This November 11 consider that history comes in more colours than white

Many people of colour have their war stories forgotten, even on this day of remembrance

Every family has war stories — what are some of yours? Photo: /Veterans Affairs Canada

By: Jess Dela Cruz, News Writer

Right at the start of November, cadets in uniform appear in the malls or in front of supermarkets exchanging poppies for donations to support veterans and their families. People are encouraged to wear poppies this time of year to honour the lives of those who have served and fallen in war. Yet, the faces and lives that we remember on November 11 only tell a fraction of the past’s bravery, suffering, and loss.

In history classes, lessons are heavily focused on the Canadian, American, and British armies’ involvement in the First World War. This has meant that the causes, main actors, and victims of the war are told through the faces of white men. But countless communities of colour also served and gave their lives in war. For example, Indigenous communities in Canada were excluded and mistreated so poorly from war memorial activities that they created their own veteran’s day on November 8. Our whitewashed versions of history exclude and discredit the services of people of colour. Their stories and experiences are tucked away in the footnotes of textbooks and lecture slides.  

When we place a poppy on the left side of our jackets, we should remember not only the white men we see in our textbooks, but also the people of colour and marginalized communities who also served and were caught up in the horrors of war. These people deserve the same honour, respect, and credit that white veterans receive on November 11. 

My family does not have a connection to the Great War. But my mother tells me the story of her father, mother, and aunt who were caught in the middle of the Second World War when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1942. They were in Bulacan and hid in an underground hole covered by wood, dirt, and leaves. The hole was large enough to fit even the neighbouring families. I’m told that when the men of the community were taken, they would never be seen again. Women were raped and parents hid their children to prevent them from being taken away. My great-aunt and grandfather were left orphaned at age nine because of atrocities like this.

My paternal grandfather volunteered in the war effort and enlisted with the 15th Infantry, USAFI (United States Army Forces In the Philippines), and clerked at 1st Battalion Headquarters. He later transferred to a combat unit. His father was an enlisted United States merchant mariner who helped deliver war supplies to other US troops. Their ship, SS Susana, was torpedoed by a German submarine and their bodies were never found. These stories are often marginalized next to heroic retellings and visualizations of white soldiers. The unfortunate result is that these people of colour and their stories are forgotten on a day when we are called upon to remember those brave lives lost.

I share my family’s story because in one way or another, we all have a connection to war. It is important to find out these relationships to the past to have a deeper understanding of where we came from, the experiences that our ancestors lived through, and how these stories have brought us to where we are today.

We are rarely educated on the lives of people of colour who volunteered or dedicated their lives to help Canadian, American, or British troops. The lives of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Asians, Indigenous peoples, black people, and other marginalized groups who fought and suffered are not honoured or remembered in publicized ceremonies. We cannot educate our children about our past without considering that history is not just white. 

I know I am incredibly lucky to have immigrated to Canada from the Philippines when I was two. I live in what I believe to be a safe place that has provided my family and I opportunities to start a new life. I do not want to come across as disparaging the lives lost in making Canada the country that has become our safe home. I recognize that I am extremely privileged to live in Canada. But I must also not forget my family roots and history and make sure that my ancestors’ stories are respected and honoured. 

On November 11, recall your own family’s narratives and experiences with war. Remember that history consists of more than what is televised and published in books. Don’t forget to honour the people that matter to your own history. Remember the wars that have touched your family, and the lives that were irrevocably changed. Most of all remember that our whitewashed history is made up of the lives of people of colour as well — lest we forget.