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The Journey After War

Region marks Aboriginal Veterans Day on Nov. 8

Melvin Swan is a proud First Nations veteran who served with the Canadian Armed Forces for 12 years.
Melvin Swan is a proud First Nations veteran who served with the Canadian Armed Forces for 12 years.

BY AMIE LESYK
Winnipeg Health Region
Published Friday November 4, 2011

November 8 marks Aboriginal Veterans Day, an occasion recognized in Manitoba since 1994.

While it's a day to remember and honour the sacrifices of Aboriginal veterans, it's also a day that stirs discussion about the issues Aboriginal veterans have faced in their lifetimes.

Manitoba is the only province to officially recognize Aboriginal Veterans Day, a fact not lost on Melvin Swan, a proud First Nations veteran who served with the Canadian Armed Forces for 12 years.

"I'm sorry [Aboriginal Veterans Day] didn't make it across the land," says Swan. He views the day as a chance for people to better understand Aboriginal veterans like himself.

Swan joined the Canadian Armed Forces at the age of 18. "I think I romanticized it," he says about his decision to sign up. "I wanted to go to war. I wanted to do something no one in my family had done - no one in my community had done."

The passion Swan had then is still evident today, but his principles have changed. Whether as a solider, a mentor to youth or as a mediator, Swan has kept the role of peacekeeper close to his heart. He compares the role of peacekeeper to the role of the warrior in Aboriginal culture. It's about being strong, standing up for your beliefs and ensuring the best future for your people.

"I care about my country," he says, adamant about the fact he wants to help make Canada a better, safer place. He wishes his career with the Canadian Forces could have gone differently. Despite his dedication to his work, Swan encountered racism. When he left the Forces he won a Federal Court case against the Canadian Forces through the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for discrimination and lack of investigation into discriminatory acts. Swan views the situation as a lost opportunity for the military, who could have utilized him to create a more culturally competent atmosphere.

Swan felt lost after his career with the military ended, and he is concerned today's youth is also lost - disconnected from their culture.

"They are going around killing each other. They think that's what a warrior is," he says. "They are misguided. They could have easily been soldiers, like me."

When his military career ended Swan found strength in connecting with his culture, traditional beliefs and by nurturing his health. He admits he was mistrusting of psychologists at first, but eventually accepted a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I'm taking back the power," he says. "Through the treaties, the languages, the ceremonies." He feels strongly about the path he is on now: healing, working with various organizations on cross-cultural awareness initiatives and advocating for First Nations peoples.

Swan has gone on to wear many hats, including starting his own company, Pin-A-See Peacekeeping Services, which provides security and peacekeeping services for major organizations such as Assembly of First Nations. He also only recently resigned as director of the Bold Eagle Program (which mentors Aboriginal youth through military basic training), is a board member with Aboriginal Languages of Manitoba and has been involved in the executives of First Nations Veterans of Canada and National Aboriginal Veterans Association. Swan also makes a point of sharing his story.

"It's in my heart to share with other human beings," he explains. He'll be speaking on Aboriginal Veterans Day at the Winnipeg Health Region's Vice President Rounds in Aboriginal Health. The event, Aboriginal Veterans: The Journey After War, takes place November 8, 2011 at Deer Lodge Centre in The Worship Centre.

Winnipeg Health Region's Réal Cloutier,Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Long Term Care & Community Area Services, COO of Deer Lodge and Chief Allied Health Officer, will be providing opening remarks.

"We want to ensure a better understanding of Aboriginal veterans and the challenges they have faced serving in war and reintegrating back into their daily lives." says Cloutier. "We are excited to provide a diverse panel of guests who can speak to all aspects of this topic, including the overall health of Aboriginal veterans. As we approach Remembrance Day, it is important to remember the sacrifice made by Aboriginal and Non Aboriginal Veterans."

Tommy Prince Jr., son of Tommy Prince; Shane Patterson, spiritual care provider; and psychogolist Dr. Solange Lavack complete the panel of guest speakers.

"Aboriginal veterans faced distinct challenges during and after war, with the result having a physical, spiritual and mental impact," says Annette Alix-Roussin, Interim Regional Director of Aboriginal Health Programs in the Winnipeg Health Region. "It's important to talk about and recognize their experiences."

Those who attend will have a chance to ask the panel questions and a light lunch will be served. There is no pre-registration needed and the event will be available to other sites via Telehealth. Questions about the event can be directed to Aboriginal Health Programs at 940-8737.

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