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Tsleil-Waututh Nation veterans honoured with touching Indigenous Veterans Day service

A ceremony at Whey-ah-Wichen on Tuesday afternoon honoured the sacrifice made by Tsleil-Waututh veterans.

Crowds gathered at Cates Park/Whey-ah-Wichen, on Tuesday afternoon to honour Tsleil-Waututh veterans on Indigenous Veterans Day. 

It was the second iteration of the annual event, created to educate Tsleil-Waututh members and the wider public on the efforts and sacrifices made by Nation members in the military. 

"Our goal here is to make the connection, the realisation that these wars have touched our little Nation," said Deanna George, a TWN councillor. She mentioned how, of the 60 people who resided on their reserve during the Second World War, six of them had gone to battle. 

As a group of Tsleil-Waututh Nation drummers made their way around the stage and placed wreaths atop it, the present veterans – Michael Wilson and Dennis Owens – were blanketed. The act was a form of protection, said George, to "cover them with love and with honour." 

George's daughter Kalila George-Wilson addressed the crowd with a small speech in the Nation's dialect. Translating afterwards, she said she had "good feelings" in her heart at seeing the large crowd that had gathered.

"You could have been anywhere else but you chose to be here today, and we hold that deep in our hearts and we raise our hands in gratitude," she said, adding how it was an especially moving day for her as the veterans present were family: her father Wilson, and uncle, Owens. 

US Army veteran Sgt. Michael Wilson joined the armed forces at the age of 20, and served from January 1985 to May 1995 across Hawaii, California, Kentucky, Washington and Germany. Owens, at the age of 22, enlisted in the Navy and served from 1982 until 1995. Both served in the Gulf War. 

Veteran and TWN staff member Nini Samra, who was in high school when he joined the Canadian Scottish infantry on Vancouver Island in 1982, was also recognized.

"It's our Tsleil-Waututh way to stand with our people, and on this Indigenous veterans day we want to acknowledge that these two fierce warriors had it in their hearts to go defend our people," she said. 

George-Wilson, with the help of William George-Thomas, TWN cultural manager and emcee for the event, read biographies of the Tsleil-Waututh veterans, reading their names, ranks and familial ties.

The drummers closed the ceremony with a prayer song, described by George-Thomas as a Coast Salish anthem, before a moment of silence was observed.

Josh Bueckert, a spokesman from Veterans Affairs Canada, host of the event, said it is "very important" that all Canadians are aware of the service and sacrifice of the thousands of Indigenous people who have served the country. 

"These brave individuals stepped forward to put their lives on the line and serve side-by-side with their non-Indigenous comrades-in-arms, despite the many language, geographical and cultural barriers they often had to overcome to do so." 

He said it must be acknowledged that this legacy of service had been built, despite discriminatory measures that made it difficult for Indigenous peoples to enlist.

"Among those who did manage to serve, many would be denied the right to obtain benefits that were available to non-Indigenous veterans. Others had to give up their Indigenous status and identity to receive these benefits," he said, adding how the "impressive tradition of Indigenous military services" is something which continues today in the modern-day Canadian Armed Forces.

While exact numbers are difficult to determine, it is estimated that as many as 12,000 Indigenous people served in the two world wars, with at least 500 of them having lost their lives. 

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News' Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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