Gift of a Poppy

By Randy Klassen

Poppies had always troubled me. Not the flowers themselves—those I love. But the November poppies.

Let me explain. I grew up in a small town in BC, very much a Mennonite enclave at the time. My growing up years, the 1960s and 70s, were marked by a strong sense of communal identity, shaped by both faith convictions and common cultural norms. Like many small towns, relationships were tight and interwoven. For example, my elementary school principal was a member of my church; my (Mennonite) grade 2 teacher was a friend of my grandmother. And on it went. It was a tight community.

One of the core identity markers that this close community impressed upon me was “peace” –understood as Christian non-resistance, conscientious objection to military service, and “separation from the world.” And every year, this conviction was prodded and poked, tested and tried, by the recurrence of Remembrance Day.

I’ve struggled with this existential dilemma of what to do during poppy season throughout my adult life… until two years ago when I attended the Remembrance Day service at a local First Nation community.

The service, held at the local school on reserve, was remarkable for a number of reasons. In this tight nēhiyaw (Cree) community, people knew their veterans. A poster in the school hallway listed 50 names (including two women) of people who had donned a uniform in service. Most had done so through the military, but several also served in the RCMP. Two people on the list were, tragically, killed in action: a soldier in World War II, and a young mother in 2006, the first female RCMP officer to die in the line of duty. The school is now named after her: Constable Robin Cameron.

Statue of Constable Robin Cameron, RCMP officer slain in the line of duty, at the entrance to the school named in her honour, in her home community of Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation. (MCC photo/Randy Klassen)

During the service, the roll was solemnly called of the 50 names of veterans. And students and community members were asked to stand, and remain standing when someone from their family was named. By the end of the roll call, at least three-quarters of the people assembled were on their feet. I was profoundly moved—both by the fact that these young children knew their family’s stories and histories and by the extent to which this community had volunteered to serve the Crown in this way over the last century.

As I watched this community rise to its feet to honour its elders, its veterans, I thought of the many reasons those soldiers and police officers had to not volunteer. From the beginnings of reserve settlement in this Treaty 6 territory, well into the 20th and even 21st century, reasons for remaining suspicious of the Canadian government are legion.

This community was one of many so-called “rebel bands,” blacklisted by the federal government after the Métis rebellion at Batoche, 1885, for allegedly aiding the Métis. Weapons were confiscated (thus also removing the possibility of hunting for food); treaty annuity payments were cancelled; a pass system was instituted to restrict movement, and commerce; leadership was removed, so that until 1931, when a band election was again permitted, the Indian Agent was directly in charge of the band’s affairs. (A settlement on the unjustly withheld annuity payments was finally reached in 2016.)[1]

Even with this injustice festering, men from this community volunteered to serve “for King and country” in the Great War. They, along with all First Nations soldiers, were viewed with suspicion at first, for overtly racist reasons: as noted in a 2019 Veterans Affairs report, “the Government of Canada’s official policy was to not recruit Status Indians. There were fears about the enemy’s reaction to their presence, in view of their traditional association with scalping, which was deemed incompatible with the Geneva Convention: ‘Germans might refuse to extend to them the privileges of civilized warfare.’”[2]

Nevertheless, across Canada approximately 4,000 Status Indians joined the war effort—estimated to be about one in three able-bodied Indigenous men at the time (and 300 lost their lives). For a brief window starting in 1917, Indigenous men serving in the armed forces gained the right to vote but lost it again if they returned to their reserve. (That right was reinstated in 1924).

At the same time, Canada’s Soldier Settlement Act (1917, 1919), aimed at helping veterans find a new livelihood by offering loans and land on the prairies. But this help was denied to Indigenous veterans. In fact, the federal government worked aggressively to buy off Indigenous reserve land, to make it available to Euro-Canadian veterans. In Saskatchewan alone, Indigenous bands were pressured to surrender over 163,000 acres of reserve land to the Soldiers Settlement Board, to be made available to white veterans.[3]

Slightly fewer First Nations people, about 3,000, enlisted for World War II. By far the majority served in the army since both the air force and the navy required volunteers to be “of pure European descent and of the white race.”[4] (These requirements were dropped in 1942 and 1943, respectively, as the need for recruits grew.) Conscription was introduced in 1940, and Status Indians were not exempt. Only in December 1944 did the government finally recognize the Treaty right to exemption from conscription, but only for members of several of the numbered Treaties (3, 6, 8, and 11).

Indigenous vets returning after WWII continued to experience discrimination and marginalization. Some lost Indian status since the Indian Act specified that leaving the reserve for more than four years invalidated the Treaty relationship. Others experienced systemic obstacles accessing government services (since they had to go through the Dept of Indian Affairs, rather than deal directly with Veteran Affairs). One expert has testified, “for most Indigenous people, military service was a powerful egalitarian experience, and for many of them, sadly, the first and maybe the last time in their lives they felt respected and honoured for their character and capacity.”[5]

I didn’t know all these specifics of history when I sat in that Remembrance Day service in 2019. Nor had Parliament’s study on systemic racism within the RCMP been undertaken yet (with its incriminating report issued this past June.) But I knew, even then, there were many injustices that had been endured by Indigenous people in uniform. And so, as I sat in that assembly, and saw a community honour those who had volunteered to serve the Crown and Canada, in the face of this long history of injustice and racism, I was transfixed. I saw a long patience in the face of prejudice and injustice, and a readiness to maintain relationship with the Crown as a treaty partner, even when there was little to no effort in return.

Beaded poppies were given out by students at a Remembrance Day service at Constable Robin Cameron Education Complex, Beardy’s & Okemasis Cree Nation, November 2019. (MCC photo/Randy Klassen)

And then, towards the end of the ceremony, students were giving out poppy pins. Beaded poppies.

I now freely wear this poppy. I wear it to remember the experiences, and injustices, and resilience of Indigenous veterans. I wear it to remind me that injustice and inequity continue to be live issues for First Nations, for Indigenous families, communities, and organizations across Canada. I wear it to remind me that the work for peace begins at home. Right here in Canada, “our home and native land.”

Calls to Action

  • learn about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • research inequities in your part of the country, when it comes to Indigenous people and educational opportunities (e.g. on-reserve vs public funding); social services and foster care; access to health care; the legal system, policing, and incarceration.
  • support local Indigenous artisans who make, and Indigenous businesses that sell, beaded poppies.
  • if appropriate (in terms of both community openness and public health protocol) attend an Indigenous-led Remembrance Day service.

Randy Klassen is the Indigenous Neighbours Program Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan.


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[1] See Doug Cuthand, “Harsh Measures,” Canadian History (Oct 2017).

[2] Indigenous Veterans: From Memories of Injustice to Lasting Recognition. Report of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. 42nd Parliament, 1st Session (February 2019). p 8.

[3] See Sarah Carter, “ ‘An Infamous Proposal:’ Prairie Indian Reserve Land and Soldier Settlement after World War I.” Manitoba History 37 (Spring/Summer 1999).

[4]Indigenous Veterans: From Memories of Injustice to Lasting Recognition. Report of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. 42nd Parliament, 1st Session (February 2019). p 10.

[5] Scott Sheffield. Quoted in Indigenous Veterans: From Memories of Injustice to Lasting Recognition. Report of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. 42nd Parliament, 1st Session (February 2019). p 11.

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