Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I'm Dr. Scott Sheffield. I'm a historian who's been researching and writing about the experience of indigenous peoples in the Second World War since the early 1990s. Because of my work in their military experience, I got swept up in a rising tide of interest in and political awareness of indigenous veterans issues and grievances, particularly for status Indian veterans, regarding benefits from the Second World War and Korea.
As a grad student, I was contracted both by Indian Affairs and DND, and produced preliminary reports for them, exploring some of these issues. I was subsequently hired by the national round table on first nations veterans issues in 2000-01 to produce a final report. Based on the findings of that report, the federal government followed through in 2003 with an apology to first nations veterans and offers of compensation. Subsequent to that, from 2005 to 2012, I worked with the Métis National Council on a study, exploring the experiences and diverse grievances of Métis veterans. So I come to this with a reasonable amount of experience.
More broadly, during the Second World War, approximately more than 4,200 status Indian men and women enlisted, or were conscripted, into all three branches of Canada's armed forces. The numbers for the Korean conflict are less clear, but probably would number in the hundreds. These service men and women served in every branch of the force, and in every theatre in which Canadian Forces were engaged, and were integrated relatively seamlessly without segregation.
For most of them, it was a powerful egalitarian experience, and for many of them, sadly, the first and maybe the last time in their lives they felt respected, and honoured for their character and capacity.
Before the war was over, the federal government was already planning for the transition to peacetime, including provisions for nearly a million demobilizing veterans. Drawing lessons from the inflexible, meagre, and frankly, not-that-successful programs developed after the first world war, the architects of the system managed to craft a wide-ranging, comprehensive, flexible, and generous system of benefits the second time around. The resulting constellation of legislation and programs were organized into, essentially, a three-tiered structure.
The first tier of benefits were designed to be acquired, or applied for, as service people exited the military at demobilization, and were designed, really, to cushion the immediate transition back to civilian life. In particular, at this juncture, the war service gratuity was a key feature, which provided resources to the veterans, depending on length and location of service, that would be paid out at their monthly rate of pay, and usually provided a number of months of ongoing pay after demobilization.
Once veterans returned home, the onus, then, was on them to seek counsel from Veterans Affairs counsellors, and to apply for subsequent levels of benefits, in particular, the tier two level of benefits, which were the main re-establishment benefits programs to help veterans kick-start their post-war lives. There were three mutually exclusive options available at that second tier.
The first one was the re-establishment credit, by far, the most popular. Roughly 80% of Canadian veterans opted for the re-establishment credit. It was equal to the amount they got for their war service gratuity, and could be used to spend on a set list of potential options. After that, you had the Veterans’ Land Act for agricultural and other forms of re-establishment, and lastly, training or education.
The third tier of benefits was sort of an eclectic collection available to veterans if applicable to their particular needs, and if they applied. By and large, Veterans Affairs was staffed with returned veterans in the immediate years after the war. They were well trained, and highly motivated, frankly, to advise veterans on the appropriate path for them through this multi-layered structure in order to achieve the best outcomes. By and large, from everything I've seen of the activities of Veterans Affairs in those transitional years, their service was above and beyond.
With that as a background, and given the direction of the study you're undertaking, it seemed to me the most useful thing I could provide would be a sense of factors that negatively affected both the design and the delivery of veterans benefits for indigenous veterans of the Second World War and Korea.
Importantly, the problems in design and delivery did not automatically mean that indigenous veterans received less money than non-indigenous veterans. In some cases it did, but often indigenous veterans may well have received more actual dollars; they just didn't receive the same quality of re-establishment.
The first major challenge is that, overall, the Veterans Charter benefits were predicated on cultural assumptions of settler society. Now, this is pertinent to both status Indian and Métis veterans. The architects designed the programs essentially to build on an individual's pre-war foundations of education, work experience, skills, and maybe capital or land.
For instance, successfully accessing the Veterans' Land Act required previous agricultural experience and was enhanced if you already possessed land. Similarly, one of the third-tier benefits was guaranteed access to your old job if the employer and the job still existed. Well, that was great—if you were employed before you were enlisted. Also, if you wanted to access university training, you needed to have finished your matriculation and have completed high school in order to qualify.
That pre-war foundation was really critical to them making the most of those post-war benefits. Given the marginalized economic and social spaces occupied by indigenous peoples in those interwar years, combined with widespread indigenous land insufficiency and a generally poor access to both education and health care, many first nations and Métis veterans lacked some or all of that pre-war foundation to build on.
That's the first issue.
The second issue deals with reserve lands and the Veterans' Land Act. Generally speaking, status Indian and Métis veterans could access veterans' benefits, at least in theory, equally and without special regulation or provision. The one anomaly in this came in regard to the distinct legal constraints on Indian reserve lands, which were held in trust by the crown for the common use of the particular band. That meant that the director of Indian Affairs did not exercise a clear title and that banks could not seize or foreclose for a forfeited loan on reserve land. Those factors disqualified status Indian veterans who might like to settle with the VLA on reserve. They could not qualify.
The government recognized this, so they created a distinct clause, section 35(a) of the Veterans' Land Act, which made available only a portion of the standard $6,000 loan/grant. If you paid it off in good standing, the last $2,320 would be forgiven. What section 35(a) did was make the $2,320 available as a grant that didn't have to be paid back. This was a good start, but it was not in and of itself enough money to build an economically viable agricultural operation. Indeed, even the $6,000 wasn't, which is why subsequent loan programs were made available under the VLA to help VLA farmers achieve and grow their operations to a point where they could be economically viable.
Nevertheless, the majority of status Indian veterans obtained VLA section 35(a) grants. This is very different from the normal national average. Only about 7% of veterans opted for VLA, so the fact that more than half of status Indians did is I think interesting. One other component of section 35(a) grants allowed veterans to occupy a piece of crown land and also get the $2,320. Roughly 4,000 or so veterans opted for this, many of whom I suspect—though I can't prove it—would have been Métis veterans. They fell into a similar category.
The third issue is the segregation of indigenous veterans from mainstream Veterans Affairs and from fellow veterans. It's a diverse category of different factors. Essentially, many status Indian and Métis veterans were set apart legally, socially, culturally, and physically in the later 1940s and 1950s.
For example, liquor bans on status Indians barred them from entering Legion halls because they served alcohol. That was problematic, because Legion halls were an important node of information for returning veterans, both in the form of information posters and education posters from Veterans Affairs, but also in sharing a beer with fellow veterans and learning about their experiences and the programs they'd accessed. This was cut off from them. Even for those who weren't legally banned, non-status or Métis, social prejudice may have kept some of them from visiting Legion halls, or the remote regions in which they lived many not have had access to a Legion hall.
When status Indian veterans were demobilized, unlike other veterans, they were told to return to their reserve and get information from their Indian agent instead of going to a Veterans Affairs office. Basically what that did is shift the onus for that veteran's re-establishment from the veteran to Indian Affairs. It was a different circumstance for regular veterans.
It was problematic because many Indian agents were overworked. Their offices were understaffed in this time period because of the Depression and the labour crunch during the war years. They weren't trained or adequately knowledgeable to provide effective, constructive advice or even to properly complete forms in a timely manner.
Many status Indians and Métis veterans also lived in quite remote regions. Some of them lived a very mobile existence, physically separated from access to mainstream Veterans Affairs support centres, which were located in urban and rural population centres.
Even for those not physically destined however, there remained cultural and linguistic factors that made access to veterans' programs difficult. Some indigenous veterans were illiterate or had little access to print media or radio where other Veterans Affairs information campaigns were generally distributed, making them relatively irrelevant to them.
For many Métis, their background is one of cultural isolation and self-sufficiency. There was no established custom and practice within these communities of accessing government services about which many remained ignorant, anxious, or suspicious.
The fourth issue is the intrusion of Indian Affairs into the administration of status Indian veterans case files. In the handling of these veterans' personal case files they were disrupted and negatively affected by the role of Indian Affairs and Indian agents in what developed as a sort of separate parallel system of administration for these veterans.
This came in different forms. At its most basic it was an extra layer of bureaucracy between the veteran and their re-establishment benefits. That created delays and frustration for many veterans. Some even gave up in despair after years of effort or settled for less than was their due.
Sadly, the influence of the Indian Affairs branch was much more pervasive and problematic. This agency and its personnel were not neutral agents in their dealings with veterans. They brought a peculiar corporate culture, a potent assimilationist raison d'être that sometimes warped the intent of veterans' benefits and hurt veterans' re-establishment.
For example, I found almost zero evidence that status Indians accessed vocational and university training; a few, but very few. Certainly many would not have qualified because statistically more than 75% of status Indians in between the wars would have achieved grade 1 to 3 level of education. So only a small number, 2% to 3%, would have matriculated and qualified for university, for instance. There were education provisions for high school and they could have accessed them, but there's evidence that they weren't informed about them.
Instead, it seems that often Indian agents, instead of telling veterans what their options were, told them what they thought they should do or what they thought they were capable of, and given the negative prejudices in that era, that often was a very low bar.
The fact that the vast majority of status Indians took a VLA grant I think is also somewhat suspicious, as it was often used by Indian agents to help pay for a house for the veteran. While this might have enhanced the quality of life for veterans in the short term, it was not the purpose of VLA grants. These were not housing grants. They were re-establishment grants, designed to help set somebody up in a career that would sustain them.
Instead, agents used VLA funds essentially to supplement their own inadequate budgets for on-reserve housing, and in some places it went further than that. In the Maritimes, for instance, Indian Affairs had a program of concentration in this time period, trying to move all Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia to two reserves: Shubenacadie and Eskasoni. They would only allow Mi'kmaq veterans to apply for a VLA grant if they agreed to move to one of these two reserves. In this sense the veterans' benefits became a tool, a stick for Indian Affairs to coerce abiding by this policy of concentration.
Some veterans did move there, got a house, but were dissatisfied living away from family and traditional territories and abandoned that house, which meant they got zero benefit from their VLA benefits in the long term.
These are just some examples of a more pervasive atmosphere that stifled and limited status Indian peoples in the 1940s and 1950s. At its core, status Indian veterans' access to benefits was almost entirely dependent on their Indian agent, and on the relationship they had with that person.