Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Canada's Aboriginals Use Dual Citizenship to Serve In U.S. Military by Kim Lunman

Lance-Corporal Cory Heffernan sounds every bit the proud and patriotic U.S. Marine.

Delivered with a southern twang from his military base at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N. C., his sentences are clipped and answers punctuated with "Yes, Ma'am."

The 20-year-old doesn't hesitate when it comes to the question of being deployed to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"It's the most honourable job there is, defending your country," LCpl. Heffernan said. "If I go into combat, I can handle it. There are just some people who are frightened and I have more of a fighting side."

LCpl. Heffernan, a member of the Muskoday First Nation who grew up in rural Saskatchewan, belongs to a distinct group of modern-day warriors. He is among a number of natives from Canada who have enlisted in the U.S. military, allowed to do so because they have dual citizenship. While no statistics are available on the Canadian-born aboriginals fighting in the Iraq war, native families across the country are praying for the soldiers' safety.

LCpl. Heffernan said he's upset with the Canadian government's decision not to join the war. "I feel disgusted hearing Canada doesn't back the U.S. This guy Saddam [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] is a bad, bad guy."

He is one of five members of the Muskoday reserve, population 450, serving in the U.S. military. All five are related. One of them, Bruce Munroe, is in Iraq, and the other four could be deployed at any time.

The community, 135 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, recently held a church service in honour of the soldiers. Canadian, U.S. and Muskoday First Nation flags adorned the altar. "We ask the Creator to watch over these boys and ask the Grandfather to bring them back safely to their families," Muskoday Chief Austin Bear told the congregation.

"I'm hoping and praying he doesn't have to go," LCpl. Heffernan's grandmother, Loyise Bear, said in an interview. "It isn't a nice thing, war. It sure isn't."

LCpl. Heffernan, whose grandfather served with the Royal Canadian Navy in the Second World War, said he knew as a young teenager that he wanted to join the U.S. Marine Corps. "They're the roughest and the toughest. That's why I joined. I wanted to see some action."

His father agreed to sign a waiver so he could enlist at 17. "I turned 18 in boot camp." He was stationed in South Carolina and California before he moved to the base in North Carolina with the 2nd Maintenance Battalion.

Like LCpl. Heffernan, Chuck Francis, 23, of Nova Scotia's Eskasoni reserve, went to the United States to enlist in the Marines three years ago. Now the Mi'kmaq native is serving in Iraq.

"Every time the phone rings, it scares me," said his mother, Elaine Denny, an elementary school teacher on the reserve in central Cape Breton.

She received a letter earlier this week postmarked from Kuwait a few weeks before U.S. forces invaded Iraq.

"Did I tell you I'm buying an SUV or a truck when I get back Stateside?" her eldest son wrote. "So don't try to stop me. I'm a grown man, you hear. Just joking." He added: "I miss the family a lot. I think about you guys every night."

Ms. Denny said she is angry that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has not voiced support for Canadians involved in the war. "I feel [Chrétien] should realize that there are people in his country who have dual citizenship and that they're still part of this country."

The U.S. military doesn't keep track of how many Canadian-born natives are serving. But statistics show native Americans from Canada and the United States make up slightly less than 1 per cent of U.S. military personnel.

Canadian-born natives living on reserves with high unemployment often turn to the U.S. military for a secure job, free education and chance to see the world.

Ms. Denny's son enlisted when he quit school after his first year of university in Cape Breton. He didn't want to spend his life on the reserve, said his 21-year-old brother Brandon. "He felt like he had nothing here to look forward to."

On the Kingsclear reserve outside Fredericton, a U.S. flag is flying outside Rosemary Young's home. Her 20-year-old daughter, Francine, left home last week for boot camp in Missouri. A member of the Maliseet First Nation of 700 people, she enlisted in nearby Presque Isle, Me., with one of her best friends.

Ms. Young and her husband, David, raised the flag the day their only daughter left. "It's not coming down until she comes home one day," Ms. Young said. "I'm very proud of her. We support her all the way."

Her daughter always wanted to join the military. Her older cousin joined the U.S. Marines and her grandfather served in the Canadian Army in the Second World War. "I asked her 'Aren't you even scared?' And she said 'No mom, I want this.' "

But Ms. Young is hoping the war will end before her daughter graduates from boot camp in June. "She's my only daughter, my baby girl. I pray for her every day."

George Paul of the Eskasoni reserve in Nova Scotia is a former U.S. Marine who returned to the reserve after eight years of military service.

"My heart goes out to the guys who are out there right now," he said.

Many natives in Canada join the U.S. military to escape the harsh realities of reserve life, he said. He chose the U.S. forces over the Canadian military because he wanted to join the Marines.

"I don't have any boundaries. I grew up being told I'm a native American."

In Jacksonville, LCpl. Heffernan is waiting for the call.

He considers himself a Muskoday, a Canadian and an American, and is prepared to die for the United States if he is sent to the Middle East.

"They have more pride in their country here," he said. "I just think of them as our big brother."

This article first appeared in The Globe And Mail

Tuesday, April 8, 2003