The world wars were dramatic events for Indigenous peoples in Canada. Conflict offered these marginalized populations opportunities to renew warrior cultural traditions, reaffirm sacred treaties, prove their worth to indifferent Canadians, break down social barriers and find good jobs. Thousands served in the military forces in each conflict, mostly voluntarily. In total, more than 500 died and many more were wounded or captured. On the home front, most Indigenous communities participated in the national war effort in diverse ways. Despite their contributions and sacrifices, however, Aboriginal peoples remained marginalized.
First World War, 1914–18
During the First World War, the story of the First Nations, particularly Status Indians, is the best known. By contrast, little is known of Métis military service because a person’s ethnicity was not listed on enlistment papers, and no government department oversaw Métis populations to provide a paper trail. Similarly, only a few Inuit and Métis may have served, mostly in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, which was not part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Recruitment and Conscription
The story of the recruiting and conscription of Indigenous men during the First World War is complex and still debated by historians. Between August 1914 and December 1915, relatively few First Nations men volunteered, as the army was hesitant about recruiting them for fear the “Germans might refuse to extend to them the privileges of civilized warfare.” This was not a rigid policy, and at least 200 did manage to enlist. After December 1915, the British government asked its Dominions to actively recruit Indigenous soldiers, and this led to more vigorous recruiting on reserves. The enactment of conscription in 1917, which included Status Indians, sparked great protest from First Nations peoples. In response, the government granted a limited exemption from overseas combative service for Status Indians in January 1918. By war’s end, Indian Affairs estimated 4,000 First Nations men enlisted, but their records were incomplete and omitted non-Status Indians and Métis people. While speculative, the total figure for 1914-18 could have been closer to 6,000, with more recent research pushing the number even higher.
Some regiments boasted large numbers of Indigenous soldiers, including the 114th Battalion ("Brock 's Rangers") and the 107th “Timber Wolf” Battalion. However, Indigenous soldiers were mostly integrated into regular military units, rather than serving in segregated “all-Indian” units. This meant that Indigenous and non-Indigenous soldiers interacted to a degree not experienced in pre-war Canada. For some, the culture shock of transitioning to military life and discipline proved difficult, and those who disobeyed army regulations were disciplined or even discharged. The vast majority of Indigenous recruits transitioned into successful soldiers with at least 37 decorated for bravery in action. A number of Indigenous soldiers achieved fame as snipers, most notably Francis Pegahmagabow, an Anishinaabe from the Parry Island reserve, credited with about 378 kills, and Métis Henry Norwest, with 115 official kills. Most Indigenous veterans’ accounts speak of how their fellow soldiers accepted and respected them — racial prejudice had no place in the trenches.
Across Canada, Inuit, Métis and First Nations experiences on the home front varied greatly. On most reserves across southern Canada, the conflict was a prominent factor in peoples’ lives. Many engaged vigorously in the war, with high enlistments, generous contributions to charitable and patriotic causes (almost $45,000 from band funds alone), and public support for the King, Empire and national war effort. Along with this went diligent efforts to expand production from reserve agricultural lands and opportunities to participate in war-related work, which many Aboriginal people took on enthusiastically. Despite such efforts, the federal government expropriated 313,398 acres of reserve lands and forced some bands to lease reserve land without their consent. Many First Nations felt mixed, indifferent or even hostile to contributing to the war, some because of a difficult past relationship with the government or because this was not their war. In more remote regions, Métis, Inuit and First Nations were insulated from global events and the war barely touched their daily lives.
Veterans and the Interwar Period
When the war ended in 1918, Indigenous soldiers returned alongside their comrades to what they hoped would be a better world, but these hopes would be disappointed. The marginal political, legal, economic and social position of Indigenous peoples was unaltered by the war or their contributions. First Nations veterans — because they were already government wards as Status Indians and viewed as “looked after” — found themselves largely shut out of benefits provided for returning soldiers. Doubly painful was the Soldier Settlement Act, meant to help soldiers begin farming. Not only was it almost impossible for Status Indians to qualify, but the government confiscated an additional 85,844 acres from reserves to provide for non-Indigenous soldiers under the plan. Métis and Inuit access to benefits remains a mystery.
Frustrated by the poor treatment of Indigenous peoples, Haudenosaunee veteran F.O. Loft, a Mohawk of the Six Nations Grand River reserve, formed the League of Indians of Canada in 1919, advocating for the resolution of a set of grievances common to Indigenous peoples across Canada. The league eventually failed in the interwar period, due to difficulties in uniting geographically separated and ethnically, linguistically and religiously divided bands into a national Indigenous organization. The interwar years were characterised by profound social and governmental neglect of Indigenous populations, especially during the Great Depression.
Second World War, 1939–45
In 1939, Canada declared war and began building militarily and economically for the Allied cause (see Second World War). Once again, Indigenous youth volunteered in the thousands, more still were conscripted, and communities contributed to the national war effort. Arguably, the scale and diversity of Indigenous engagement in the war effort was greater in this conflict, but so to was the breadth and determination of opposition to conscription. As in 1914–18, more is known of Status Indians’ service and experiences, as most Métis were not recorded, and few Inuit served. Indian Affairs figures for First Nations enlistments note 3,090, but these figures were woefully incomplete. The numbers for Status Indians were closer to 4,300; the figures for other Indigenous groups are impossible to pinpoint, but may have totalled a few thousand. Once again, Indigenous military servicemen and women generally experienced respect, acceptance and promotion in the forces. Brigadier Oliver Martin, a Mohawk from the Six Nations Grand River reserve, was the highest-ranking Indigenous officer of the war.
Recruitment and Military Service
Canada built not only a large army, but also, by war’s end, the world’s third largest navy and fourth largest air force. However, the overall nature of Indigenous military service in the Second World War was little changed from the First World War, as a combination of factors funnelled the vast majority of Indigenous recruits into the army where they were integrated as individuals. Both the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) required volunteers be “of pure European descent and of the white race,” until 1942 and 1943 respectively. The RCAF appears to have exempted Status Indians from this provision early in the war. Nevertheless, inadequate healthcare and schooling for Indigenous populations in the early 20th century meant few could meet strict medical and demanding education standards. By the mid-point of the war, only 29 Status Indians were in the RCAF, 9 in the RCN (despite the racial barrier) and approximately 1,800 in the army. This pattern held until the war’s end.
Once France surrendered in June 1940, Canada accelerated and expanded its military commitment, and initiated conscription for home defence in September 1940 (see National Resources Mobilization Act). After some uncertainty, Status Indians were included in mandatory military training and military service in Canada. First Nations leaders remembered the limited exemption in 1918 and protested that it was unjust to compel people without citizenship rights to fight to defend those same rights. Nevertheless, this policy remained unchanged until late 1944, when the conscription crisis forced Prime Minister Mackenzie King to begin sending conscripts into combat overseas, including Status Indians. This, however, violated promises made during negotiation of several historical treaties and Indian Affairs requested a limited exemption for Status Indian conscripts, which was passed in December 1944. The exemption covered only recruits from Treaties 3, 6, 8 and 11, roughly one-fifth of the Status Indian population (in the Prairies and Northwest Territories). Relatively few Indigenous men were included in the 2,463 conscripts that actually saw combat in 1945. While anti-climactic, conscription remained a major concern for Indigenous people throughout the war.
Indigenous Women’s Service
Some First Nations and Métis women are known to have enlisted with the women’s auxiliary services of the Army (CWAC), RCN (WRCNS, “Wrens”) and RCAF (RCAF-WD), filling many different clerical, first aid and mechanical roles, both in Canada and overseas (72 Status Indian women are known to have served overseas). They experienced many parallels with other servicewomen in the form of pervasive sexism in the forces and a nasty “whisper” campaign in the press that painted women in uniform as promiscuous. Indigenous women saw relatively little in the form of racial prejudice in women’s auxiliaries, as Métis Dorothy Asquith recalled, “[e]verybody was so involved in what was happening with the war nobody was involved in such pettiness.”
Indigenous people engaged widely and often enthusiastically in the war effort: donating huge sums to humanitarian and patriotic causes; participating in drives to collect scrap metal, rubber, bones (even from old buffalo jumps); conducting public and ceremonial expressions of support and loyalty; and working in war industries and production in unprecedented numbers. Labour shortages across the country provided more work opportunities, at higher wages, than Indigenous people had ever seen. It was, oddly, the best of times financially for many families.
While collaboration marked the majority of Indigenous experience of the Second World War, not all were enthusiastic about joining the cause. Even amongst those supportive, their willingness to contribute was neither unlimited nor unconditional. Wartime taxation and lingering prewar grievances plagued Indigenous–government relations, but conscription inspired more resistance than any other issue. Across the country, and throughout the war, Indigenous communities protested conscription. Young men ignored their call to report for medical examination and avoided authorities (sometimes with support from community elders), and one violent riot broke out when the RCMP tried to arrest draft evaders from the Kahnawake Reserve south of Montréal.
Indigenous service personnel returning to Canada in 1945–46 looked forward to the generous and diverse benefits provided by a grateful nation, benefits that were theoretically available to all veterans equally. In practice, however, Status Indians’ access to advising, application forms and all programs was not equal, as Indian Affairs handled most of their case files in ways that disadvantaged many veterans. Métis veterans similarly have felt they were ignored and largely shut out of benefits. Whether or not they received benefits, Indigenous veterans faced a steeper climb to successfully re-establishing themselves in civilian life than their non-Indigenous comrades.
Coming home after years away at war was a happy memory, but many veterans subsequently struggled to settle back into normal life. Large numbers still carried physical and psychological scars; some turned to alcohol to cope or could not remain in one place, or job, for long. Mobility was common, especially for Métis veterans. Undoubtedly, veterans contributed to rapid Indigenous urbanization in the 1950s and 1960s. They also contributed to an increase in Indigenous political organization, especially at the regional and provincial levels, in the post-war period (see Aboriginal People: Political Organization and Activism). However, many found the return to societal racism and marginalization difficult after the acceptance they experienced in uniform. Perhaps this explains anecdotal reports suggesting that many Indigenous veterans re-enlisted for service in the Korean War, approximately 1950-53. Amongst them was the most decorated Indigenous soldier of the Second World War, Sergeant Thomas Prince, who did two tours in Korea.
Did You Know?
Yann Castelnot, a French-born, Quebec-based amateur historian, has spent the past two decades researching the names of more than 154,000 Indigenous soldiers that have served with the Canadian and American armed forces in wartime since the 1890s. Castelnot has uncovered the names of 14,800 Indigenous people that served in the Canadian armed forces during the First World War and Second World War, thousands more than previous estimates. For his efforts in identifying and honouring the Indigenous soldiers who contributed to the Canadian war effort in the world wars, Castelnot has been awarded the 2012 Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the 2017 Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers (both awarded by the Governor General of Canada), as well as a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation in 2017. Luc O’Bomsawin, an Abenaki veteran from Odanak, Quebec and founding president of the Aboriginal Veterans of Quebec Association, says that Castelnot’s work “is essential…The figures that he puts on are a lot more serious than what I’ve seen up to now.”
Legacy and Memory
Unlike during the First World War, Canadians acknowledged Indigenous participation during the Second World War. As the country looked to create a new order in the aftermath of the war, many Canadians suddenly looked at their country’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples and did not like what they saw. In this brief climate of recognition, Indigenous leaders, veterans groups and many other Canadians pressured the government for reform and citizenship rights, leading to a Parliamentary review in 1946 and major amendments to the Indian Act in 1951 (though voting rights were not granted at the federal level until 1960; see Indigenous Suffrage). Thereafter, Indigenous veterans were largely forgotten until they began to organize and campaign for recognition of their sacrifices and restitution for grievances over veterans benefits from the 1970s to the 2000s. Perseverance paid off, with a consensus report accepted by both First Nations veterans groups and the government in 2001, followed by an offer of a public apology and offer of compensation in 2003. Métis veterans’ grievances have not received the same hearing. In recent years, Indigenous veterans have gained much greater recognition in local and national acts of remembrance, including Aboriginal Veterans Day on 8 November and a National Aboriginal Veterans’ Memorial in Ottawa. They are forgotten warriors no longer.