ROBERT BARRON CITIZEN
Buddy Gray felt a sense of duty when he joined the American army decades ago so he could help out in the Vietnam War.
Gray, a member of the Nitinat First Nation, followed in the footsteps of his father who fought in the Second World War, and two of his brothers who also signed up for the Vietnam War.
He said he joined the armed forces just as military operations in Vietnam were winding down, so he never had the chance to engage in combat.
Gray was one of 66 members from Coast Salish tribes who are veterans, from both Canada and the U.S., that were honoured for the first time in a ceremony at the Cowichan campus of Vancouver Island University on Thursday.
“Veterans who are from the First Nations are getting a lot more attention these days, and I think it’s great,” Gray said, while a veterans’ prayer totem pole was unveiled in front of hundreds of people. “I feel I did my part and that it was worthwhile, and we all appreciate this recognition.”
It’s estimated that more than 7,000 aboriginal Canadians served in both world wars and the Korean Conflict alone.
During the Second World War, First Nation soldiers participated in every major battle and campaign, including D-Day.
Marlene Rice, an elder-in-residence at VIU’s Cowichan campus, said Harold Joe, another elder-in-residence at VIU and a master carver, developed the idea for the event at a similar ceremony he attended on the Lower Mainland.
She said more than 200 living Coast Salish veterans have been identified on both sides of the border, but most didn’t respond to requests to participate in the recognition ceremony, which actually began on Remembrance Day in the Somenos Long House.
“It’s a fact that, unlike non-aboriginal soldiers, First Nation soldiers were not recognized for their service until recently and received no pensions,” Rice said.
“But they wanted to fight for their country and they did because they felt it was the right thing to do, and now we’re honouring them.”
The veterans’ prayer totem pole, carved by George Rice, and a warrior canoe, carved by Harold Joe, Roger George, Cory George, Walter Thomas and George Rice, were unveiled at Thursday’s ceremony.
The prayer pole is now permanently in place at the south entrance of VIU’s Cowichan campus in Duncan, and the warrior canoe will be made available to other First Nation communities to use as an “ambassador of remembrance.”
The canoe will be travelling to another First Nations community in November to honour aboriginal veterans on Remembrance Day.
VIU president Ralph Nilson said First Nation cultures and people are at the centre of university life at VIU.
“The prayer pole and warrior canoe will greet every visitor who comes to the Cowichan campus, providing an opportunity to teach our students about the important role that Coast Salish veterans played in protecting the freedoms we enjoy today,” Nilson said.