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When war was declared against Germany, Canadians of all backgrounds signed up to fight.
Over the previous century, the Indigenous people of Canada had seen their land taken, rights stripped away, and many were forced to attend residential schools where they were subjected to the erasure of their culture and terrible abuse.
Even with all that the country had done to them, one-third of all Indigenous men between the age of 18 and 45 enlisted to fight in the war. Unfortunately, only Status Indigenous were recorded by the Canadian Expeditionary Force, so the number of 7,000 seems much smaller than the true number when Metis and Inuit soldiers are counted, along with others.
That may not seem like a lot, but looking at the communities these men came from, it is easy to see that this was a huge number of Indigenous men signing up.
At the Head of the Lake Band in British Columbia, every man between the age of 20 and 35 signed up. In some places, one in three of the men signed up.
There is one story of 15 men who walked over 1,000 kilometres from Labrador to enlist.
The Mi’kmaq sent half of their eligible populations, while Ontario and Quebec saw the highest enlistment rates.
A lot of this was because of their forefathers and ancestors, who had fought for the British during the Revolutionary War, Seven Years War, War of 1812 and the Boer War.
The young men during the First World War wanted to do what their ancestors had done. Others chose to enlist out of revenge. One man identified as Mountain Horse, enlisted after his brother was killed in the war. Within days of his brother’s funeral, he was in uniform and ready to go overseas.
Others enlisted out of pride for their reserve. Mike Foxhead of the Blackfoot wrote that he enlisted to,
“Put up a name for the reserve, so they can say that they have one of their boys over there.”
At first, Indigenous people were turned away from volunteering from service. They were not considered to be citizens and didn’t have the right to vote.
Indigenous recruits were told that Germans would not treat them civilized if they were captured, and the Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes, who would later support Indigenous troops said,
“While British troops would be proud to be associated with their fellow subjects, Germans might refuse to extend them the privileges of civilized warfare, therefore it is considered that they had better remain in Canada to share in the protection of the Dominion.”
Even so, at least 200 were able to enlist early on.
The view began to change as the high casualty rates meant the ranks of the army needed to be replaced with new soldiers. In 1915, restrictions were relaxed and Indian Agents actively began to campaign on reserves.
In 1917, the enactment of conscription began and Status Indigenous were part of the conscription. The Indigenous people protested this due to the treaties they had signed, and in response the government granted limited exemptions from overseas combat for Status Indigenous in January 1918.
As time went on, the military saw the Indigenous as soldiers with valuable skills. They brought with them stealth and marksmanship, honed hunting as part of their daily lives. These Indigenous soldiers were recruited to be scouts and snipers because of those skills.
Minister of Militia Sam Hughes was by no means someone who looked favourably on other races. He was actively anti-French and forced French recruits to speak English during training. He only accepted Japanese-Canadians and Chinese-Canadians into the force when he had no choice, and he pushed Black Canadians into construction units.
That all being said, he was a supporter of the Indigenous people of Canada joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He believed they were excellent troops and he recommended Indigenous soldiers become snipers in the army.
In Newfoundland, not yet part of Canada, many Indigenous from the island enlisted. Due to poor record keeping of Indigenous recruits, it is not known how many enlisted, nor how many died. It is believed at least 15 men of Inuit descent joined the First Newfoundland Regiment.
On June 20, 1915, when a sixth contingent of troops from the island departed from Newfoundland, 242 recruits were on the HMT Calgarian and among them were several Inuit volunteers.
Once again, those soldiers were typically snipers. John Shiwak, an Inuk man who was a hunter, had honed his sniper skills hunting seals. He took those skills to France, where he was called the best sniper in the British Army. Sadly, he died on the battlefield when a shell hit him on Nov. 20, 1917.
At first, the transition to military life was not easy for Indigenous soldiers. Many came from remote areas of the country where they had followed their cultural traditions. Some could not speak English nor French.
Mountain Horse wrote home,
“I am rather lonely. I have not talked Blackfoot for over six months.”
Another man, Abel Watech, wrote,
“Many is the time I wish I was back in my native country.”
Some soldiers, like Mountain Horse, used war songs to deal with the loneliness and pent-up feelings.
It didn’t take long for Indigenous soldiers to quickly adapt though, and they became valuable members of the companies they served in.
This is not to say that the Indigenous soldiers assimilated. Quite the opposite. Being away from Canada, gave the soldiers the autonomy they needed to continue practicing their traditions that were being altered, or outright banned, back in Canada.
The soldiers they served often had little interaction with Indigenous soldiers. Serving with them in the trenches gave many their first window into the Indigenous world, and a growing feeling of respect towards it.
Over the course of the war, Indigenous soldiers earned at least 50 decorations for bravery during the war. At least 300 Status Indigenous lost their lives during the war.
Upon returning home, several Indigenous veterans battle illnesses and the trauma of the war. While they were treated equal on the front lines, for the most part, that disappeared as soon as they returned to Canada.
While most veterans received benefits and support from the Canadian government, the implementation of the programs on reserves differed heavily in how it was carried out.
When the Soldier Settlement Acts of 1919 was being created, and Status Indigenous veterans expressed an interest in using the program, the Department of Indian Affairs was brought in and many Indigenous veterans were not able to get the land they wanted. Worse still was that the government took 85,844 acres from reserves to give to non-Indigenous soldiers.
As well, Indigenous veterans were given $1,894 on average as a settlement loan, while all other settlers received $4,000 or more.
Many Indigenous soldiers also lost their Treaty Status because under the Indian Act, any Indigenous person absent from the reserve for four years lost their Status.
It was not until 1995 that the first wreaths to honour Indigenous veterans were laid at the National War Memorial.
Several Indigenous soldiers made their mark during the war. I will cover some here.
Henry Louis Norwest was born in 1884 in Fort Saskatchewan, in what is now Alberta. Raised by a single parent, his extended Cree family provided him with a highly mobile lifestyle and he began to learn hunting from a very young age.
His mother, Genevieve Batoche, settled with her Cree band near St. Albert eventually. Little is known about the life of Norwest from the 1890s to 1914 but he did have five children of his own and usually worked ranching, hunting, farming and trapping. He also worked a rodeo performer for a time.
When the First World War broke out, Norwest had just taken up his own land near Wainwright, Alberta. In January 1915, rather than begin his winter labour and hunting, he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He enlisted as Henry Louie in Edmonton with the mounted rifles.
In April 1915, he was discharged from the army, and he worked for the Royal Northwest Mounted Police for five months. He then re-enlisted in September under the name Henry Norwest.
The next month, he was sent overseas but it was not until August 1916 that he saw action in the trenches.
Before long, his fellow soldiers began to see he was a highly-skilled marksman. His ability with stealth and camouflage made him a perfect sniper. In April 1917, he killed three German soldiers in one day using his Ross rifle. One year later, to the day, he recorded his 100th kill.
Unlike other snipers who fired from their trench through metal loops, he went out into No Man’s Land itself and shot at the soldiers on the other side.
His fellow soldiers called him Ducky, since he was quite shy and ‘ducked’ when encountering women in England. His fellow soldiers said he was tall, and powerfully-built, but quiet and reserved. When he spoke, they said he was pleasant and kindly.
One soldier said,
“Norwest is quite naturally one of us.”
He was also known for his patience. Once, after he was spotted by two German snipers, he waited in silence in No Man’s Land for two days. When prisoners of war were interviewed, they expressed their terror for Norwest and his abilities.
Norwest served at The Battle of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.
In August 1918, he participated in the Battle of Amiens that started the Hundred Days Campaign. Norwest told a fellow soldier that he believed he would die in the beginning days of the battle.
On Aug. 18, 1918, as he got into his sniping post, an enemy sniper saw him and shot him through the head, killing him instantly.
When General Arthur Currie found out that Norwest was dead, he ordered a barrage of artillery to descend on the position which the German snipers had fired.
A temporary grave was dug and on the cross it stated,
“It must’ve been a damned good sniper that got Norwest.”
At the time of his death, he had 115 confirmed skills, and been awarded the Military Medal. After he was killed, he was awarded a Bar on his Military Medal.
Today, his sniper rifle is on display at the King’s Own Calgary Regiment Museum.
Charlotte Edith Anderson was born on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, the youngest of eight children on April 10, 1890. A gifted student, she tried to attend nursing school but at the time the Indian Act was a barrier for Indigenous people to get higher education.
As a result, she went to the United States and graduated first in her class to become the first Indigenous registered nurse in Canada in 1914.
In 1917, she volunteered with the United States Army to serve as a nurse. She returned briefly to the Six Nations Reserve to get her burial clothing in case she died, and then she spent the next year in France treating soldiers who had been injured in the war.
When she had downtime, she went to other medical centres to help, or walked across battlefields looking for wounded.
She often worked 14-hour shifts, and dealt with the heartbreak of losing so many soldiers under her care.
After the war, she became the first female Status Indian and registered band member to vote in a Canadian federal election.
She advocated for better Indigenous health care throughout her life, and continued to work as a nurse and mid-wife until 1955 when she was 65. She died on the Six Nations Reserve at the age of 106 in 1996.
Tom Longboat was one of the most famous Canadians in the world when the First World War erupted. The winner of the Boston Marathon in 1907, he dominated long distance running for years before the war broke out.
When the First World War began, Longboat enlisted to serve overseas.
The North Bay Nugget reported that Longboat was initially denied because he was married, but this was overturned.
Serving as a dispatch runner, he would also run in races in France, including winning the Canadian Corps Dominion Day Competition in 1918. He would also be promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal in 1916.
During the war, he was twice wounded and twice declared dead. The Ottawa Journal reported on Oct. 15, 1917, quote:
“Word has received here from Tom Daly, former trainer of Tecumseh Lacrosse Club and Toronto Baseball Club, who went overseas with the sportsmen’s battalion, that Tom Longboat, the famous Indian marathon runner, has been killed in action.”
One story stated that he entered a communication trench which was buried by a shell, trapping him and a few others for six days before they were rescued. In 1919, Longboat stated to Lou Marsh that this story was not true.
Longboat’s wife, believing him to be dead, remarried but after finding out that Longboat was alive stated she did not want to leave her new husband.
Longboat would later marry Martha Silversmith, with whom he had four children.
After the war, Longboat officially retired from running professional. During his running career, it was estimated he made $17,000, amounting to about $300,000 to $400,000 today. Over the course of the rest of his life, he would take on various jobs before he settled in Toronto with his family, where he worked until 1944 in the street cleaning department.
After he retired from work, he moved back to the Six Nations Reserve where he died of pneumonia on Jan. 9, 1949.
The Calgary Albertan stated quote:
“The courageous Indian brought many running titles to Canada, and made Ontario running mad. It is said the parks and back lanes of the Ontario capital were cluttered with aspiring youngsters whose ambition was to become his successor.”
The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“To Canadians born around the turn of the century, or a little later, the name Tom Longboat meant as much as Babe Ruth did in a later era.”
A leading Indigenous activist, Frederick Loft organized the First Nations of Ontario and he often wrote articles for the Toronto Globe and Saturday Night on Indigenous issues. At the turn of the 20th century, he was also calling for the end of residential schools, stating they were death traps.
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.
Loft 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.
While Loft and Longboat were both relatively famous before the First World War, the war made Francis Pegahmagabow famous and he became one of the most decorated soldiers in Canadian history.
When the First World War erupted, Francis enlisted.
His enlistment only 10 days after the start of the war would get the notice of the local newspaper with Frederic Hill reporting, “His grandfather was a warrior and chief and fought for the British in 1812, so the bot comes by his fighting instincts from a long line of ancestors who fought in the Indian wars. We are all hoping Francis will distinguish himself as his forefathers did and will return home covered with glory and medals. His example might well be followed.”
He was posted with the 23rd Canadian Regiment, also called the Northern Pioneers and was posted to Valcartier. As a soldier there, he decorated his tent in traditional symbols, including a deer, which was the symbol of his clan.
In October of 1914, he was deployed with the First Canadian Infantry Battalion, as part the First Canadian Division.
In April 1915, Francis fought in the Second Battle of Ypres, and it was here he set an example of his skill as a sniper and scout. After the battle, he was promoted to Lance Corporal.
In 1916, he took part in the Battle of the Somme and was wounded in the leg. He recovered in time to join the First Battalion as it moved to Belgium. During the Battle of the Somme, he would relay messages along the front lines and his commanding officer Lt. Col. Frank Albert Creighton nominated him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, citing his faithfulness to duty and disregard for danger. For unknown reasons, it was downgraded to a Military Medal. Nonetheless, he was one of the first Canadian soldiers to be awarded the medal, with the citation saying, “He carried messages with great bravery and success during the whole of the actions at Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy. In all his work, he was consistently shown a disregard for danger and his faithfulness to duty is highly commendable.”
In November 1917, he took part in the Second Battle of Passchendaele, earning a bar on his Military Medal. At this point, he was a corporal and he played an important role as a link between the units of the First Battalions flank. When reinforcements became lost, Francis guided them and ensured they reached their spot in line.
His citation for the bar on his medal states, “At Passchendaele, this NCO did excellent work. Before and after the attack, he kept in touch with the flanks, advising the units he had seen, this information proving the success of the attack and saving valuable time in consolidating. He also guided the relief to its proper place after it had become mixed up.”
In 1934, he would relate the situation when their own creeping artillery barrage starting raining down on them at Passchendaele, “At our objective we suffered very heavy from our own gunfire, I done all I could do to stop it by reporting to our C.O. Sparkling and the artillery observers. My comrades going up in pieces, shell after shell. At daylight, cannonade was still going strong. Presence of mind came to me. I had a flare pistol with me. I shot a white flare. Millions of eyes saw it. It should have been fired when we reached our objective anyway. The moment I shot the flare, field guns cease fire.”
Soon after the battle, he developed pneumonia and with the exposure to poison gas attacks, he suffered terrible chest pains that would last his entire life. Despite his injuries and weakened condition, he soon returned to action.
In August of 1918, he was in the Battle of the Scarpe, he helped to fight off a German attack near Upton Wood. With his company almost out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded, he braved machine gun and rifle fire to go into no-man’s land and get more ammunition to allow his post to carry on and assist the pushing back the attacks of the Germans. For this action, he would receive a second bar on his Military Medal. He is one of only 39 Canadians to receive that honour.
His citation for this second bar reads, “at Orix Trench, near Upton Wood, when his company were almost out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded, this NCO went over the top under heavy MG and rifle fire and brought back sufficient ammunition to enable the post to carry on and assist in repulsing heavy enemy counter-attacks.”
At the close of the war, Francis had served for nearly the entire war in the front lines and gained a reputation as a skilled sniper. He is credit with killing 378 Germans, and capturing 300 more. His method for gaining kills was to slowly creep into No Man’s Land at night, a very dangerous task, and then wait for German soldiers to start to arrive.
It was said of Francis, “his iron nerves, patience and superb marksmanship helped make him an outstanding sniper.”
For his bravery throughout the war, he would reach the rank of Sgt-Major, and would receive the aforementioned Military Medal with two bars, the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
It is likely that Francis would have received the highest military honour in the Commonwealth, the Victoria Cross, if not for the fact that he was Indigenous and racism against his people was still very prevalent.
In talking about his father years later, Duncan Pegahmagabow stated, “My mother told me he used to go behind enemy lines, rub shoulders with the enemy forces and never get caught.”
Once back home in Canada after the war, he would serve with the Algonquin Regiment militia as a non-permanent member. He was then elected chief, as his grandfather and father had been, of the Parry Island Band in 1921. He would be reelected in 1924 and serve until 1925 when an internal power struggle forced him into resigning.
In 1952, Francis, who by this point was the father of six with his wife Eva, would pass away at the age of 61. By the end of his life, he had to sleep upright because his lungs were so weak from gas exposure that sleeping any other way would cause the lungs to fill with fluid.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Wikipedia, Veterans Affairs, Library and Archives Canada, War Museum, Heritage Newfoundland, CBC, Indigenous Corporate Training, National War Memorial, The Awakening Has Come