For the first time ever in Grande Prairie, a ceremony will honour Indigenous veterans from the region. Organizer Renee Charbonneau says the November 8th event is meant to add to, not take away from the annual Remembrance Day services.
“It’s really important that we honour and celebrate and share with them that day so that they know that we are a grateful country.”
Charbonneau is also the driving force behind the new Afghanistan war memorial near the ANAVETS Hall and the First Nations and Métis Nation memory walk gardens planned for around it. Through her research, she says she’s uncovered roughly 60 First Nations and Métis soldiers from northwestern Alberta who were killed in action from World War I to present.
“That’s a high number of people when you consider the population of our area even now, never mind in 1917,” Charbonneau argues. “There are Silver Cross families and I think a lot of people have just forgotten that.”
National Aboriginal Veterans Day has been observed in Canada since 1994 as a way for the country to “honour the contributions and sacrifices that Indigenous peoples have made while serving in uniform.” According to Veterans Affairs Canada, more than 7,000 First Nations members served in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, along with an unknown number of Inuit, Métis and other Indigenous people.
Charbonneau doesn’t feel Indigenous peoples who have served have been left out from Remembrance Day ceremonies, Royal Canadian Legions, and other services for veterans, but believes it’s important to honour them with some of their own traditions.
“Our First Nations peoples, in order to fight in the wars, because of the rules of the day, had to give up their status,” she explains. “When they came home, they couldn’t go back to their reserves – they weren’t allowed to – but they weren’t treated like a white man either so they live in this no man’s land.”
Thursday’s event is being put on by the Canadian Motorcycle Tourism Association with the help of the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre, the ANAVETS Ladies Auxiliary, and the Legion. It will start with coffee and muffins at the ANAVETS community centre ahead of the 10:30 a.m. ceremony outside and will be followed by a luncheon sponsored by Seven Generations Energy at the Friendship Centre.
The day will also serve as a sod turning for the memory walk gardens. They will surround the Afghanistan war monument, and Charbonneau hopes to have the stories of 300 soldiers from the area on display by 2025.
“To connect with the military history of this region and to hopefully be able to tell those stories in such a way that for years to come we are going to have busloads of kids coming there for field trips, have their lunch, learn about the soldiers of our region.”
The Canadian Motorcycle Tourism Association has leased a third of an acre next to the ANAVETS building to create the veterans gardens, with the hope of having the first memorials in the ground in 2020. It’s also hoped Indigenous Veterans Day will be celebrated in Grande Prairie annually.