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Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War

By James Dempsey


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Life on the Home Front

When war was declared, Canadians geared themselves for wartime production, and Indians were no exceptions. The most obvious contribution of Indian Nations to wartime production was in the field of agriculture, under a program known as the Greater Production Effort, which was intended to increase production on reserves.

By 1917, Indian Nations had responded to the call for increased agricultural production and the Indian Department was making every effort to impress upon Indian farmers the importance of their work. In the Prairie provinces, instruction in farming and the care of stock had been given in Indian schools and by farm instructors since the disappearance of the buffalo in the 1880s, and many young Indians were anxious to become farmers. Their progress in the war era can be shown by the production of the Blood Nation. The years 1916 and 1917 saw them produce the largest crop of grain of any reserve in Canada; their beef production was also the highest in Canada.

The government was not satisfied with these efforts, however, or perhaps it was taking advantage of a wartime situation for political ends. In 1917, the government claimed that many reserves were too large to be used completely by the Indian Nations occupying them. If Indian Nations were unwilling to sell, the lands would be leased to non-Indian farmers.

For years, non-Indian farmers had looked with envy at uncultivated areas on reserves. Believing that the Indians were wasting the land, the farmers were anxious to put it to use. Now, new changes to the Indian Act gave the government almost unlimited power to lease reserve land if an Indian Nation could not be persuaded to sell. All obstacles to maximum agricultural productivity were to be pushed aside in the name of wartime needs, according to the revised Act. This rule did not leave room for special cases or even for the basic protection of Indian rights. Control over their reserves was all that many Indians had left and the new amendments made it legally possible for them to lose even that.

In spite of the tensions between the government and Indian Nations, Indians were found in almost every aspect of the home front push for a total war economy. Many men worked in war munitions plants and women contributed by knitting socks, mufflers and comforters. This activity was co-ordinated by the Red Cross on a number of the reserves. Red Cross workers stated that the work done by Indian women proved to be the finest sewing and knitting of all the articles they received. Indians also showed a high degree of interest in the progress of the war by subscribing to daily newspapers. Older people, who were unable to read, enquired regularly at the Indian Agency about the war.

The need for money to fight the war was of paramount concern for the Canadian government and Indian support was strong for the Patriotic Fund, the Red Cross Fund and other war relief funds. By 1917, $19,224 had been donated, and by the end of the war $44,545 had been raised. This total does not include the $8,750 that was not accepted due to the extreme poverty of the bands involved. By province, Saskatchewan was first with $17,257, Ontario second with $10,383, and Alberta third with $8,656.

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