REMEMBRANCE DAY: Canada’s First Nations soldiers

REMEMBRANCE DAY: Canada’s First Nations soldiers
Francis Pegahmagabow was decorated three times for marksmanship. ( Pegahmagabow was decorated three times for marksmanship. (
George McLean served in the Boer and First World Wars. ( McLean served in the Boer and First World Wars. (
Henry Louis (Ducky) Norwest died overseas in battle. ( Louis (Ducky) Norwest died overseas in battle. (
Oliver Milton Martin rose to the rank of brigadier general. ( Milton Martin rose to the rank of brigadier general. (
Tommy Prince is the most famous First Nations soldier, having been awarded the Military Medal and the American Silver Star. ( Prince is the most famous First Nations soldier, having been awarded the Military Medal and the American Silver Star. (

By T.W. Paterson

“It’s a fact that, unlike non-aboriginal soldiers, First Nation soldiers were not recognized for their service until recently and received no pensions.”—Marlene Rice, elder-in-residence at VIU’s Cowichan campus.

We’re living in the age of Reconciliation. For the first time, many Canadians have turned the telescope around and are viewing their country and its history from the viewpoint of its Indigenous peoples.

It’s been a long, long road from the racism and segregation of colonialism to reach this point and we’ve a long way to go.

A good stepping-stone towards Reconciliation is the correction of a long overdue omission in our military heritage: honouring the contributions made by Indigenous servicemen in both world wars and Korea.

But we’re working on it. Four years ago, Citizen reporter Lexi Bainas wrote of a “never-before-seen” celebration at the Somena Longhouse on Allenby Road. This, explained spokesperson Marlene Rice, was the blessing of a totem pole carved by George Rice and a warrior canoe carved by Harold Joe, Roger and Cory George, Walter Thomas and George Rice in honour of First Nations veterans, not just from Cowichan Tribes, but also from afar.

The event opened at 8 a.m. that Remembrance Day “with a cultural ceremony first, blessing the totem pole and then the canoe that they have made.” This was followed by the Act of Remembrance at the Somena Longhouse. After lunch, there was a special remembrance of First Nations veterans, including the showing of photographs.

It was “the first time that First Nations veterans have ever been acknowledged,” she said.

“It was Harold Joe [who] got the idea from a Mainland ceremony,” and the local event saw the coming together of families, some from as far as the U.S., whose family members served in a war.

“We’re recognizing them for what they have done. It’s a great thing.”

The totem pole and warrior canoe were destined for permanent display at Vancouver Island University although the canoe can be borrowed by other First Nations who choose to use it in honouring their veterans.

According to government statistics, 12,000 aboriginal people along with an undetermined number of Inuit, Métis and non-status aboriginals served Canada in the First and Second World wars and the Korean War; 500 were killed and many more were wounded. That’s more than any other ethnic group in Canada as a percentage of their population. Since then, others have served and are serving in overseas peacekeeping missions.

In recent years some Indigenous Canadians have been wearing hand-crafted, beaded poppies similar to those which have been distributed by the Royal Canadian Legion for decades. These poppies, designed to honour First Nations service personnel, are meant to complement rather than compete with the traditional Flanders Fields poppy symbol.

In November 2016, National Aboriginal Veterans Day honoured Indigenous veterans. Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr, who laid a wreath at the NAV Day ceremony, noted that, “Everything from Vimy Ridge through Juno Beach throughout peacekeeping missions and today in our armed forces, they signed up, served and continued to serve and do our nation proud every day.” (In 2016 there were more than 2,500 aboriginal people serving in the Canadian military, representing 2.7 per cent of the approximately 95,000 full and part-time service members — almost double the representation of 10 years before but still short of a targeted 3.5 per cent.)

National Aboriginal Veterans Day was inaugurated by Winnipeg’s city council in 1994, prompted by the work of Randi George, a Saginaw Chippewa from Michigan who, with a U.S. Army veteran, organized the first Aboriginal Veterans Day the previous year; since then, commemorations have mushroomed across the country.

For Betty Ann Lavilee, former head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and a fourth generation military veteran, it was a bittersweet occasion. It troubled her that Indigenous veterans, upon their return to Canada, were no longer wanted and were shuffled between the Department of Veterans Affair and what was then the Department of Indian Affairs. In this beaurocratic no-man’s-land they were denied the land, housing, medical and educational benefits made available to white veterans. They were still denied the right to vote and barred from RCL halls because they weren’t, legally, allowed to drink liquor.

In 2003, the federal government apologized and offered compensation of $20,000 per veteran — a pittance instead of the $120,000 recommended by a national roundtable.

Also in 2016, in April, 66 veterans from Coast Salish tribes were honoured for the first time in a ceremony at the VIU campus. Hundreds watched as a veterans’ prayer totem pole was unveiled. By then more than 200 living Coast Salish veterans had been identified on both sides of the border.

As Marlene Rice, by then an elder-in-residence at VIU’s Cowichan campus, sadly reminded Canadians, “It’s a fact that, unlike non-aboriginal soldiers, First Nation soldiers were not recognized for their service until recently and received no pensions.

“But they wanted to fight for their country and they did because they felt it was the right thing to do, and now we’re honouring them.”

Said Ralph Nilson, VIU president, “The prayer pole and warrior canoe will greet every visitor who comes to the Cowichan campus, providing an opportunity to teach our students about the important role the Coast Salish veterans played in protecting the freedoms we enjoy today.”

In 1993, Veterans Affairs Canada published a booklet, Native Soldiers/Foreign Battlefields. It begins with a quote by Mike Mountain Horse who served during the First World War: “The war proved that the fighting spirit of my tribe was not squelched through reservation life. When duty called, we were there, and when we were called forth to fight for the cause of civilization, our people showed all the bravery of our warriors of old.”

Another quote is by a Korean veteran whose grandfather served in the First World War, his father in the Second.

Joining the army was more traumatic for Indigenous recruits than for most. Coming, for the most part, from remote and isolated reserves, few spoke English or French. For many, joining a Canadian battalion “marked their first exposure to the dress, terminology and unique customs of British military tradition”. And, we can bet, although it’s not stated in this government publication, they sometimes had to endure discrimination, personal and systemic.

Some of the statistics given are startling. For example, during the Great War, one in three able-bodied Canadian Indigenous men of age to serve, volunteered and approximately 4,000 of them served overseas. “Approximately 4,000,” because the records fail us in determining how many actually did volunteer for military service. Why this uncertainty? The Department’s “main concern was status Indians [and the] records rarely took into account the number of Inuit, Métis and other Canadian Natives who signed up”. Enlistments in the territories and Newfoundland, which hadn’t entered Confederation, aren’t recorded, either.

How ironic that Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government, for all the need of volunteers, initially barred recruitment of Indigenous participation. This was racial bias in reverse, the government fearing that the Germans would view them as “savages” and treat prisoners accordingly. By late 1915, however, the government had changed its mind before a continuing flood of Indigenous enlistment applications and the continuing slaughter of Canadian soldiers in the Belgian and French trenches.

Not all Canadian First Nations were onside, some tribes demanding, in exchange for recruits, a recognition by Great Britain of their independent status. This wasn’t forthcoming and, with the advent of conscription, in August 1917, some Indigenous leaders resisted further enlistment.

For their part, young men continued to volunteer in droves; in some areas, enlistment was almost total. To give just two examples, almost all of the eligible men of the File Hills Reserve in Saskatchewan answered their country’s call and B.C.’s Head of the Lake Band “saw every single man between the ages of 20 and 35 volunteer”. Despite the fact that the Iroquois Six Nations of Brantford, Ont. opposed reserve enlistment, it provided more soldiers than any other Canadian Indian band.

Most of them served in the Canadian Infantry with the Canadian Corps in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Drawing upon their traditional hunting skills, many served as snipers and reconnaissance scouts. The most highly decorated Canadian Native in the First World War was Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow of the Parry Island Band, Ont., who was decorated three times for his marksmanship and scouting skills: the Military Medal (MM), plus two bars — meaning he earned the MM three times. He survived the war to become chief of his band. Not so fellow sniper and former rodeo rider Henry Norwest who died at the hands of an enemy marksman after earning the esteem and friendship of his battalion.

B.C.’s Pte. George McLean, an Okanagan rancher, served in both the Boer and First World Wars; in the latter he earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).

The most famous Indigenous soldier was Sgt. Tommy Prince of the Brokenhead Band of Scanterbury, Man., who served, primarily as a reconnaissance expert, in the Second and Korean wars. A member of the Royal Canadian Engineers for two years, he volunteered as a paratrooper then for the famous Devil’s Brigade. He once disguised himself as a farmer so he could, in full view of the enemy, repair a broken telephone line. For repeated acts of heroism he was awarded the Military Medal and the American Silver Star (one of only 59 Canadians to be so honoured). Both medals were presented to him at Buckingham Palace by King George VI. Prince went on to serve in Korea.

Many of them made the supreme sacrifice. To name but one, Lieut. Joseph Brant, 28, was killed near Ypres, Belgium, while leading his platoon in a counterattack.

Edith Anderson, who’d given up her job as an elementary school nurse to join the U.S. Medical Corps in 1917, tended sick and wounded servicemen in an American military hospital in France. Oliver Milton Martin “reached the highest rank ever held by a Canadian Native,” a brigadier general.

As a final note, it should be added that Indigenous peoples on the Home Front, few of whom had decent incomes, gave generously to war relief.

Sadly, the Homecoming for most Indigenous servicemen who’d known the casual cameraderie of their mates in uniform, had been allowed to participate as equals in social affairs while on leave in Allied countries such as England — and had been allowed to drink alcohol — was disappointing, even shattering. As Marlene Rice has pointed out, there were no veterans’ benefits, no official or public recognition, no pensions. Some eventually died of despair; among them Sgt. Tommy Prince, aged 62.

More than 500, including farmers, fishermen, trappers, businessmen and others, active soldiers and veterans, attended his funeral. Also there to pay homage were Manitoba’s Lieutenant-Governor, consuls representing France, Italy and the United States.

All, alas, too little and too late.

Last December, Levi Oakes from Akwewsane, Que., was given a standing ovation in the House of Commons after being recognized by the Speaker of the House. The wheelchair bound Oakes is the last surviving Second World War Mohawk Code Talker.

(Code talkers were used by the American military during the Second World War) to fool enemy eavesdroppers by sending messages in their native American and Canadian languages.)