history and the contribution that all groups have made to Canada.”

    Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press


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    Mistrial declared in Dennis Oland murder retrial, jury is dismissed

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  • SAINT JOHN, N.B. — A mistrial has been declared in the retrial of Dennis Oland for the second degree murder of his father.

    The stunning development comes just over a month after jury selection was completed for the complex trial, which was expected to take at least four months.

    Justice Terrence Morrison of the New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench announced the mistrial on Tuesday at what was expected to be the start of evidence presentation in Oland’s second trial for the 2011 bludgeoning death of his father, Richard Oland.

    The 16-member jury has been dismissed, and the trial will continue Wednesday by judge alone. 

    Morrison said there were improprieties in the selection process.

    Oland will have to be re-arraigned and enter his plea.

    Then there will be opening arguments and, finally, the retrial of Dennis Oland will get underway.

    “It cannot be helped,” Morrison told the jury as he thanked them for their service.

    “Your services are no longer required.”

    Richard Oland’s body was discovered on July 7, 2011, in his uptown Saint John office.

    The 69-year-old businessman and former executive of Moosehead Breweries Ltd. had been beaten to death.

    Dennis Oland, his only son, was charged with second-degree murder in 2013 and tried in 2015, but the jury verdict in that case was set aside on appeal in 2016 and a new trial ordered.

    The Canadian Press


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    Bolder action needed to reduce child poverty: Campaign 2000 report card

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  • OTTAWA — Brynn Vincent was only 13 when she started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Two years later, she was addicted and had run away from home and then she found out she was pregnant.

    She sought treatment for addiction at a rehab facility then moved into a homeless shelter.

    “Being in treatment with other women who are cranky and coming off of all types of drugs and alcohol while being pregnant was so hard,” she says. “But I finally decided I need to change, I need to get better — I’m having a baby, obviously I can’t bring a baby into this type of lifestyle.”

    Now 19 and sober, Vincent is living in her own apartment with her daughter and is finishing her education at the Youville Centre in Ottawa, a charity that provides mental-health treatment and other supports to adolescent mothers and their children.

    But her daughter is one of 1.4 million children living in poverty in Canada, 29 years after the House of Commons voted to end child poverty by 2000. Campaign 2000, a group formed to hold the government to its promise, is releasing an annual report card on it today.

    The report calls for the federal government to provide more funding to the provinces, territories and Indigenous communities to expand affordable, quality child care.

    Anita Khanna, national co-ordinator with Campaign 2000, acknowledges the Liberal government has introduced important measures to tackle this problem, including boosting the Canada Child Benefit — a tax-free monthly benefit to help with living and child care costs — two years earlier than planned. The benefit will now increase annually, tied to inflation.

    But while this benefit does help low-income families, it does not fully address the need for better access to child care as a way to help lift families out of poverty, she said.

    “A system of cash transfers is not the provision of good child care. It doesn’t build spaces for child care, and right now that is a huge part of the problem,” she said.

    Vincent credits the work of volunteers and staff at both the shelter and at the Youville Centre for helping her navigate the patchwork of supports for low-income teen single mothers.

    But her struggles are not over. Her limited income means she regularly has to get help from food banks and other charities.

    Her income is only about $7,000 a year. Without a provincial child-care subsidy, she could never have dreamed of completing her education, she says. 

    But if the federal government were to adopt universal child care, it would help mothers like her who are struggling to make ends meet while also trying to build more for their futures and those of their children, she says.

    “That would take a lot of stress on parents living in poverty, it would just be one less thing to have to worry about constantly,” Vincent said. “A lot of working parents in poverty work solely to pay for child care. So if I’m working every day and I’m only making enough money to put my child in daycare so that I can work … in my eyes that’s ridiculous.”

    Canada now has only enough regulated child care spaces for about 30 per cent of the Canadian kids up to the age of five, Khanna said. Campaign 2000 is calling for Ottawa to send $1 billion a year to the provinces and territories to build more daycare spaces.

    The Trudeau government recently announced Canada’s first-ever anti-poverty law, which includes a pledge to reduce the number of Canadians living in poverty 50 per cent by the year 2030. No dollar figure is attached to the bill.

    Campaign 2000 applauds the law but is calling for the Liberals to spend $6 billion on this strategy and to adopt more aggressive targets: it wants to see the 50-per-cent poverty reduction target achieved within five years rather than 12.

    “We really feel there’s impatience on this for action on this,” Khanna said. “Frankly, aiming to lift only half of those children out of poverty in 12 years is not ambitious enough and we know that collectively we can do much better.”

    — Follow @ReporterTeresa on Twitter.

    Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press




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