My story is a personal one, but repeated many times across Canada; where young men and women with little prospect for meaningful employment are recruited into the Canadian Armed Forces through what is informally known as the Economic Draft. The pay is steady, their immediate needs are met, and entry-level recruits get a $40,000 first-tour-of-duty bonus for going to Afghanistan. It was too much of a lure for my own son, who signed up for the Reserves in the summer of 2004 at the age of 20. He competed for, and won, a spot in the first large contingent of Canadian forces personnel to be deployed to Afghanistan, and was due to leave in the summer of 2005. But on the day he was to go down to the base and sign his contract, he changed his mind.
One of the last things he was told when he handed back his gear, was that because of his level of weapons training, he would remain "on call" to serve his nation, if it was deemed necessary. In other words, the Canadian government had invested too much money and effort in training him to let him go so easily. I was reminded of the family meeting we attended when he first joined the Reserves. We were repeatedly assured that the Reserves were strictly voluntary and that he would be under no commitment to go overseas unless he signed a contract (which would have moved him out of the Reserves and into the regular forces). As it turns out, that wasn’t quite true.
Up until now, this story is largely unremarkable. But when you take into consideration that my son is a Status Indian; that he is a member of the Kaska/Dene Nation; and that he has always been painfully aware of the colonial legacy of violence against his people, then this story takes on a different dimension. It now becomes one of internalized colonial identities that convince Aboriginal people that they are, in fact, "Canadians."
Aboriginal people have a long history of service in the Canadian military. Between 7,000 and 12,000 Aboriginal men and women served in the armed forces from WWI to the end of the Korean war; 35 per cent of those had volunteered (as opposed to being conscripted). Yet, despite having fought side by side with their oppressors, upon returning to Canada many found their land had been appropriated for wartime food production, never to be returned; their status as Indians meant they were ineligible for any services from Veterans affairs; they were denied health care and housing; vocational training and education. It was 30 years before the Canadian government would finally recognize their contribution.
Statistics on how many Aboriginal people currently serve in the Canadian military are not easy to come by for a few reasons. First, the military is not known for being open with its data. Another reason is that recruits self-identify when they sign up, and many, like my own son, fail to identify as ‘Aboriginal’ on their application. Although I can only offer a guess as to why this is, it is likely that being labelled ‘Aboriginal’ carries such a stigma that when confronted with institutional accommodations for Aboriginal people, they are as likely as not to spurn such efforts.
Had my son been so thoroughly and effectively assimilated into the coloniser’s mindset that he could no longer see a difference between himself and his oppressors? Was his primary identity now "Canadian" and not "Kaska?" Was this the Stockholm Syndrome? Or was he simply a typical young person, rejecting his parents’ values in search of his own?
I’m not sure exactly what led my son to change his decision about participating in the war in Afghanistan. Sometimes change comes in increments so small it’s barely perceptible.
The stories of our American conscientious objectors are peppered with these small movements. Their presence in our midst is much like the pebble tossed in the pond; their actions resonating, finding their way into others’ lives, rendering new ways forward and new realities.
On the lecture circuit, such as it is, these young men retell the collectivity of acts, both grand and small, that brought them to this moment in time, in this place – more often than not a church basement, or school auditorium. And so it was at one such event, a lazy afternoon last fall, where I found myself sitting in the audience with my 21 year old son, now a reservist in the Canadian army. He listened dutifully and afterwards was drawn into conversation with one of the speakers – a young man of the same age, sharing in many ways a similar biography, and certainly a similar motivation to join the military: a lack of purpose and a steady paycheque. We did not speak of that afternoon for many months to come because by then the only thing left for him to do was sign the employment contract. The call came late in November. He respectfully declined.
There may never be one, singular event or act that led to this decision. But we can know that it is one less life to sacrifice on the altar of imperialism. It is one less grieving mother. To these brave men and women who have resisted the war and come to Canada, for being the pebble in our pond, there are no words of thanks that can convey my gratitude.
My son lives his life in a netherworld of identities – pressing one forward and suppressing another, dictated by circumstance and gut instinct – navigating through a complex world where he straddles the racial, cultural and economic divide that characterises the general relationship between Aboriginal people and their colonisers.
Many months later, after he had moved to Alberta, I was packing up some of his stuff in the garage. I came across an Afghani/English dictionary, and my heart stopped for a moment. Holding that little book in my hands, I was overwhelmed by what might have been.