With seven generations of family members serving in the military, joining at age 20 was a no-brainer for Victoria resident, Trevor Whitten.
The tradition began during the First World War when Whitten said his ancestor was one of more than 4,000 Indigenous people to enlist.
Back then, the Indian Act stipulated that when an Indigenous person served in the military, obtained a university degree or became a professional, they became “civilized” and would lose their “Indian” status.
“These gentleman left the reservation and risked their lives knowing they would lose their Indian status,” Whitten said with pride.
Upon returning home from the war, Indigenous veterans were withheld many of the benefits and honours non-Indigenous soldiers received.
“The Indian people then saw them as white and the government still saw them as ‘dirty Indians’,” Whitten said.
During the war though, when soldiers were on the front lines fighting for their lives, Whitten said he knows Indigenous soldiers wouldn’t have been treated any differently.
“Bullets don’t care who they’re coming at,” he said.
During his 27 years serving in the military – four in reserves and 23 in the navy – Whitten said he never felt like he was treated differently than non-Indigenous members. After completing basic training together, they were all just family he said.
“I don’t care who you are. If you’re on the front lines with me I’ve got your back and I expect you to have mine,” he added.
That’s not to say that jokes weren’t made about the fact that Whitten was an “Indian” but he said as long as they were made in good faith he didn’t mind.
After sailing on his first ship as a navy member, Whitten wanted to get something embroidered onto a leather jacket to commemorate the trip. When he went to go pick up his new jacket though, he was shocked to find that instead of the wording he had chosen, “Electric Indian” was scrolled across the leather.
He quickly found out that his buddies, impressed by his dancing the night before, had sneakily requested the changes and paid for it all. The jacket immediately became a favourite of his.
Years later, when one of those friends passed away, Whitten showed up to his funeral wearing the “Electric Indian” jacket, knowing it would have made his friend smile.
Now age 54 and eight years retired, Whitten said the thing he misses most isn’t the job but all the incredible people he got to be around.
For him, Indigenous Veteran’s Day on Nov. 8 and Remembrance Day on Nov. 11 are for listening to and sharing stories. As he pointed out, many of the veterans of the world’s biggest wars won’t be around much longer.
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