by Kerstin Auer —
Despite retiring several years ago, Grand Chief Percy Joe is not slowing down, and continues to advocate for First Nations veterans across Canada. A veteran himself, his military career started out in the Reserve Forces shortly after high school, and soon thereafter he signed up to become part of the Queen’s Own Rifles of the Canadian Forces in the early 1960s.
“I was in the cadet corps at the residential school I went to and they [the Rocky Mountain Rangers] also had a detachment in Lytton and I got to meet many of the veterans who returned back,” remembered Joe. “I was inspired so I joined the Reserve Force and went to Wainright and our instructors there were Queen’s Own Rifles, and I was impressed with them and thought I’d become a part of the Queens Own Rifles, and so I did.”
After completing basic training and becoming a member of the Queen’s Own Rifles, it only took three months until he was deployed to Germany, for a NATO mission. Two years later, Joe returned to Victoria and continued his military service, eventually becoming Master Corporal.
More international deployments followed, like his six months in Cyprus in 1965 for a United Nations Peacekeeping mission, and a 1967 deployment to Norway as commander of a mortar platoon, as part of the Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force.
After 13 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, Joe retired from the military and returned home to the Nicola Valley, managing his father’s ranch and serving as chief for the Scw’exmx Nation of Shackan.
“I never thought much about my service until 1999, when there was a discussion by the government of engaging with the Assembly of First Nations on trying to get an agreement of why Indigenous veterans were not treated equally, and I served with a person who was part [of this discussion] so I got involved with him,” added Joe.
“He asked me to come and sort of assist them as an advisor to the people that were negotiating, that were part of the round table, so I started getting involved and started learning more about the issues that veterans faced, they never got the same treatment when they returned home. That’s what got me involved.”
Almost 25 years later, Percy Joe is still involved with the First Nations Veterans of Canada, an organization he is a founding member of, and his advocacy for equal benefits for Indigenous veterans continues. According to Joe, progress has been made, but Indigenous veterans still face many of the same issues and inequality continues to impact them and their families. One of such inequalities is the recognition and implementation of Indigenous beliefs and ceremony, but an agreement seems within reach.
“One of the issues we brought up is we need to practice our faith and our belief and spirituality to have ceremonies and that was part of the last letter of understanding. We signed it in April in Calgary and at the middle of May we had a working group with members of Veteran Affairs about how we implement these things that we came to an agreement on,” noted Joe, more than 50 years after having gone through the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and fear of impending nuclear war in the 1960s during his deployments, without being able to lean on his own beliefs and ceremony.
Joe also told the Herald about some of the changes that have already been implemented to recognize the contribution of Indigenous veterans, such as the reciting of the Act of Remembrance during the yearly national ceremony on Remembrance Day in various Indigenous languages, in addition to English and French.
While his work on the national level continues, Joe remains supportive of the Nicola Valley First Nations Veterans. He was present during the recent unveiling of the long-awaited monument in Shulus, honouring local Indigenous veterans. His involvement began with the installation of the first monument, created by Patrick Sterling, a Korean War veteran, in 1992 and he remembers the first ceremony that same year, which included Indigenous World War II veterans. A representative of Veteran Affairs was in attendance at the unveiling ceremony of the new monument, fulfilling part of their outreach mandate to connect veterans with the programs they need, according to Joe.
Mental health supports are needed but there is a lack of trust due to what veterans have witnessed and been through.
“They’d sooner talk to a person that understands what they had to go through and that’s one of the programs we are doing here. It’s through [an Indigenous] veteran’s group out of Saskatchewan, and they call it the Burns Way, and they have other veterans available to be able to talk to those veterans that need help,” noted Joe. “It’s a program that’s working in Saskatchewan and now we’re trying to make it a national program. And we’re working along with Veteran Affairs to get their assistance.”
In July, Percy Joe is off to Halifax for the next round of meetings on the path to ensuring equal benefits and recognition for Indigenous veterans. One of the next project he plans to tackle is creating a list of all Indigenous people who have served or were part of the supports in Canada, going back as far as 1812 when many Indigenous soldiers fought alongside the British against the Americans.