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Apology wanted

Terry Kruger
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Apr 14/06) - Only an apology will come close to repaying First Nations veterans for "racist" treatment in the past, says Tom Eagle.

The retired 25-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and elder who helped lead the Aboriginal Spiritual Journey to Europe last fall plans to call on the federal government to do just that.

NNSL Photo/graphic

A soldier for 25 years, elder Tom Eagle is bracing for a new battle, a push to have the federal government apologize for the way First Nations veterans were treated after the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. - Terry Kruger/NNSL photo

On the record

During the First World War, approximately 4,000 aboriginal people enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces and about 300 were killed in battle. In the Second World War, records show that at least 3,090 First Nations men and women volunteered, although the number was probably far higher. More than 200 died.

Most First Nations were never subject to conscription.

According to debates in the House of Commons, land grants were available to veterans after the Second World War.

First Nations: $2,300. Non-aboriginal: $6,000.

In 2002, a $39 million fund was established to pay $20,000 to First Nations veterans or surviving spouses.

1,238 claims paid out, 40-plus applications being processed, accounting for $24,570,000 of the fund.

According to the Assembly of First Nations in 2002, the "current value of the loss to each First Nations veteran was approximately $120,000. An AFN resolution that year called on the government to increase its financial offer and issue a public apology.

In 2004, Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin introduced a private member's bill calling on government to "provide compensation to First Nations veterans on a comparable basis to that given to other war veterans."

The journey saw aboriginal veterans, youth and elders travel to France and Belgium to perform spiritual ceremonies to call home the spirits of First Nations people who died in the First and Second World Wars.

During last week's throne speech, the government said it would apologize for the head tax charged Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1947.

Eagle said it's time the government did the same for First Nations veterans.

"The government has apologized to Italians for the way they were treated during the Second World War, to Ukrainians, to the Japanese," said Eagle.

"The government has never apologized for the mistreatment and injustices they have done toward First Nations veterans.

"One must say they've been racist and discriminatory."

Eagle grew up on an Ojibway reservation in Manitoba, but has lived in Yellowknife for many years.

He remembers seeing First World War veterans return home and struggle to survive.

"They came back from the war and never got a penny. They died in poverty."

Eagle also tells about First Nations veterans who returned from the Second World War.

One received a parcel of land on the reserve, land which was already owned under treaty rights.

"He couldn't make a go of it because he wasn't given machinery to work the land."

Another veteran received $250 worth of furniture that went into a tiny log shack.

"The Indian Agent didn't say 'we'll build you a house.'"

The apology is important, said Eagle, because it would be an acknowledgement that the government treated First Nations veterans unfairly.

"I think (Stephen) Harper might be the first prime minister to have the courage and the compassion to put forward a bill of recognition and apology."

During the recent election campaign, Harper said the Conservatives would provide financial compensation and an apology.

In news reports from December, Harper is quoted as saying it is a "historic injustice."

Former Manitoba Conservative MP Jeremy Harrison introduced a private member's bill in October 2005 calling on the government to provide "real compensation ... that truly respects their service and sacrifice."

It was supported by every Conservative MP, the NDP caucus, Bloc Quebecois and two Liberal MPs, but failed to pass when the rest of the Liberal caucus voted against it.

Yellowknifer was unable to get an interview with Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson to find out if the government plans to live up to its campaign promise.

Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington and NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer said their party would support such a bill.

"Why is it so difficult to apologize to aboriginal veterans?" asked Stoffer, MP for Sackville-Eastern Shore in Nova Scotia.

Bevington said he's ready to line up behind Eagle. "I've always felt the aboriginal soldier was never treated properly," he said.

In 2002, aboriginal veterans and widows were offered $20,000 as recommended in the National Round Table on First Nations Veterans Issues.

"I still have the press clippings, and the government called it a 'goodwill gesture,'" said Eagle. "It was not compensation."

He said many veterans have refused to take the money because it didn't come with an apology.

Eagle said he is writing a letter to Harper, asking him to have the government live up to its campaign promise.