An estimated 4,300 First Nations soldiers and a number of Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada took up arms in the Second World War. Despite the racial discrimination Indigenous people faced in the armed forces and on the home front, they played a central role in protecting the Western Allies. Cree code talkers — an elite unit tasked with developing a coded system based on the Cree language for disguising military intelligence — provided an invaluable service to Allied communications. Although their contributions remained relatively invisible until recently (in part because the code talkers had been sworn to secrecy), their service helped to win the war. Indeed, Canada’s enemies were never able to break the code.
Morris (Moishe) Abraham Cohen, a.k.a. “Two-Gun,” bodyguard, aide-de-camp, arms dealer (born 3 August 1887 in Radzanow, Poland; died 11 September 1970 in Salford, England). Cohen’s life evolved from one of petty crime to international arms dealing. During that time, Cohen ingratiated himself with the revolutionary movement of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, and joined his inner circle. Before more formal biographies were written about him, Cohen was a figure of self-aggrandized legend.
Charles Marvin Tomkins (also known as Checker Tomkins), Métis, Second World War veteran and translator (born 8 January 1918 in Grouard, AB, northeast of Grande Prairie; died 20 August 2003 in Calgary, AB). Charles served as a soldier in the Canadian Army and as a code talker in US Air Force for two years during the war. In this role, he translated secret military messages from English into the Cree language as a means of disguising the content from enemies. The subject of a 2016 short documentary, Cree Code Talker, Charles and the other code talkers are credited with having helped the Allies win the war.
Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture (often known simply as Edith Monture), Mohawk First World War veteran, registered nurse, (born 10 April 1890 on Six Nations reserve near Brantford, ON; died 3 April 1996 in Ohsweken, ON). Edith was the first Indigenous woman to become a registered nurse in Canada and to gain the right to vote in a Canadian federal election. She was also the first Indigenous woman from Canada to serve in the United States military. Edith broke barriers for Indigenous women in the armed forces and with regards to federal voting rights. A street (Edith Monture Avenue) and park (Edith Monture Park) are named after her in Brantford, Ontario.
William Avery (Billy) Bishop Jr., VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED, First World War flying ace, author (born 8 February 1894 in Owen Sound, ON; died 11 September 1956 in Palm Beach, Florida). Billy Bishop was Canada’s top flying ace of the First World War, and was officially credited with 72 victories. During the Second World War, he played an important role in recruiting for the Royal Canadian Air Force and in promoting the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Georges-Philéas Vanier, PC, governor general of Canada 1959-67, soldier, diplomat, (born 23 April 1888 in Montreal; died 5 March 1967 in Ottawa). Vanier was the first French Canadian to serve as governor general. As a diplomat, he and his wife helped many Europeans displaced by the Second World War. A devout Christian, he urged love and unity amid the emergence of Quebec separatism in the 1960s. In 1988 he was named the most important Canadian in history by Maclean’s magazine.
David Vivian Currie, VC, auto mechanic, welder, soldier, House of Commons sergeant-at-arms (born 8 July 1912 in Sutherland, SK; died 24 June 1986 in Ottawa, ON). During the Second World War, Major Currie was the only member of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for bravery among troops of the British Empire.
Charles Cecil Ingersoll Merritt, VC, barrister, soldier, Member of Parliament (born 10 November 1908 in Vancouver, BC; died 12 July 2000 in Vancouver). During the Second World War, Lieutenant-Colonel Cec Merritt was the first Canadian to earn the Victoria Cross (VC) in the European theatre, the highest award for bravery among troops of the British Empire.
John Weir Foote, VC, Presbyterian minister, soldier, Member of (Ontario) Provincial Parliament, cabinet minister (born 5 May 1904 in Madoc, ON; died 2 May 1988 in Coburg, ON). During the Second World War, Honorary Captain John Foote was the only Canadian chaplain to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for bravery among troops of the British Empire.
Charles Cromwell Martin, DCM, MM, farmer, soldier, civil servant, author (born 18 December 1918 in Wales; died 13 October 1997 in Mississauga, ON). During the Second World War, Warrant Officer Class II (WO II) Charlie Martin was awarded both the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal. Martin’s "Battle Diary" memoirs, first released in 1994, remain among the most vivid portrayals of the lives of ordinary Canadian soldiers in the war.
Alexander Roberts Dunn, VC, army officer (born 15 September 1833 in York, Upper Canada; died 25 January 1868 near Senafe, Abyssinia). During the Crimean War, Lieutenant Dunn was the first Canadian ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for bravery among troops of the British Empire.
Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow, Anishnaabe (Ojibwa) chief, Aboriginal rights advocate, war hero (born on 9 March 1889 on the Parry Island reserve, ON; died 5 August 1952 at Parry Island, ON). One of the most highly decorated Indigenous people in Canada during the First World War, Pegahmagabow became a vocal advocate for Indigenous rights and self-determination.2
James Campbell Clouston, naval officer (born 31 August 1900 in Montréal, Québec; died 2 or 3 June 1940 at sea, in the English Channel near Gravelines, France). Born and raised in Montréal, Campbell Clouston joined the British Royal Navy in 1918 and served on ships in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. During the Second World War, Clouston acted as pier master during the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk, overseeing the evacuation of nearly 200,000 servicemen between 27 May and 2 June 1940. He died at sea after his boat was sunk by German aircraft. In September 2017, a commemorative plaque was dedicated to him in Montréal.1
Richard Pierpoint (also Pawpine, Parepoint; Captain Pierpoint, Captain Dick; Black Dick), loyalist, soldier, community leader, storyteller (born c. 1744 in Bondu [now Senegal]; died c. 1838, near present-day Fergus, ON). Pierpoint was an early leader in Canada’s Black community. Taken from West Africa as a teenager and sold into slavery, Pierpoint regained his freedom during the American Revolution. He settled in Niagara, Upper Canada, and attempted to live communally with other Black Canadians. In the War of 1812, he petitioned for an all-Black unit to fight for the British and fought with the Coloured Corps.