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Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War

By James Dempsey


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Why Enlist?

In the 19th century, many Indians in Canada had followed a nomadic lifestyle based on hunting and war. In their annual migrations they relied upon a quasi-military organization for offensive and defensive purposes. Though differing in certain details, the various Indian Nations had certain features in common. Among these was a focus on war as a means of gaining wealth and prestige. Warfare was aimed neither at the systematic extermination of enemy tribes nor at the acquisition of their territory. Rather, warriors were motivated largely by hope of personal gain, economic security and social prestige.

In western Canada, treaties signed in the 1870s ultimately affected the lifestyle and warrior ethic of the Indians in two ways. First, it resulted in the development of a strong tie with the Queen of England and her heirs. Since it was in Queen Victoria's name that the treaties had been signed, and since the treaty commissioners were considered royal representatives, Indian Nations saw the treaties as pacts with the Crown rather than with the Government of Canada. For example, when Say-sway-pus accepted Treaty Six, he said to the commissioner, "In grasping your hand I am grasping that of our Mother, the Queen." (2)

Even though no one from the various Indian Nations had ever met her, Queen Victoria was a very important person to them. She was known to the Blackfoot Nation as Ninaki or "Chief Woman," while the common expression for her was "Great Mother." She was the one who had sent the police to make the treaties. As a result, when England and the royal family were threatened by war, many were anxious to help them by joining the fight. At the outbreak of the war, some Indians said that the queen's grandson needed their help. It seems that the "loyalty" of Indian soldiers that would later be noted by government officials was loyalty to the King of England rather than to Canada. As well, the thrill of adventure and the memory of the "old days" probably ranked higher than loyalty to Canada in motivating young Indian men to join up.

The Canadian government hoped that after the establishment of a reserve system in western Canada, Indians, under the guidance of Indian agents and missionaries, would learn the ways of "civilized" society. The old nomadic ways, including the warrior ethic, were now suppressed, as were other customs that the government and churches felt had no place in reserve life. Restrictions were so tight that even if someone wanted to leave his reserve for hunting he had to get permission from the Indian agent. These measures further limited Indians' freedom and were part of the government's increasing control over their lives. Men who once had been independent warriors were now restricted in both food-gathering and travelling. Therefore, enlisting seemed to offer freedom and an escape from the confinement of reserves.

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