The family of veteran Urban Vermette hopes a recent award will not only honour 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, Sask., served overseas twice. First, during the Second World War, 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 honoured posthumously by the South Korean government with an Ambassador of Peace medal “for overcoming pain and suffering” as a POW prior to re-enlisting to join the Korean War.
The medal, which is given to veterans of the Korean War, was presented by Consul General Deuk Hwan Kim during a ceremony in Hamilton, Ont.
“It is a tremendous honour,” said Vermette’s son, Donald, who attended the ceremony along with his cousins, Harvey Vermette and Albert Vermette. They proudly wore their Métis sashes.
The medal presentation came just days before Indigenous Veterans Day, which is observed every Nov. 8 as a way to separately honour Indigenous contributions to Canada’s military service.
“Up until the 1970s, being called a Métis in Saskatchewan was a bad word,” said Albert Vermette.
“We believe as Métis people, we have to honour our heritage also. This is the way we show respect not only to our culture, but to the Aboriginal people that gave so much in the wars.”
It is not known how many Métis and Inuit served in uniform, partly because there was no formal identification process at the time. But, we do know that at least 3,000 members of First Nations enlisted when the Second World War began.
Brothers served in Second World War
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 of them served overseas during the Second World War.
“The brothers joined with the intent in helping their family,” said Albert Vermette.
Urban Vermette was a private in the Winnipeg Grenadiers, 1st battalion. He was among 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 would be the first place Canadians engaged in a battle during the Second World War. The vast majority of the troops had never seen combat before.
On Dec. 8, 1941, Japanese forces invaded and overran Hong Kong’s defences in 17 days, killing 290 Canadians.
Vermette and another Métis solider from Prince Albert, Sask. — Robert Parenteau — were among those captured on Christmas Day.
Vermette spent nearly four years in four different POW camps. He spent two years in Hong Kong, including at Sham Shui Po Camp, before being sent to Japan on Jan. 19, 1943. There, he endured brutal conditions, starvation, and forced labour.
The POWs were liberated in August 1945 after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan’s surrender and ended the war in the Pacific.
Newspapers at the time said Urban Vermette was the first POW to return home to Saskatchewan. He was 23 years old.
The family kept clippings from stories written about his arrival.
“It’s all like a dream,” Vermette was quoted saying in the Sept. 18, 1945, issue of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.
He recounted being experimented on for new treatments of tuberculosis, and working in a shipyard to help to build freighters. Prince Albert citizens turned out “en masse to welcome” him home, according to a report from the Regina Leader Post.
He re-enlisted in 1950
Five years later, he re-enlisted and served with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 3rd Battalion, as part of the Canadian Army’s contributions to the United Nations operations in Korea. He served from Aug. 9, 1951, to June 25, 1953. Details about his time there are scarce.
Vermette rarely talked about his war-time experiences with his family. The family said they found out more about his military service after his death through photos and newspaper clippings.
But his daughter, Judy Vermette, said his experiences caused him life-long struggles.
“My dad really suffered post traumatic stress syndrome,” she said.
“He was a good man. He went through a difficult time in his life and it carried through with him until the day he passed.”
Physical and mental tolls
The family said Vermette’s health started to fail at an early age due to the malnutrition he suffered during his 44 months in captivity.
“It took a toll on him,” said Donald.
“The mental fatigue on the young men that went overseas, they were never the same when they came back.”
Urban’s nephew, Albert Vermette, expressed similar sentiments about his own father. While Urban Vermette fought in the Pacific, his older brother, Walter, battled on the beaches of Normandy.
“A bomb exploded close to him and he laid on the beach for three days,” said Albert Vermette of his father, Walter.
The Vermette brothers’ mother received a missing in action letter about Walter, although he was later found alive.
He had suffered shrapnel wounds but went on to fight in Belgium, France, and Germany.
“When he came back … he never he never carried a gun again. He refused to go hunting. I had to learn from my cousins,” said Albert Vermette.
Métis military contributions
Several hundreds of Indigenous people signed up to serve in the Korean War, according to Veterans Affairs Canada. Many were veterans of the Second World War, which ended five years earlier.
The Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association (HKVCA), which is made up of families of members of “C” Force, is hoping to shed light on how many Second World War Hong Kong veterans were Indigenous.
The association has a call-out for families to come forward and identify Indigenous veterans as a 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 were involved in the Armed Forces in the world wars or other conflicts,” said Pamela Poitras Heinrichs, a HKVCA member.
“I’m hoping [with] our little project that maybe we’ll start to learn.”
Her father, Ferdinand (Fred) Poitras, a Métis veteran from St. Vital, Man., was a member of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.
The association is aware of about a dozen Indigenous Hong Kong veterans but she suspects there are far more.
“I look at it as a very small step in the reconciliation process,” said Poitras Heinrichs.
“It’s important that my father and the other Indigenous veterans receive recognition for it and that people know their history.”
For the Vermette family, they hope days like National Indigenous Veterans Day will continue to recognize and remember their stories.
“[The day] instills into us that these soldiers, these Aboriginal soldiers, are not forgotten and the families are not forgotten,” said Albert Vermette.