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Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War

By James Dempsey


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Government Response to Recruits

Reactions from the non-Indian community and from government offices about the contributions of Indian recruits were generally very supportive, if at times paternalistic. The Superintendent General of Indian affairs, Arthur Meighen, expressed this feeling in his 1917 Annual Report, when he stated:

It is an inspiring fact that these descendents of the aboriginal inhabitants of a continent so recently appropriated by our own ancestors should voluntarily sacrifice their lives on European battlefields, side by side with men of our own race, for the preservation of the ideals of our civilization, and their staunch devotion forms an eloquent tribute to the beneficent character of British rule over a native people. (6)

Following the war, Meighen noted in his 1918 Report that "the Indians have indeed established for themselves a magnificent record, which should place their race in the esteem of their fellow countrymen and our Allies... and the influence upon life on the reserves." (7) Other remarks by government officials focused on the Indians' proof of loyalty by enlisting, drawing comparisons to the Indians who had fought in the wars of 1776 and 1812. Reports from the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) mentioned that the "Indians continue to maintain the loyal and honourable traditions which they established during the past three years of war." (8) Officers gave excellent accounts, especially mentioning the courage, intelligence, efficiency, stamina, and discipline of Indian soldiers, noting that their "daring and intrepidity disallowed the familiar assertion that the Red Man has deteriorated." (9)

The Indians were equally enthusiastic, as evidenced in the letters received by the Indian Department. The annual report for 1917 made note of the fact that "the department receives testimonials of loyalty from Indian bands, and letters from individual Indians, which are fired with a zealous and sincere patriotism and often display a highly intelligent interest in the progress of the war and a remarkably clear grasp of the principles which are at stake." (10)

Individual achievements by Indian and Métis soldiers were noteworthy and easily equal to any other ethnic group present and active during the war in Europe. Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa from Parry Island, Ontario, was the most highly decorated Indian soldier of the war, being awarded the Military Medal and two bars for bravery as a sniper. Métis sniper Henry Norwest, from Fort Saskatchewan, also earned a Military Medal and one bar for bravery, the first decoration being gained during the attack on Vimy Ridge in 1917. A member of the 50th Battalion, Norwest was killed by a sniper's bullet just three months before the war ended. Private William Cleary, an Innu from Pointe-Bleue, Quebec, and Private Joseph Roussin, a Mohawk from Quebec's Kanesatake Band, who served with the 22nd Battalion, were both recipients of a Military Medal. Roussin was a scout, and was wounded nine times during his service at the front. Both men survived the war.

Alexander George Smith Jr. and his brother Charles Denton Smith, both sons of the Six Nations Cayuga chief Alexander Smith, served as officers. Both later received the rank of captain and earned the Military Cross for gallantry.

Another distinguished soldier was David Keesick, an Ojibwa who won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for capturing a German machine gun emplacement without a single shot being fired. Other recipients of the Distinguished Conduct Medal included Private George McLean from the Okanagan district of British Columbia for launching a solo attack against a group of enemy soldiers during the assault on Vimy Ridge; and Sam Glode, a Mi'kmaq from Nova Scotia who personally removed 450 demolition charges in Belgium just as the war ended.

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