Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, before I begin, I would like to offer my warm welcome and congratulations to all the new senators.
Honourable senators, I draw your attention to Virginia Pechawis, a veteran of World War II who holds an important role in Saskatchewan's First Nations history. She is a living testament to the contributions made by Canada's First Nations during the Second World War. However, she, being humble, insists on downplaying her own role. She says, "I don't think I'm special. I just want to be me." The 89-year-old said this in her home on the Mistawasis First Nation, just north of Leask, Saskatchewan.
At the age of 18, Virginia wanted an opportunity to get out into the world. She said, "Maybe I'll join the army," she recalls, and enlisted at an army office in Prince Albert.
She said basic training was difficult but rewarding. "I didn't mind it too much after I got used to it. I kind of liked it," she said. Virginia spent most of her 13 months with the army working in the kitchen at the Valcartier military base in Quebec. Although she was often the only Aboriginal person around, she said she experienced very little face-to-face racism. "They treated me like everybody else," she said.
Cathy Littlejohn, the author of the 2013 book Métis Soldiers of Saskatchewan: 1914-1953, said it was common for Aboriginal soldiers to be treated as equals during war time. Within the army, everybody has a job, and that job is critical to the jobs other people do.
One of the benefits that veterans received from the federal government was land. But like other Aboriginal veterans, when Virginia went back to Mistawasis, she received less compensation for her service because she was an Aboriginal. "They didn't ask me what I wanted. They just gave me land on the reserve, which was ours already," she said.
In 2012, Virginia was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for significant contributions to her country. In 2014, she was one of the handful of Aboriginal veterans in the province to receive a Lieutenant Governor's Military Service Pin during the ceremony in Saskatoon. Again, Virginia played down her contributions: "I didn't feel I had earned something, but I accepted it." At the same time, she recognizes the importance of commemorating the First Nations people who fought for Canada. "I think it's important. There are people from the war, men especially, that died," she said.
Virginia still lives on Mistawasis on the land allotted to her. "I'll never leave this place," she said.
Virginia, thank you for your service to Canada during World War II.