November 8 is Indigenous Veterans Day. For this occasion we are bringing you a series of 3 interviews with Indigenous individuals who have served—or continue to serve—in the Canadian Armed Forces.
In this second part of our miniseries on Indigenous military service, we talk with Brian Black, President of the Métis Nation of Ontario Veterans Council, about specific issues of Métis veterans, the federal government's autumn 2019 apology, and the definition of veteran.
Brian Black 0:03
Hello, Brian speaking.
Hi, Brian. This is Annie. How are you? (fades out)
Annie Leblond 0:11
For our series of episodes on Indigenous veterans, we wanted to explore the Métis perspective. We spoke on the phone with Brian Black, president of the Métis Nation of Ontario Veterans Council. Brian is a veteran himself, as he served in the Royal Canadian Navy. So, let's hear what he has to say.
Brian Black, thank you for accepting to chat with us today. Before we get into the questions, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Brian Black 0:42
Certainly. In the late-80s, I was living in Vancouver. I was working in the lumber industry. I ended up getting laid off. That night, I was out at the beach with some of my friends and thinking about what I'm going to do next. I was watching some ships sailing into the port and realized that it was the time for my career on the water. So, I joined the Royal Canadian Navy in January of 1990. Just under a year later, I sailed to the Persian Gulf, for the Persian Gulf War, where I earned the Gulf and Kuwait Medal. After that deployment, which was the first time a Canadian Navy vessel had circumnavigated the globe in about 40 years, I sailed again from Victoria, around North America through the Panama Canal up into the Caribbean to the UN embargo... for UN peacekeeping in Haiti.
At this deployment, I left my regular trade and I joined the naval ship's boarding team, where we boarded many vessels, inspecting them for contraband in accordance to the UN sanctions that were happening. After I left the service, I started work for a global inspection certification company, doing cargo inspections, and participated in a few global efforts to improve safety and efficiencies for global inspections and cargo safety. Currently, on top of my position as president of the Métis Nation of Ontario Veterans Council, I'm working for a fibreglass manufacturing company, where I manage the projects estimating group. I'm married and I have one 10-year-old son.
Annie Leblond 2:40
So, what about this Métis Nation of Ontario Veterans Council organization? Can you tell us a bit about what you do there?
Brian Black 2:47
There are six people on the Council and we are spread throughout Ontario. Ontario is a pretty big province. We have representatives down in Windsor and then all the way east into Trenton and then we go up north, North Bay area. There's some in Barry and I'm sort of local in the general Toronto area. And we support our veterans, our Métis veterans. There's all sorts of different difficulties with Métis veterans when we come home, a little bit different than First Nations veterans because First Nations veterans would come back to their reservation, where their family is; whereas Métis, we do not have land. Except for in Alberta, they have some settlements there. But that's a whole other story. As a rule, in the rest of the homeland of Métis, we don't have reservations. We're spread out throughout different communities. When you're in the military, in the service, you are beside one another when you go to sleep, when you get up, in the bathrooms and in the lunchroom and the dinner room and then cleaning and working all day. You're in each other's pockets all day long. So, once you've been released from the service, now you're home and you're alone; you're not with somebody right beside you every second of the day. When you're a Métis veteran, you could be alone and then secluded up in the rural areas. And if you have any inner demons that you're working against, that could be a recipe for disaster.
Yes, exactly. And as for our council, we work to go and identify those people and make sure that if they need some help or some services, that we can get that to them.
Annie Leblond 4:50
We still have veterans today, in 2019. And you mentioned it when you introduced yourself, you said you served in the Gulf War. When we were preparing for this[interview], you said that this war is often forgotten. People, when thinking about veterans, they think about World War One, World War Two, and then it's all blurry, and then Afghanistan. But nothing in between. But your organization represents veterans who served in all those in-betweens and even today, right. So, would you say it's important that we shift our idea of what a veteran is?
Brian Black 5:25
Well, I don't know... I think if you changed the question a little bit... a veteran is a veteran and there's a definition of what a veteran is. But I think in the general public knowledge, when you say a veteran, we automatically think of a World War Two or a World War One veteran.
Right, that's the image that comes up.
Yeah, correct. You know, and as a Métis veteran...Métis have been fighting for Canada, from before there was even a Canada, like in the War of 1812 and other skirmish battles in that period. World War One, World War Two, Korea, Vietnam. And then you get into some UN missions in Cyprus, in Bosnia, Rwanda, Golan Heights, the Persian Gulf, and now in Afghanistan. And now we've recently sent some more troops back into Africa. It's not going to end, because that's Canada's nature, to help and to serve others. I think it's not that it should change, I think it should be ever-evolving. And I think part of that is because in some of these other conflicts, they were very small. So, your veterans that were actually needing services, that number was small compared to how many needed services for World War Two veterans. So they just sort of lumped them into that realm. And then all of a sudden some of the issues changed when you got into the Afghanistan war and then you realize, Oh, well, you know, now we got to make special programs for them because it's so big, and there's so many veterans that need help. One of the things that we always say is a veteran is a veteran is a veteran. It doesn't matter what conflict you were in, what rank you were, or where you were, we're all compared equally and we all equally deserve the services that are available.
Annie Leblond 7:36
Speaking of deserving services... you've talked about the difficulties that Métis veterans [face] when they go back home, [that] they might be isolated, and they have different needs than maybe First Nations, I believe you said. We're recording this in the fall of 2019, a few weeks only after the federal government formally apologized to the Métis veterans who served in World War Two. I'm going to quote the apology itself, if you'll allow me:
"Looking back, it is clear that the pre- and post-Second World War experiences some Métis Veterans faced may have negatively affected their successful re-establishment in civilian life following the Second World War. Many experienced prejudice, poverty, and a relative lack of pre-war education, vocational skills, and work experiences. We apologize that the benefits offered to the veterans after the war were not well designed to meet Métis Veterans' specific needs."
End of quote.
The apology itself speaks about specific needs. I believe you were there in person when that apology was made; how was it for you? Why was this apology necessary?
Brian Black 8:51
You know, it was very important. And I'm very happy with the opportunity, that I was able to be there. The quote you spoke of was from Lawrence McCauley, who is the current Minister of Veterans Affairs, and we had some conversations with him after. It was very satisfying, after all the efforts and works that we've done. The World War Two veterans, they needed to be recognized and commemorated for that mistreatment that they received upon returning from World War Two. I'm really looking forward to the consultation and working with the veteran committee that's going to be put together to keep this trust going on to help support our veterans.
Brian Black 9:44
This apology was necessary and way overdue. First Nations veterans had received their apology many years previous and the Métis veterans were disregarded further. We accept it and we're going to continue and we're going to move on. You're talking about what are some of these specific needs that we deal with today? I just gave you a quick briefing earlier about what was different for Métis veterans compared to the First Nations veterans because we don't have the reservations to come back to. So that extra need of identifying and getting out into the rural areas was really needed. You know, and as we're going forward, we can use this trust in helping our aging veterans in health care, home care, comfort care, even with stuff with our youth, elder care and schooling. As long as it's managed correctly, this award could last a lifetime. It could also open doors for other conversations with Veterans Affairs to show that there is no funding for Métis veterans outside of Veterans Affairs. There's tons of youth programs and tons of elders programs but nothing for veterans alone, Métis veterans. The request for the government to apologize and to make a reconciliation with the World War Two veterans started back in the '50s. And it had gone on and on and through government and through government and through government. Even if we go into the previous government before ... the prime minister at that time had said that as long as he's prime minister there would never be any reconciliation for World War Two Métis veterans. Where does that seem right in anybody's mind?
Annie Leblond 11:59
There could be many reasons for someone to join the military, you know, universal reasons: call to adventure, a regular pay can be appealing for some people, following in friends' and families' footsteps. Were there any other reasons besides the, you know, attraction of a boat? Why did you join?
Brian Black 12:23
There's a couple different sides to this question. One of them is that this is our land. Métis, we don't have any reserves, but we're all over Canada. I might even go as far as to say that the Métis are the actual first Canadians that are on this land because of our mixed heritage with First Nations and the European settlers. If there's anybody that's attacking us, then they are attacking this land. You'll find in history, there's always been a huge amount of Métis and First Nations volunteers in service life, serving others and serving our own communities. It's always been another aspect of service life, as you know, as you're following in family footsteps. I do have family members that were in the service before, but mainly it's wanting to be part of something that's bigger than yourself, to contribute to the betterment of our country. It's just like the old JFK quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." I think that that is getting lost. I think that that message needs to come out more, because everybody's looking at what the government should do for them, but they're not really doing anything for their country.
Annie Leblond 13:52
I'm going to say it makes more sense to me personally, when you explain this. Being from Quebec, being from French Canadian descent, I'm not going to make any friends by saying this but, my grandfather married to avoid going to war. Some French Canadians were not particularly inclined to serve a British King in the war. Coming from that, my next question, when I think about Métis or Indigenous People joining the military, considering the colonial history in this country, why on Earth would Indigenous People want to serve this country in the military? But I guess those are universal reasons and it makes sense, for the Métis people, as being first Canadians, to want to protect this land.
Brian Black 14:42
And when you switch that conversation and say, well, why would you want to join the armed forces to protect that country? You can look at it one way or another and I think my First Nations brothers and sisters would agree with me that, even though we have our own sovereignty, First Nation, or Métis, when we finally get our first self-government agreement, we're still living on the land. And if there's something that needs to be protected on this land, then we're still going to stand up and we'll be the first ones there to volunteer to stand up to protect it.
Annie Leblond 15:27
We also spoke with John Moses for this podcast. He works at the [Canadian] Museum of History in Gatineau. He explained to us the importance of wampum belts and the importance in the various Indigenous cultures of honouring a verbal commitment, a verbal handshake, if you will. It is documented that promises were made by the federal government in exchange for serving in the military. And maybe the apology that was recently made to the Métis veterans is a consequence of this, but would you say that there was a culture shock for Métis men and women who served; a culture shock, I guess, when joining the military maybe or a culture shock when coming back to civilian life?
Brian Black 16:19
Looking back in history, from even in the War of 1812, the Métis veterans and First Nations warriors that were in those battles, they were leading the front. If you even look at the Battle of Fort Detroit back in the War of 1812, the defeat of that fort was because they were afraid of all the First Nations warriors that were going to go there. When we also talk about joining the service, I think, First Nations and Métis, we really get into... because of our lives, we are all together and we're a tight community. In the military, you get in there, and they already have a familiarity with that. So, I think when [we] get into the service, that's why we thrive and we run into it and grasp onto it and really take a hold of it.
You can look at World War One or World War Two... there's some Métis veterans that were really heavily decorated snipers that really made differences in battles. One of the best-known World War Two Indigenous veterans was Tommy Prince. And he was really renowned and respected by everybody that he served with. But when he came back home, he didn't get that respect, he got more the same disrespect as before he left. I think that in itself is a whole different, sad story that needs to be told more. But, you know, the First Nations guys that come back from those wars, they come back as Sergeant Major Jones, let's say, and he's respected. But now he comes back here and it's "Oh, that's just Mr. Jones from the reservation." That lack of respect is there. And then when they came back, and the Indian agents in the reservations would say, "Oh, yeah, they don't need all the services and support that's needed for veterans for when they return." They just sort of pushed that all away. So now they're sitting there without any support, with even less self worth.
Annie Leblond 18:54
It's as if they're second-class soldiers or something.
Brian Black 18:58
Annie Leblond 19:00
That man, Tommy Prince, it's not that he's one of the most-decorated Métis veterans; he is one of the most decorated [Canadian] veterans, period. Right?
My last question to you...
Being a veteran yourself, being the president of an association of veterans, Métis veterans, what's the one thing that you want public servants or the general public to know that we might not know about the contribution of Métis men and women to the military?
Brian Black 19:36
To know that we serve because we want to, not because it's the last choice before living on the street, but because we have a serving heart. Last year, I spoke before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and they asked me a similar question. I said, you know, we, as Métis, do not want any special recognitions, awards or pay or a pat on the back or anything other than what any other veteran gets. We want to be treated the same. Nothing more or nothing less.
Annie Leblond 20:19
Because a veteran is a veteran.
Brian Black 20:21
Annie Leblond 20:23
I want to thank you for your time. And I also want to thank you and your brothers and sisters in arms for your service to our country. Brian Black, thank you.
Brian Black 20:33
Thank you. Meegwetch.
Annie Leblond 20:40
This podcast is a production of the Canada School of Public Service. To learn more about the School's offerings in its Indigenous Learning Series, please visit our website at csps-efpc.gc.ca. This is Annie Leblond and on behalf of the School, thank you for listening.