Pamela Poitras Heinrichs hopes the efforts to identify more Indigenous soldiers who were killed in action or captured as prisoners of war during the Battle of Hong Kong will serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis who contributed to Canada’s armed forces.
As a member of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association (HKVCA), she has worked with volunteers for the past year identifying Indigenous veterans who fought in Canada’s first battle during the Second World War.
“By doing this project, we’re giving those men and their families a space to stand up and say ‘I am a proud Métis. I am a proud Cree. I am a proud Anishinaabe,'” said Poitras Heinrichs.
“I think that’s important for our ancestors and for our families now.”
Working with the St. Boniface Historical Society to go through the list of Winnipeg Grenadiers, upwards of 150 Indigenous soldiers have been identified to date. Eleven families also reached out to the association following a story published by CBC News last year about Urban Vermette, one of the Métis veterans.
With permission from their families, 30 of the veterans are listed on the HKVCA website. Among them is Poitras Heinrichs’s father Ferdinand (Fred) Poitras, a Métis veteran from St. Vital, Man., and a private in the 1st Battalion of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.
At 19, he enlisted when the Second World War was declared in September 1939. The Grenadiers were first sent to Jamaica for 14 months, for garrison duty. When they returned, Poitras was among the 1,975 troops known as “C” Force when the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada out of Quebec City were deployed to Hong Kong in 1941 to reinforce the British colony.
It was the first place Canada engaged in a battle during the war. On Dec. 8, 1941, Japanese forces invaded and overran Hong Kong’s defences in 17 days.
Poitras was among those captured on Christmas Day and was interned as prisoner of war for four years, enduring brutal conditions, starvation, and forced labour in coal mines.
He didn’t speak much about his experience as a prisoner of war but once told his daughter about how the Japanese guards made him stand for hours with arms outstretched holding pails of water. He also suffered diseases like beriberi, pellagra, and malaria.
“He was a very sort of understated person,” said Poitras Heinrichs.
“I read an interview that was done with him at one point… he said something about, well, it wasn’t bad as long as you could avoid getting beat up.”
Poitras returned to Winnipeg in the fall of 1945 after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan’s surrender and ended the war in the Pacific.
Métis military contributions
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, over 3,000 First Nations people joined the military by the end of the Second World War. There were an unknown number of Métis, Inuit and other Indigenous recruits who served in uniform.
Shawn Nault, the minister for veterans at the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), said it’s a daunting task that the association has taken on to identify Métis soldiers.
“It is phenomenal that they are able to pull up these archives and be able to recognize these soldiers that need the respect to be brought back to them because for so long they were long forgotten,” said Nault.
One of the challenges is that there was no formal identification on government records for Métis soldiers and there are few records.
“Back in that day, there were not very many people that self-identified as Métis,” said Nault.
“You were either lumped under First Nations if your skin was dark or you were considered just a white soldier.”
290 killed in action
Julie Carver’s great-uncle Robert Blanchard among the 290 soldiers who were killed in action during the battle. He was 27 when he was killed on Dec. 23, 1941, two days before Allied troops surrendered.
Blanchard’s mother was Métis (Red River) and Anishinaabe (Sagkeeng First Nation).
According to his 121-page military file, his mother was unaware that he had left for Hong Kong until she received a letter from him on his way there. His death wasn’t confirmed to her until a year after he had been killed, and his exact date of death was confirmed to her four years later.
“When I first found out about my great uncle a couple years ago, it was right around this time and it was very emotional reading through that military file,” said Carver.
“I can’t imagine what these veterans went through… These veterans definitely deserve to be recognized on this special day.”
Carver didn’t grow up around the Indigenous side of the family, but undertook extensive research into her ancestry and found out about Blanchard’s death. She’s since been reconnecting to her Métis and Anishinaabe identity and family.
Blanchard is buried at the Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong and Carver hopes that one day she’ll get to visit his gravesite.
Poitras Heinrichs said Carver’s situation is not uncommon among the families that the association has been in contact with.
“In addition to giving our veterans this recognition now and being able to say who they are with pride, it’s bringing families together,” said Poitras Heinrichs.
“It’s helping families find their history.”
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