Alex DeCoteau | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Alex DeCoteau

Alexander (Alex) Wuttunee DeCoteau (also Decouteau), athlete, police officer, soldier (born 19 November 1887 on the Red Pheasant First Nation, near North Battleford, SK; died 30 October 1917 near Passchendaele, Belgium). DeCoteau was a long-distance runner (see Notable Indigenous Long-Distance Runners in Canada) and became Canada’s first Indigenous police officer. He joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and served on the Western Front. DeCoteau was killed in action during the Battle of Passchendaele.

Alex Decoteau

Early Life

Alex DeCoteau’s father, Peter, was Métis, while his mother, Dora, was Cree. Peter was murdered when Alex was three years old, which left his mother unable to support her family. As Peter DeCoteau worked for the Indian Department (see Federal Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs), it approved Dora’s request that Alex and two of her other four children be enrolled in the nearby Battleford Industrial School (see also Residential Schools in Canada).

At school, DeCoteau was a good student and an outstanding all-round athlete. After local employment as a farm hand, he moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where he worked in his brother-in-law’s machine shop as a blacksmith. In 1909, DeCoteau joined the Edmonton City Police as a constable. He became Canada’s first Indigenous police officer. He was promoted to sergeant in 1914 and given his own station.

Running Career

Alex DeCoteau’s career as a middle- and long-distance runner began in May 1909, when he placed second in his first competitive race, the one-mile, at Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. The next month, he won the five-mile race at the Edmonton Exhibition. In July, DeCoteau won the Mayberry Cup in Lloydminster on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. He set a new Western Canadian record for five miles of 27 minutes, 45.2 seconds.

In 1910, at the Alberta provincial championships in Lethbridge, DeCoteau placed first in all events he entered: the half-mile, one-mile, two-mile and five-mile races. He would also win the Calgary Daily Herald (now Calgary Herald) Christmas Day Road Race three times, Edmonton’s the Honourable C.W. Cross Challenge Cup five times and Fort Saskatchewan’s annual 10-mile race three times.

DeCoteau represented Canada at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, in the 5,000 m event (see also Canada at the Olympic Summer Games). He finished second in his qualifying heat. However, during the final race he suffered leg cramps and finished out of medal contention. Although he did not win a medal, DeCoteau received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Edmonton, including a parade through the city’s downtown. On his return to Canada, he continued to run.

DeCoteau won the one-mile race at the Orangemen’s gathering in Edmonton in July 1913. In doing so, he trimmed a fifth of a second off the provincial record — a record which he had set. In September 1913, he represented the Edmonton police at the Canadian track and field championships in Vancouver and placed second in the one-mile race. In December 1915, he won Calgary’s Christmas Day race for the second consecutive year.

First World War

On 24 April 1916, DeCoteau joined the newly formed 202nd (Sportsmen’s) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), which trained at Sarcee Camp, near Calgary. The unit sailed from Halifax in November on the Mauretania and arrived in England a week later. During training in England, DeCoteau continued to run. King George V was a spectator at a five-mile race that he won and presented DeCoteau with his personal gold pocket watch.

Like most other CEF battalions, the 202nd was broken up to provide reinforcements for the Canadian Corps at the front. On 28 May 1917, DeCoteau was transferred to the 49th (Edmonton Regiment) Battalion in France.

Because of his running abilities, DeCoteau became a dispatch runner. He carried handwritten messages in one of the most dangerous jobs at the front. DeCoteau often had to cross battlefields outside the safety of trenches and then return to confirm messages had been delivered.

The Battle of Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres) began on 31 July 1917 and was fought in Belgium’s Ypres Salient under some of the most horrific conditions of the entire war. It resulted in 15,654 Canadian casualties, more than 4,000 of them fatal. One of them was DeCoteau, felled by a sniper’s bullet on 30 October 1917, a few days before the battle ended on 10 November.

DeCoteau was buried in the nearby Passchendaele New British Cemetery. In 1985, family and friends performed a special Cree ceremony in Edmonton to finally bring his spirit home. Indigenous veterans and a police honour guard were also in attendance.


Alex Decoteau Park

There are many ways in which DeCoteau’s name lives on. In Edmonton, there is an Alex Decoteau Park and a Decoteau Way. An Alberta Alex Decoteau Award of Honour provides post-secondary scholarships to permanently disabled soldiers or members of their families. DeCoteau was inducted into the Canadian, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Edmonton sports halls of fame. Races are also named after him, including an annual five km run for school children in Edmonton and another five km run through the Passchendaele battlefield.