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What may seem a benign or benevolent scam involving millions of taxpayers’ dollars is underway, but no one is raising Cain about it. Why? Probably because the payout seems recompense for one of our major guilt complexes, well-guided by political correctness.

This spending exercise does make a mockery of the Veterans Charter, the planned web of federal laws and regulations that became the basis for not repeating the rehabilitation disasters with the troops after World War I. The Charter was the guide and the rules for the return to civil life of one million Canadian volunteers for military service in World War II.

This “good” scam that needs questioning was announced June 22 by Rey Pagtakhan, Minister of Veterans Affairs. He had won cabinet approval for a payout of $39 million to “an estimated 1,800 First Nations veterans of WW II or their surviving spouses,” as compensation for veterans’ benefits which they had failed to get when discharged from the forces or were refused after returning to civvy street.

Since the minister spoke, there has been little public debate in the media about this payout.

Some First Nations chiefs have jeered at the tiny scale of the recompense – roughly $20,000 for each Indian veteran still alive, or for the dependents of those dead. Actuaries for some chiefs had projected individual entitlements as high as $400,000. A few who spoke for both veterans’ groups and native associations tagged the offer as inadequate, and some Metis in prairie country were angry that the payoff plan seemed destined just for “status” Indian veterans, i.e., those registered by Indian Affairs on band or reservation rosters.

There seemed no cash redress for Metis volunteers or those men of native blood who were not on band registers.

Through WW II – 1939-45 – some 1.1 million out of just under 12 million Canadians were in our armed forces – a ratio of close to one in every 10 people. The forces kept no record of whether an enlistee was Indian or Metis. Years after the war, Indian Affairs clerks, by checking band documents, reckoned only 3,060 status Indians had served. There was no accurate way to identify Metis or other mixed bloods although some unofficial guesstimates have run the aboriginal total as high as 12,000.

Since there were some 150,000 status Indians in the mid-1940s the ratio of their military service was just one out of every 50. Almost all of such volunteers were in the army. (The Royal Canadian Navy resisted enlisting non-whites, and few Indians could meet Royal Canadian Air Force education standards.)

Why so relatively few Indian enlistments? Bad health meant a large majority of Indian volunteers failed military medicals. Further, many bands frowned on enlistments, often fearing military service meant being enfranchised (i.e., able to vote and so likely to lose “status” and the rights and benefits it confers).

A few years ago, the royal commission on aboriginal affairs acknowledged what I saw myself in our regiment through a score or so Indian and Metis comrades. They fitted in well, liked the army and had few complaints about racism or harassment. In our outfit, they were able soldiers and several were outstandingly brave in battle.

It was some time after the war before veterans with status began to complain, not about the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Veterans Charter but how band rules, enforced by Indian Affairs agents, blocked them from some benefits, in particular in attaining a house or a farm (private landholding within a reservation was a no-no).

Simply put, the Veterans Charter provided a basic package at discharge for every veteran, its scale in value hinging on two factors: months of service and locale of service (i.e., in Canada, overseas, or in a theatre of war). Everybody got a month’s pay, plus a clothing allowance of $100, plus a cash “gratuity” based at $7.50 a month for service in Canada, $15 a month for service abroad. Then the Charter set out the choices for further benefits – e.g., for education or training or farming. If one chose to bypass such a benefit (which also was geared to months of service) then a veteran after discharge received the equivalent of his gratuity as a rehabilitation grant.

So every dischargee faced choices. A huge effort was marshalled at discharge depots to inform veterans about the provisions of the Charter.

As an example, I plumped for a try at university, and eventually my 50 months of service put me through six university years and two degrees.

By 1952, the rough figures on the use of the Veterans Charter by an approximate one million returnees indicated some 700,000 chose no particular benefits beyond the basic package, but almost 300,000 opted for farming (80,000), technical training (80,000), a university degree (45,000) or a housing grant or a business loan.

Despite forecasts of postwar depression and joblessness, the Canadian economy did well for more than a decade and Ottawa earned and deserved credit because the Charter had set up such a smooth absorption of the veteran host.

The chief argument in favor of this belated bonus of some $20,000 for some 3,000 status Indians or their dependent survivors is that most of them were blocked because of their Indian status from both the farming and the housing benefit.

A first criticism of the payout has to be that even the lucky 3,000 got the basic benefits of the Charter (just as some 700,000 other veterans). A second criticism comes from it being unbelievable that almost all of 3,000 Indian veterans wanted to farm, given that hundreds of them came from the bush, lake, and rock country of the Laurentian shield. As for the housing benefit, almost every reserve has had house-building programs under Indian Affairs for some 40 years – in effect, free housing!

A third criticism is that if the redress is justified for aboriginal people who failed to get fair treatment from Indian Affairs, why isn’t there some provision for either Metis or non-status Indian veterans? Further, one needs to ask why there isn’t any appeal process for those still alive among the 700,000 or so who at discharge took away just their own basic package. Surely, some hundreds among them failed to get approval for benefits such as loans for land or for training or higher education.

In this affair the Department of Veterans Affairs is obviously being tagged for what may have been done unfairly by the Department of Indian Affairs. Why even make this a veterans’ matter, and a belated indictment of a wonderful program, the Veterans Charter?
Among the million or so volunteers perhaps there were as many as 12,000 men of aboriginal stock, most of whom seemed to have appreciated the experience and its comradeship. Certainly most were good soldiers.

What more is there to say?

If from 3,000 to 12,000 among a million were denied access to post-discharge benefits because of band rules and actions by Indian agents, this is not an issue for DVA but for Indian Affairs. And it is precisely the status Indians, now numbering over 650,000 (in over 600 “nations”), who now act vigorously, often talking stridently, abetted by some $5 billion a year from the Indian Affairs budget.

Column: Parliament Hill