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Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War

By James Dempsey


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Post-war Experiences

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 signalled the official end of the First World War. The Allies' main objectives in establishing the new national boundaries in Europe were the recognition of human rights and the right to self-determination. The idea was to match the social changes that had occurred in the Allied countries, particularly in the United States.

For a time, it looked as though these social changes would also benefit Indian Nations in Canada when the war finally ended. They had made many progressive strides on their own and hoped that these would be carried into the peace era. With their participation in the war, Indian enlistees had been given the right to vote; their work in the Greater Production Effort program had proven that they were capable of being productive farmers; and their support for the Patriotic Fund and other war funds demonstrated their loyalty to Queen and country.

When Canada's soldiers came home after the armistice of 1918, they believed they were returning to an enlightened society for which many of them had fought and died. Overseas they had been exposed to new ideas that had broadened their outlooks and expectations. Indian soldiers, too, optimistically expressed a hope that they were returning to such conditions as equality, responsibility and opportunity in Canada. Yet, within months of their return, many Indian war veterans found that nothing had changed; they were still under the yoke of government bureaucrats and treated like irresponsible children. Some became angry, but most became bitter or disillusioned by the fact that the better world they had fought for did not extend to the boundaries of their own reserves.

After the war, the legal status of the Indian population of Canada remained an unresolved question. Although many Indians, officials and members of the public advocated giving the franchise to all Indians in recognition of the valiant performance of Indian soldiers on the battlefield, others approached the question with concern and suspicion. While the franchise appeared to many as a boon for Indian Nations and a solution to the question of government wardship, the franchise also carried a distinct danger in the minds of many Indians: that the government might use it to terminate its responsibility towards them and force them to abandon their cultural heritage. This fear seems to have been well-founded, as it was in line with the belief of Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, that the Indians should have their legal status removed without their consent when he believed they were ready. As he stated:

I think that it would be to the interest of good administration if the provisions with regard to enfranchisement were further extended so as to enable the Department to enfranchise individual Indians or bands of Indians, without the necessity of obtaining their consent thereto, in cases where it is found upon investigation that the continuance of wardship is no longer in the interest of the public or of the Indian. (11)

Before and after the war, Indian veterans looked to the Government of Canada for some tangible acknowledgement of their contributions. In a letter sent to Scott in 1916, Mark Steinhauer, from the Saddle Lake Agency in Alberta, asked if:

We are going to get anything out of our country that we are going to fight for... What I want to find out is, is there a possible chance of us getting our franchise and our location in the reservation after the war is over? I do not think it would be fair not to get anything out of a country that we are fighting for. (12)

Similarly, in 1919 the veterans of the Peguis band in Manitoba wanted to know what reward they could expect through the Department of Indian Affairs for their services in the war.

Ironically, Duncan Campbell Scott, in a postwar essay on Indian soldiers, argued that changes would be forthcoming, although he envisioned them as simply hastening the elimination of the Indians' traditional lifestyle and customs. Scott wrote:

These men who have been broadened by contact with the outside world and its affairs, who have mingled with the men of other races, and who have witnessed the many wonders and advantages of civilization, will not be content to return to their old Indian mode of life. Each one of them will be a missionary of the spirit of progress... Thus the war will have hastened that day,... when all the quaint old customs, the weird and picturesque ceremonies... shall be as obsolete as the buffalo and the tomahawk, and the last tepee of the Northern wilds give place to a model farmhouse. (13)

While conditions for the majority of other Canadians improved, the same could not be said for the Indians. Where administrative matters were concerned, it soon became apparent that the post-war attitude of the Indian Department was as though the war had never occurred and nothing had changed. When an Indian agent inquired in 1922 about the legal status of Indian veterans, J.D. McLean, Secretary of the Department, replied: "These returned Indian soldiers are subject to the provisions of the Indian Act and are in the same position as they were before enlisting." (14) This statement made clear that nothing had changed in terms of the legal, social or economic status of Indian Nations after the war. Even though they had survived the war, many of the Indian veterans continued to live at the bottom of the economic ladder, and as the years passed their situation did not improve. One can imagine the despair they experienced, especially when comparing themselves to their non-Indian comrades.

Besides the Department of Indian Affairs' failure to recognize the sacrifices of Indian soldiers during the war, other federal departments, particularly the Department of Veterans Affairs, excluded Indian veterans and their families from many of the war and post-war programs that they offered. Indian veterans were considered to be wards of the government and therefore not the responsibility of Veterans Affairs.

This attitude of exclusion existed even during the war, as a Blood Indian agent discovered when he tried to obtain money from the Patriotic Fund for the benefit of families who had men overseas. He was informed by the local chapter of the Patriotic Fund that:

The dependants of these Indian soldiers are wards of the Government, and draw living rations from the Government and have no rents to pay, hence since they are a charge on the Government of Canada, and as the Government of Canada is responsible for their maintainence, and for these reasons we cannot recommend that they participate in the distribution of Patriotic Funds. (15)

The agent relayed the contents of the letter to J.D. McLean, suggesting the matter be taken up with the head office of the fund. Scott himself brought the complaint to the attention of the assistant secretary of the fund. It was finally decided that "families of Indians who have listed be treated in the same manner as those of other nationalities." (16)

In 1919, the Soldier Settlement Act (SSA) gave veterans wishing to farm an opportunity to obtain federal lands or to purchase farms; the legislation did not exclude Indians. However, for Indian veterans in western Canada, the Act conflicted with an amendment to the Indian Act of 1906, which stated:

No Indian or non-treaty Indian resident in the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, or the Territories shall be held capable of having acquired or of acquiring a homestead or pre-emption right under any Act respecting Dominion lands, to a quarter section... in any surveyed or unsurveyed land in the said provinces or territories. (17)

The discrepancy between the two acts was quickly brought to light when the majority of Indian veterans who wished to take up farming under the Soldier Settlement Act wanted to do so on their own reserves. For example, the agent for Fisher River stated that the Peguis Band soldiers wanted land on their reserve. Even some of the Indian agents were unsure if the SSA even included Indians. However, even when officials decided that Indians could apply, they still perceived them to be wards of the Indian Department. So, for administrative convenience, arrangements were made for the Indian Department to enforce the SSA as it pertained to Indian veterans. (18)

The problem may never have arisen if Scott had followed his original plan to locate Indian veterans on a grant of lands outside of a reserve. Instead, he agreed with W.M. Graham's suggestion to "have the Indians provided with land on reserves and to be under the supervision of the Department and to leave available land outside of reserves for other applicants." (19) This procedure simplified matters for Indian agents who could more easily enforce clauses of the Indian Act when veterans were residents of reserves.

Yet many Indians did not have the opportunity to either succeed or fail, due to the paternalistic attitude of the agents who had the power to approve or reject applications. As the Depression took hold in the 1930s, Indian veterans continued to be denied the benefits available to non-Indian veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs continued to pass its responsibility off to the Department of Indian Affairs, using the excuse that the Indians were wards of the government. In the spring of 1932 it was decided by the Minister of Pensions and National Health that the War Veterans' Allowance Act did not apply to Indian veterans residing on reserves. Indian veterans were viewed no differently from any other Indians on reserve lands. In a letter to the Indian Department, the committee in charge stated that:

Assistance by way of relief to returned soldiers who are Indians is denied if they are living on reservations for the reason that such men are wards of your Department. The Committee is also informed that the privileges of the Soldier Settlement Act were denied by the Soldier Settlement Board to returned soldiers who were Indians on the grounds that settlement privileges were available only through your Department. (20)

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