Called one of the greatest Indigenous activists of the first half of the 20th century, the name Fred Loft is not known as well as others in Canadian history. Despite this, he is still impacting Canadian and Indigenous life to this very day.
Today, I am looking at the life of this fascinating man.
Frederick Loft was born Onondeyoh, which means Beautiful Mountain in Mohawk, on Feb. 3, 1861 at the Six Nations of the Grand River. His parents spoke fluent English and Mohawk and they encourage do pursue education at an early age. Loft’s mother, Ellen Smith, was the granddaughter of Oneida Joseph, who had fought with Joseph Brant in the American Revolutionary War. His family was at the higher level of the Christian Iroquois society and would often have guests over including the prominent ethnographer Lewish Henry Morgan.
Loft would attend an Indigenous elementary school until he was 12, and then he was sent to a residential school called The Mohawk Institute, in Brantford, Ontario. The experience at this school was not good, and he would often relate how he hated his time at the school, saying quote:
“In winter, the rooms and bed were so cold that it took half the night before I got warm enough to fall asleep.
After one year, Loft was able to leave the school. His parents supported him in his desire for freedom and were able to bring him home. He would then attend a public school in Caledonia, which required him to walk 13 kilometres every day. The next year, he moved into the community, working for room and board. While Loft would face racism in the community, he did not let any of it deter him in his goals.
After completing high school in 1881, Loft worked various jobs as a lumberjack and eventually a timber inspector. Around 1885, he was able to receive a scholarship to study bookkeeping at the Ontario Business College in Belleville, Ontario.
Throughout his early life, his parents gave him constant encouragement, which gave him a great deal of confidence. This allowed him to often brush off the negative encounters with discrimination and stay focused on what he wanted to accomplish in his life.
With no luck finding work using his bookkeeping skills, he spent six months as a reporter with the Brantford Expositor, covering the 1887 federal election for the paper. At the time, all eastern Canadian Indigenous males who met property qualifications could vote, but that would be withdrawn in 1898. Throughout his life, Loft was a devoted Liberal.
After his time at the newspaper, he spent two years working as a lumber inspector near Buffalo, and then moved to Toronto to work as an accountant for the Asylum of the Insane in 1890. This appointment came from the provincial government and it would begin a stretch of 36 years of civil service for Loft.
It was also in Toronto that he met Affa Northcote Geare and the couple would marry in 1898. The couple would have three children together, one of whom died at a young age.
It was in Toronto that Loft would begin to work as an Indigenous activist, bringing forward several proposals. At the time, Indigenous matters were of little importance to the people in Toronto as there were no reserves near the city. In 1901, only 36 Indigenous were even registered in the city. It was also a place where discrimination against the Indigenous of Canada was rife. Goldwin Smith, one of the leading intellectuals in the city would say of the Indigenous, quote:
“The race, everyone says, is doomed. Little will be lost by humanity.”
His hope was to organize the First Nations of Ontario, suggesting that the Ojibwe and the Iroquois come together to join a new Indigenous organization. On Oct. 9, 1896, he sent a letter to the federal deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs, Hayter Reed, stating that the Six Nations and Mohawks were the foremost Indigenous in Canada, but they no longer attended grand general councils held by other Ontario Indigenous. As a result, he wanted to form a union of Indigenous. He would outline his proposal again in a letter he sent to the Toronto Globe that was published on Nov. 7, 1896. His hope was to increase more autonomy for the Indigenous in Canada, but he was unsuccessful in his hope of creating this new organization.
Nothing would come from this, but not for a lack of trying by Loft.
As the 20th century dawned, Loft continued his work to promote the rights of the Indigenous. With a background as a journalist, he wrote several articles for the Toronto Globe and for Saturday Night. His first article called for the closing of Residential Schools, which he called, quote:
“veritable death traps”
Instead of residential schools, he called for the creation of day schools for Indigenous children on reserves.
At the time, Loft was far ahead of his time in calling for the closing of the schools. Sadly, his arguments fell on deaf ears and residential schools would continue to operate for the next several decades.
Throughout his time in Toronto, Loft would make friends through his outgoing and friendly nature, counting ministers, heads of businesses and lawyers as his friends. Sir Adam Beck, the head of Ontario Hydro, was such a close friend that his photo hung in the Loft home. He also knew David Boyle, the curator of the Ontario Provincial Museum and Boyle called Loft, quote:
“A highly intelligent gentleman, of good appearance, good address and good common sense.”
George Taylor Denison, the senior police magistrate of Toronto, would describe his friend Loft as, quote:
“A respectable gentleman of fairly good education and much better qualified for the franchise than the 95 per cent of those who have it.”
Tom Longboat, the legendary Indigenous runner who won the Boston Marathon and is considered one of the greatest long-distance runners in history, also counted Loft was a friend.
Loft began to make a name for himself in many ways, including through the Masons, as a brilliant billiard player, and the music parties he hosted with his wife, where he sang and played the piano.
Loft would often go to visit his mother at the Six Nations Reserve, especially following the death of his father in 1895.
At this time, even though Loft enjoyed wide social acceptance, he was bothered with his low-ranking civil service position, and his legal status as a ward of the Crown. On Jan. 28, 1907, he wrote Sir Wilfrid Laurier regarding his position, saying quote:
“The position I hold, which is only a clerkship has never been to my way of thinking, a fitting recognition of what my labors meant. Worse than all, my salary has been very small.”
Loft was proud of his Indigenous heritage, but in 1906 he applied to give up his status under the Indian Act, and to be recognized as an ordinary citizen. He felt that this was the best way for him to participate fully in the society. The Six Nations Council refused to endorse his application though, and he withdrew it.
He then decided that he would apply for a post as the superintendent of the Six Nations, the top federal job in the community. The council approved his request within a week, but the government declined to make the appointment. He would attempt again a decade later, with council’s endorsement but again it was declined.
The family was able to live quite well thankfully, due to his wife Affa’s ability to buy and sell houses, rent roomers, and buy stock.
In 1914, the First World War broke out and Loft would encourage Indigenous men to enlist. With his own family’s background in its support of England during times of war, and his Loyalist beliefs, he felt that it was the responsibility of everyone to support the British Empire. Loft himself would enlist, despite being over 50, and he would spend three years in active militia service in Toronto. In 1917, he was commissioned into a forestry company as a lieutenant, thanks to his extensive experience in the lumber industry.
As for how someone in their 50s was able to get into the militia and even the forestry service, Loft lied to recruiters, telling them he was only 45. Considering that he never owned a car, walked everywhere, and exercised every morning, he looked younger than his years. As a result of this, Loft was sent with the 256th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expedition Force, and then the Canadian Forestry Corps in France. While in France, he fell in love with the country, writing home, quote:
“I have fallen in love with the country, its people and the language which I’m making every possible effort to familiarize by nightly study.”
While serving overseas, he also campaigned for Captain Frank Montour, an Indigenous man from Ontario, to become the first Indigenous person to receive the Victoria Cross. He would write a letter, stating quote:
“Anyone who knows Captain Frank Montour would not any sooner be made aware of anything he may have don upon the battlefield to merit him the Victoria Cross, because he is a splendid type of the most unassuming and unpretentious…We at the Six Nations take great pride in extending sincere and most hearty congratulations to Captain Frank Montour and the Delaware, our cousins, in the bright accomplishments of a worthy son and warrior of the tribe who by his conduct in war has brought distinction and honour not only to his family and tribe, but alike to all Britain’s Indian allies.”
While overseas, on August 7, 1917, Loft was awarded a pine tree chieftainship by the Six Nations Council. This was an incredible honour and only given to the most respected members of the Grand River Iroquois Confederacy.
On Feb. 21, 1918, Loft would meet King George V at Buckingham Palace, representing the Six Nations Council.
Before the war ended, Loft would begin to make plans for a new organization he envisioned called the League of Indians, which would advocate for Indigenous rights in Canada. After the war ended, and with the poor treatment afforded to Indigenous veterans, who received smaller pensions and fewer benefits, he saw that this was an important cause a new organization could take up.
In December of 1918, Loft would found the League of Indians of Canada at the Six Nations Reserve’s Council House. The Iroquois League, which had been founded around 1100 AD, was the inspiration for the organization. With its founding, it became the first pan-Indigenous political organization in Canadian history. On Nov. 26, 1919, he sent a letter out to the Indigenous groups in Canada, stating that First Nations needed to, quote:
“Free themselves from the dominion of officialdom.”
At first, while he did receive some support from Indigenous leaders, Loft found he was mostly alone in keeping the organization running. This included using his own money from his job to run the organization. At first, he was the president and the secretary-treasurer. The first meeting of the League was held in Sault Ste. Marie in 1919, followed by meetings at Elphinstone, Manitoba in 1920, Thunderchild Reserve, Saskatchewan in 1921 and Hobbema, Alberta in 1922.
With this new organization, even in its early stages, Loft began to petition Indian Affairs to speak with the Canadian Parliament, but he was refused each time. The deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, Duncan Campbell Scott, did not like Loft and saw him as a dangerous radical. In his role as the highest-ranking cabinet matter that focused on Indigenous issues, he spent his time undermining the work of Loft and the League of Indians. At one point, Scott would attempt to have Loft’s Indian status removed, but it would fail. He also attempted to pursue criminal charges against Loft for his attempt to raise money for land-claim issues.
Despite his constant campaigning to Indigenous groups, often at his own expense, he continued to have little in the way of success. In 1929 the League of Indians in Western Canada was formed, holding meetings in Saddle Lake, Alberta in 1931 and 1932, Duffield, Alberta in 1933 and 1935 and near Edmonton in 1934.
As a result of the lack of progress with the government, the League of Indians became defunct in the early 1930s.
As John L. Taylor of York University would say, quote:
Despite the collapse of the League, Loft would continue to work for Indigenous rights. On Nov. 17, 1932, he was reported in the Toronto Daily Star saying that the jailing of Indigenous for poaching under provincial game laws was contrary to their rights under the British North America Act.
In 1926, Loft had retired from public service and he moved to Chicago to take care of his ailing wife, who was in her hometown. Even in Chicago, he still worked for Indigenous rights in Canada. He would eventually come back to Toronto in 1930.
The strain of the organization and the battle with the government took its toll on Loft and he would pass away in 1934.
While Loft may not have known it at the time, his work as an advocate for the Indigenous would yield results after his death. The League of Indians is now considered to be the forerunner of several other nationwide Indigenous political organizations. In 1968, the National Indian Brotherhood was formed on the same principles as the League of Indians, and in 1982, it was succeeded by the current Assembly of First Nations.
In 2020, Fred Loft was on the short list of people to appear on the new $5 bill.
Information comes from Biographi, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Parks Canada, Doingourbit.ca, Peoples of Alberta, Toronto.com, Sachem.ca,