Thank you very much, Neil. You and I have something in common. We have an accent issue—with Métis, and different names.
As the Métis nation, of course, we're very honoured to be here before each of you to bring the message from our veterans.
I should take the time to reflect quickly before I start. The Métis National Council represents the Métis nation of the homeland, which is parts of western Ontario and all the way into parts of British Columbia, parts of the United States, and of course into the Northwest Territories. That's our traditional, historical homeland. Our people have lived there for several hundred years now, without hesitation, developing our entrepreneurial development.
I'm sure most of you know history, and history has taught us different things throughout time. At one time, the person we see as our great leader was called a traitor in this country, and now he's a father of Manitoba, properly being recognized for who he is, Louis Riel. The Métis government is established from Ontario to British Columbia. I am one of the presidents of the board of governors of the Métis National Council. I'm also vice-president of the Métis National Council, and I am president of the Manitoba Métis Federation.
We have an estimated population of about 400,000 in western Canada. Our governments have amassed, I would say, close to 1,500 employees across the homeland. In Manitoba alone we have 750 employees, and we also of course manage all types of programs and services for our citizens. Most of it is economically done through our own businesses. We run a lot of businesses, and we make a lot of revenue in our businesses. We're very successful that way.
We also had a great heartache in history with this country. When we joined Canada in 1870, we did so on the promise of certain things given to us. As history will show, we finally won the Supreme Court ruling on the land claims in 2013, but it set the stage for the struggle we face now, close to 150 years since 1870, which is just two years away.
The Métis nation is probably one of the most written-about people, in the sense of Louis Riel and our history, but we have had a turbulent past trying to find ourselves and where we fit in Canada.
It's interesting. I don't usually read speeches. I speak from what I know. I call a spade a spade when I see one. I'm not afraid to stand up for what I believe in. I have a prepared speech here. I do apologize for those who speak French. We don't have any French translators working for us, although a lot of our people speak French. I speak Ojibway, personally. We're a multilingual nation. The language we created, which is now recognized, is called Michif. It's a combination of French, Cree and Ojibway. It was created by our peoples and it's studied by others all across the world. They come to study how we created that language.
Let me start by thanking each of you for giving me the opportunity to appear before your committee. In my capacity as the Métis National Council's minister of veteran affairs and as president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, I do so with mixed feelings. I have a sense of optimism that a settlement for our Second World War veterans may soon be at hand, one that acknowledges the disadvantages and discrimination they faced on their return to Canada, which denied their chances of demobilizing as successfully as other Second World War veterans. I have a heavy heart that this settlement has taken so long to take shape that the vast majority of Second World War heroes are no longer with us today. That time is running out for a few of them. There are only a few still alive in western Canada.
Be careful with my accent. I don't have an “h”, yet I don't speak French.
To understand the scope of the Métis nation's involvement in Canada's war effort, I encourage you to visit the National Métis Veterans' Memorial Monument in Batoche, Saskatchewan. We just erected that several years ago. I'm sure most of you know what Batoche is. I'm sure I don't have to repeat myself, but just in case, Batoche is where the last historic battles took place between the Métis nation and Canada. We won two of the skirmishes and lost the last one. At that time, of course, not long after, our leader was hanged.
First unveiled in July 2014, the monument honours and commemorates the wartime service of our Métis nation patriots, starting with those who fought under the leadership of Louis Riel and the military command of Gabriel Dumont, at Batoche. The last battle of our North-West Resistance was in 1885, and only about 30 years later, Canada called us for the Great War.
For the First World War, our country called upon our boys to fight and our women to serve in the medical corps.
I want people to reflect on that thought for a second. Imagine somebody attacking you, coming into your territory—into your homes—and attacking your families. Not long after—it was 30 years later—they're knocking on your door and asking you to come fight for them, to go fight someone you don't even know. That's really what happened there. It's good to see that our people didn't hesitate. We joined in great numbers in World War I to go fight on behalf of Canada, to fight those we didn't even know in order to protect democracy and freedom.
These patriots fought for the rights and dignity of the Métis nation, and out of thirst for justice and the protection of our way of life. Despite our defeat at Batoche, the execution of our leader, our dispossession and dispersion, and our marginalization on the fringes of society, the Métis response when Canada came under threat was immediate and profound.
The initial engraving on the monument has the names of more than 5,000 Métis nation veterans, most of them from the Second World War. We also have some names of veterans who fought in the 1885 battles, in Batoche. We also have those from the Korean War, and of course we have recruits still today in the war that is taking place in the eastern part of our world.
Recruitment was so high in the Métis communities that it had to be suspended when it threatened local economies. Our young men and boys attended in mass numbers. In my village alone, I know there were so many who left. Some never came home; others came home damaged, of course, with one arm or one leg, but we all know what happened to them. They were left to fend for themselves.
Why did so many join the defence of our country during the Second World War? Of course, for some there was an element of intrigue and adventure that played into the decision to serve overseas. Perhaps it was the opportunity for meaningful employment at a time when job prospects for Métis in the Prairies were bleak. However, knowing these men and women as I do, I know that what principally drove them was an intense desire to combat the scourge of fascism and help create a better world and a better Canada—a Canada where they would no longer be targets of continued discrimination and racism, and where they would have an equal opportunity to pursue a livelihood and build better lives for themselves, their families and their communities.
Were their hopes and expectations met when they were released from service? Tragically, they were not. The new Canada they fought for was not to be.
I have been the minister for this file for over 15 years. I've been battling this issue with Canada, to try to find a solution, and to deal properly with those who came home. So many promises were made to them when they left—that they would have an economic start and a new beginning if they survived, and that Canada would be there for them.
Let me tell you, I've seen many of those whom we call elders now, at that age in their lives, cry in front of me—which made me cry—when telling me their stories of how they were treated when they got home. Basically they were told to go back to their traplines. Even when challenging them, they said these young bureaucrats used different language, or let's say much harsher language: “You were there for only three months. Do you think your work has this much value? You think we should be giving you....” These were the kinds of things that were said to them at the time. Of course, they walked away and never went back, because of the way they were treated.
I saw them, and I heard them express the hurt in their hearts. That was not what was supposed to happen to them when they got home. They were supposed to be helped; there was supposed to be someone taking care of them. There was supposed to be somebody giving them another chance to rebuild their lives. Of course, that didn't happen. I have met with every government sitting around this table on this issue. You can go back in your history and see I have met with you and your government in some capacity.
The new Canada they fought for was not to be for them when they returned. In 1995, one of our veterans told the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples that when he was discharged in 1945, he wanted to work for the post office, because he liked the uniform and the way the employees were treated. This is the 1995 study done by the Senate itself. I have a copy, and I'll leave it here if people want to access it afterwards. The veteran stated, “The most important thing I wanted to do was to join the post office and be a letter carrier. The one thing that blocked me was that I was a half breed and they would not take me.”
Accessing veterans' benefits would prove particularly problematic for Métis. Another of our veterans told the Senate committee:
All the benefits were advertised on radio and in the newspapers, but I never saw a newspaper where I lived, nor did we have a radio. We were remote. The first gravel road we had there was in 1959.
At an earlier meeting, the same veteran had said that most Métis veterans were “not informed of education and land benefits, or of low interest loans that were available for housing and business start-ups.” He said many Métis veterans “could not read English, but the department did not make applications available in Cree, Michif or French.”
As I told you earlier in my comments, many of the people in our villages are fluent in French, and that's what their main language is. The Royal Canadian Legion was another source of potential information, but our veterans told the committee that they lived far from the nearest branch and did not join or become members for many years after their war service. Those Métis veterans did not learn about benefits and sometimes were denied the full use of benefits. This was the case for Alberta and Saskatchewan Métis who wanted to take up veteran land grants and were instead told to move into collectively held Métis settlements or Métis farms. They were not able to access the $6,000 loan that was made available to veterans settling on private property.
I can remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday. I met with our veterans who spoke of their struggles and how they felt about being promised economic development opportunities upon arrival back home. Some shed tears. They described vividly how there were two lines. First, if they were dark enough, they were told to go to the first nation line—the word they used at the time was "Indian". I'm just being more diplomatic. Once there, they were refused and told they were not “Indians”. They were told to go to the “white” line. Again, they were refused. They had nowhere to go. That's how they best described themselves when they were trying to find where to go. At that time, Canada still did not recognize the Métis people as a rights-bearing people, and in fact denied their existence. That's been a challenge for our nation for quite a long time. Truly, there was no line. That is the best way to describe their experience. I'll never forget those tears.
How did our veterans respond to this treatment? Some resumed the roles they had played before the war in organizing our communities and leading our political associations that were working for rights, recognition and improvements to our people's social and economic conditions. Others, amidst poor housing and living conditions in cities and remote areas, succumbed to despair and alcohol.
When Canada finally took action to redress the issue of indigenous peoples' access to and just receipt of veterans' benefits, our veterans were denied justice once again. In 2002, Canada set aside $39 million for first nation veterans packages in response to claims of differential treatment under the Veterans Charter. For the Métis, it provided some funding to research grievances concerning Métis access to post-discharge benefits, then cited privacy issues to deny us access to the information we needed to support the claims.
In fact, it's ironic. I remember this vividly. That deputy minister is no longer with us, and he's gone to another world, but when I was meeting with Albina—she was the minister at the time, and the Liberal Party was in control—we seemed to be making some progress toward a potential discussion on a settlement like the first nations one. I can't tell you enough—I saw it with my own eyes, and my reputation is very powerful so I do not say things without them being true—how adamantly the deputy opposed it. I will never know—he died of cancer after—what happened and why he was so adamantly opposed to the Métis. He would not allow us to look at files, as the first nations study did. We had the same consultant who did the first nations study, but we were not allowed to randomly select files so we could show the systemic discrimination. I will never know, and probably nobody will ever know, why he was so against the Métis. He did not allow us the chance to prove that systemic discrimination did take place and to provide clear evidence that the Métis were not treated as fairly and as equitably as others.
The first ray of hope for recognition came on Remembrance Day 2009, after many years of discussion and battles. That ended the discussion that day; it seemed to die. In the discussions it seemed that the Liberal Party and government at the time were supportive of moving toward some kind of discussion and possible settlement, but the fight with the bureaucracy.... They were just too powerful. I think the government just gave up hope on it because the department was so adamantly opposed to it.
The first ray of hope for recognition came on Remembrance Day 2009, when indigenous affairs minister Chuck Strahl and I led a delegation of Métis nation D-Day veterans back to the beaches of Normandy and the Juno Beach Centre. There, at the Métis Veterans' Memorial at the Juno Beach Centre, our heroes were honoured by the Government of Canada, represented by Mr. Strahl, and by citizens of France.
The memorial features the Red River cart, one of the most recognizable symbols of the Métis nation. Before that, though, we went to the first opening at Juno Beach. I encourage any of you who have not seen it to go. The feeling that embraces you upon knowing how many of our young boys died there, at the shores and as they went into battle.... Some of them were taken. One is still alive in Manitoba. He was taken prisoner after he parachuted too far and too deep. You start looking at Juno Beach. We walked there. We raised $100,000 on our own as the Métis government, and we took a large delegation of survivors from Juno Beach. When we got there, it was clear to us that there was great pride. We first went to all of the graveyards to show our respect and honour, and we did prayers throughout the different graveyards we visited. They went to visit a lot of their own friends—they call them brothers—and stopped by their gravestones and prayed for them.
Finally, on the first day when we were going to cut the ribbon and walk in there, to me they were like children. I saw such enthusiasm, such excitement, that they were going to walk into this museum and their story would be told, that they had been there fighting for people they didn't even know, and fighting for a country that was not very good to them.
When the ribbon-cutting ceremony happened—because nobody had been allowed to look inside—we walked in and there wasn't one artifact that described the Métis nation, not one. It was all first nations' artifacts. Outside there was an inukshuk for the Inuit, and I don't know how many Inuit were in World War II. I don't know if any went, but there was not one piece of evidence that the Métis were there fighting for our country and fighting for the world.
So we worked very hard, and at the time Chuck Strahl understood—and he's still my friend today—that something had to be done, and we were able to put the Red River cart there. We took a second delegation there five years later, but by that time many had already died and they didn't have a chance to see that history and that we had corrected the wrong that was done by the museum in the exhibits that were there.
Today the Métis history sits on Juno Beach. We checked on it to make sure it's still there and that they will not put away our historic message so that people throughout the world who come will know that the people of our nation went to fight for them.
The best way to describe that story is to say that I've seen some non-indigenous-looking people—I'll use that phrase and it's not in a negative way—praying with their children. I thought it was all Canadians who were buried there, so I thought I would talk to them just in case they knew any of our Métis people. I asked if they had relatives here because these were all Canadian graveyards. They said they didn't. I asked why they were praying to these headstones here. He said he had come here when he was little and his dad had brought him. They used to come to pray here for these people who didn't even know them but fought for them and died for them and gave them the freedom they enjoy today. It touched my heart when I heard that, so I teach my children today that they must honour these people who lie under this ground, who gave their lives for our freedom and didn't even know us.
That is the passion of the heart that I would have expected our country to have when our veterans returned from the Second World War, but that truly wasn't the same for the Métis.
Highlighting the contribution of the Métis soldiers, sailors and aircrew drowned during the world war and during the Canadian landing at Juno Beach in 1944, the veterans who spoke at the Senate committee more than 20 years ago, during the 1995 study, were then part of a group numbering in the thousands. The year 2020 will mark the 150th anniversary of when the Métis brought Manitoba and the rest of the western prairies into the Canadian Confederation.
In our history and the history of this country, all our Métis battles were to protect the rights of our people and all Canadians. The Métis are patriots of Canada, always have been and always will be, even though our country has at times forsaken us. Canada cannot continue to forsake our World War II veterans. They sacrificed their families and much of their lives to fight for liberty and freedom, which many didn't fully have before they left for war, and didn't have when they returned home.
Today I speak to you on behalf of the few hundred who are still alive. As the Métis nation's minister of veteran affairs, I and Minister O'Regan have been working on a package for veterans that we can hopefully conclude in the near future. I cannot emphasize enough that time is truly of the essence. I encourage this committee to support the completion and delivery of this package to bring justice and respect to those who sacrificed so much in World War II. We have always honoured, respected and supported our veterans who have served in Korea, Afghanistan and on other peacekeeping missions, and who today continue to sacrifice for our great country.
Why do we make that statement? If you look at what Canada has attempted to do with respect to the wrongs of the past, they did deal with the first nations. They gave every veteran $20,000, based on what was truly promised after their return in 1945. They also settled with the Japanese and Chinese to settle the wrongdoing they believe Canada had done to them during the war.
If you look, too, at the non-indigenous society—no disrespect to them—some still feel that they have not been properly served justice. All governments and all parties are trying to resolve it. At the end of the day, though, we know for a fact that the Métis, without question, were left to fend for themselves, go back to their traplines, and deal with issues. We are trying to seek justice here, to find a way that things will be done right, so that this country can say it's dealt with these people who went out to fight so that we all enjoy the freedoms we enjoy today.
If it's still something you struggle with, I'd ask you to reflect upon the thought of seeing your son or daughter go out at 18 or 19 years old to fight for a country, to be promised something, and to come home to find nothing waiting for them when they return. That tells me that there's a lot this country still needs to resolve and fix. I know that on the Métis nation side, there are still a lot of hard feelings out there. It hurts. We are actually doing our own monuments right now ourselves across Manitoba. We're paying for it ourselves through fundraising and so forth. We have some beautiful monuments honouring our veterans.
I'm announcing at my assembly that I myself, as a government, want to give all living veterans $20,000. It's for those who are still alive so that we can at least show honour to them before they leave. I don't want us to thank them after they're gone. I don't want us to say we're sorry after they're gone. I want us to tell them we're sorry right now, while some of them are still alive. There are very few alive and they're all, of course, in their late 80s and 90s. It's time for this country to do what's just and what's right.
I ask all the parties here today to support this cause and support the issue so that at the end of the day these veterans be treated with the dignity they deserve. They gave us something that we are fortunate to have today.
That is my presentation, Mr. Chair.