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Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War

By James Dempsey


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Voluntary Service

Survival of the warrior ethic, combined with the strong allegiance of the Indians to the British Crown, eventually became useful to the Canadian government in the First World War. After years of trying to suppress the Indians' philosophy towards war, the government would now encourage and praise it.

When the war broke out in late 1914, military service was not compulsory in Canada, and therefore all enlisted men in the CEF were volunteers. This force was drawn from many different ethnic groups in Canada, including from Indian Nations. The Indian volunteers were unusual, though, in that they were wards of the government and did not have the rights or responsibilities of citizenship. As such, they were not expected to take up arms.

This situation dated back to the signing of the treaties in western Canada in the 1870s. During Treaty Three negotiations in 1873, Indian representatives specifically asked the Hon. Alexander Morris, who negotiated some of the treaties for the Crown, about possible Indian involvement in wars outside of Canada. Morris replied that "the English never call the Indians out of their country to fight their battles." (3)

With this promise as a precedent, Canada could not morally ask the Indians to enlist. Therefore, any Indian who did enlist did so voluntarily. Nonetheless, recruiting campaigns were started unofficially on some reserves at the outbreak of war. Two months later, Glen Campbell, Chief Inspector of Indian Agencies in Manitoba, looked into the idea of putting together a corps of scouts or irregular cavalry made up entirely of Indian soldiers. Later, when Campbell had enlisted and was made a lieutenant colonel, he organized 500 Indian soldiers under the 107th Battalion. Eventually, the federal government encouraged the formation of Indian companies and battalions. In some areas, Indians became so well represented in the Canadian contingent that they were a majority, such as in Company D of the 114th Battalion. Likewise, the Iroquois Six Nations Reserve represented the majority of recruits with the 14th Canadian Infantry Battalion.

Across Canada, Indian and Métis communities demonstrated their enthusiasm for the war effort. On some reserves, nearly every young man enlisted. This was the case with the Algonquins of Golden Lake, of whom only three eligible men remained on their reserve. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, nearly half of the eligible Mi'kmaq and Maliseet men signed up, while Saskatchewan's File Hills community offered almost all of its eligible men. At Lake Band in British Columbia, every single man between the ages of 20 and 35 volunteered. In Winnipeg, it was reported that 30 Métis whose descendants had fought at the side of Louis Riel in 1869-1870 enlisted at Qu'Appelle.

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