New Hamburg’s Remembrance Day ceremony honours Indigenous veterans for the first time

Ojibway veteran Scott Norton laid a wreath at the New Hamburg cenotaph on Nov. 11, 26 years after Indigenous people were first allowed to do so. His wife, Anita Jacinto Norton, joined him at the ceremony. (Photo Nigel Gordijk)

On Nov. 11, 2021, Scott Norton became the first Indigenous veteran to take part in New Hamburg’s Remembrance Day ceremony by laying a wreath at the cenotaph.

His seven-year military career began at the age of 17 when he enlisted with the reserves of the Royal Highland Fusiliers in Kitchener, before going on to train with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

Norton joined the military for the same reason as countless other veterans.

“As many young men do, I followed family footsteps,” he said. “My father had served in the armed forces, my great-uncle had served in the Navy, and a lot of people within my family were in the armed forces or associated with them somehow.”

It was also a way for him to stay out of trouble, he said. “I went through foster care as an Indigenous child, and it wasn’t looking like the best outcome for me.”

48-year-old Norton is Ojibway (Aniishnabe) from the Wolf Clan. His spirit name is Chimisquadis, or Great Red Turtle.

He recalled that back in the early Nineties, Indigenous new recruits weren’t given the option of taking part in culturally appropriate ceremonies when they joined.  

“We didn’t have the eagle feathers to hold and get ourselves sworn in by. I had to pledge allegiance to the Queen and to the country with my hand on the Bible. My son is in the military now, and he got to swear in through eagle feather, so (there’s) a different way of doing it.”

Norton acknowledged the internal struggle when people from First Nations, which are sovereign states, enlisted in the Canadian armed forces.

“We had our own fights here. Our nations were being dissolved. Yet, we still were in that uniform and went to fight for another country. I think those people should be acknowledged to the highest.”

He described his service as “a very good experience, for discipline, for learning something new.”

At first, he was proud to be following a path he’d chosen for himself. However, after a few years he endured a period that still causes him pain, decades later.

“When I enlisted, I didn’t acknowledge that I was Indigenous. That’s just not something that I did,” he said. “After some time, I had guidance through community people here, and then I started acknowledging who I was. I saw a shift with how I was treated as an Indigenous person. Same rank, higher rank, it didn’t matter.”

This is the first year that the Remembrance Day ceremony at the New Hamburg cenotaph included Indigenous cultural traditions – drumming and song – alongside the Christian sermon, Last Post, and the Act of Remembrance.

Norton was joined by his son, Cruz Calma, to lay a wreath that was decorated by local Indigenous schoolchildren who had added feathers and four coloured ribbons: orange, sacred purple, yellow, to represent the bravery of Indigenous soldiers who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, and white.

“The white ribbon is for women. It represents all of the mothers and sisters,” explained one of the students. “Feathers represent our connection to the Creator.”

A wreath to honour Indigenous veterans was decorated by local Indigenous schoolchildren. (Photo Nigel Gordijk)

Norton thinks the time is right for a Remembrance Day ceremony that is inclusive and represents Indigenous cultural practices.

“For so long, Indigenous peoples haven’t actually been acknowledged as being in the armed forces and having a large number killed in action or missing. We had a huge population of Indigenous peoples in the armed forces, then and now.”

Until 1951, the Indian Act blocked Indigenous veterans from joining the Royal Canadian Legion because Status Indians were prohibited from being anywhere that alcohol was served. That meant they were unable to toast the fallen alongside the comrades with whom they had served.

Indigenous veterans weren’t authorized to lay wreaths on Remembrance Day until 1995, fifty years after the end of World War II.

For seven years, Norton asked Legion branches in Kitchener-Waterloo if he could honour Indigenous veterans at their Remembrance Day services in a way that was culturally relevant, but was always rejected, he said. This year, he and other Indigenous veterans were approached to participate in New Hamburg. He felt honoured to receive the request.

“We’re there because I was in the armed forces, my son is in the armed forces, my father, my great-uncle, my uncle, grandfathers. I’m there to pay my respects to those that I served with that are no longer here.”

Norton said it’s difficult to talk about some of his experiences as an Indigenous person.

“There’s a lot that I survived. I survived during that time in the armed forces, I survived foster care. Being an Indigenous child to almost a 50-year-old man, I’ve survived that amount of time. Not without addictions, not without a lot of traumas that I’ve caused, that other people have caused. Does that make me a veteran? Maybe. Does it make me a survivor? Absolutely.”

“For me, being in ceremonies is important because there’s lots that didn’t survive. A lot of our people got blown up as soon as they put their toe on the ground. They didn’t survive; I did. I want to acknowledge them, and I want them, when I sound that drum, to hear our call to them, to let them know that we do respect you, we do miss you. And we will always.”