Veteran Urban Vermette’s family hope a recent award will not only honor his life, but also serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by Métis who served in the Canadian military.
Vermette, who was Métis from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, served overseas twice. First during World War II, where he spent nearly four years as a prisoner of war (POW) in Hong Kong and Japan. Five years after returning home, Vermette re-enlisted to serve in the Korean War.
He died in 1984 at the age of 64. Last week he was posthumously honored by the South Korean government with an Ambassador of Peace Medal “for overcoming pain and suffering” as a prisoner of war before re-enlisting for war from Korea.
The medal, which is presented to veterans of the Korean War, was presented by Consul General Deuk Hwan Kim at a ceremony in Hamilton, Ontario.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Vermette’s son Donald, who attended the ceremony with his cousins, Harvey Vermette and Albert Vermette. They proudly wore their Métis scarves.
The medal presentation took place days before Indigenous Veterans Day, which is celebrated every November 8 as a way to separately honor Indigenous contributions to Canada’s military service.
“Until the 1970s, being called Métis in Saskatchewan was a dirty word,” said Albert Vermette.
“We believe that as Métis people, we must also honor our heritage. This is how we show respect not only to our culture, but to the indigenous peoples who gave so much during wars.
It is not known how many Métis and Inuit served in uniform, in part because there was no formal identification process at the time. But we do know that at least 3,000 First Nations enlisted at the start of World War II.
The brothers served in World War II
Urban Vermette was born in 1922, the youngest of his siblings. He enlisted in the Saskatoon Light Infantry on his 19th birthday, following in the footsteps of his older brothers Walter and Delore.
All three served overseas during World War II.
“The brothers joined with the intention of helping their family,” said Albert Vermette.
Urban Vermette was a Private in the Winnipeg Grenadiers, 1st Battalion. He was one of 1,975 soldiers known as Force “C” when the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec were deployed to Hong Kong in 1941 to reinforce the British colony.
It would be the first place Canadians engaged in battle during World War II. The vast majority of the troops had never seen a fight before.
On December 8, 1941, Japanese forces invaded and invaded the Hong Kong defenses within 17 days, killing 290 Canadians.
Vermette and another Métis soldier from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. – Robert Parenteau – were among those captured on Christmas Day.
Vermette spent almost four years in four different POW camps. He spent two years in Hong Kong, notably at Sham Shui Po camp, before being sent to Japan on January 19, 1943. There he endured brutal conditions, starvation and forced labor.
The prisoners of war were released in August 1945 after atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan’s surrender and ended the war in the Pacific.
Newspapers at the time stated that Urban Vermette was the first prisoner of war to return home to Saskatchewan. He was 23 years old.
The family kept clippings of written stories about his arrival.
“It all looks like a dream,” Vermette said in the September 18, 1945 issue of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.
He said he was experimented with new treatments for tuberculosis and worked in a shipyard to help build freighters. The citizens of Prince Albert have come “en masse to welcome him” to his home, according to a report by the Regina Leader Post.
He re-enlisted in 1950
Five years later, he re-enlisted and served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 3rd Battalion, as part of the Canadian Army’s contributions to United Nations operations in Korea. He served from August 9, 1951 to June 25, 1953. Details of his time there are scarce.
Vermette rarely spoke of her wartime experiences with her family. The family said they learned more about his military service after his death through photos and newspaper clippings.
But her daughter, Judy Vermette, said her experiences had caused her difficulties throughout her life.
“My dad really suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
“He was a good man. He went through a difficult time in his life and that followed him until the day he passed away.”
Physical and mental tolls
The family said Vermette’s health began to deteriorate at an early age due to the malnutrition he suffered during his 44 months in captivity.
“It cost him dearly,” Donald said.
“Mental fatigue on young men who went abroad, they were never the same when they came back.”
Urban’s nephew Albert Vermette expressed similar feelings about his own father. While Urban Vermette fought in the Pacific, his older brother, Walter, fought on the beaches of Normandy.
“A bomb exploded near him and he stayed on the beach for three days,” Albert Vermette said of his father, Walter.
The mother of the Vermette brothers received a missing letter about Walter, although he was later found alive.
He had suffered shrapnel wounds but continued to fight in Belgium, France and Germany.
“When he came back … he never carried a gun again. He refused to go hunting. I had to learn from my cousins,” said Albert Vermette.
Métis military contributions
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, several hundred Indigenous people enlisted to serve in the Korean War, just as many had served in World War II, which ended five years earlier.
The Hong Kong Veterans Memorial Association (HKVCA), which is made up of families of “C” Force members, hopes to shed light on how many Hong Kong veterans were indigenous.
The association appealed to families to come forward and identify Indigenous veterans as part of a new recognition project. One of the challenges is that there was no formal identification on government records for Métis soldiers.
“We just don’t know how many Métis have been involved in the armed forces in world wars or other conflicts, ”said Pamela Poitras Heinrichs, member of the HKVCA.
“I hope [with] our little project that we might just start to learn. “
His father, Ferdinand (Fred) Poitras, a Métis veteran from St. Vital, Manitoba, was a member of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.
The association knows about a dozen Indigenous Hong Kong veterans, but suspects there are many more.
“I see this as a very small step in the process of reconciliation,” said Poitras Heinrichs.
“It is important that my father and the other Aboriginal veterans are recognized for this and that people know their history. “
For the Vermette family, they hope that days like National Indigenous Veterans Day will continue to recognize and remember their stories.
“[The day] teaches us that these soldiers, these native soldiers, are not forgotten and families are not forgotten, ”declared Albert Vermette.