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Indigenous Peoples and the First World War

Indigenous soldiers, nurses, and ordinary civilians made a major contribution to Canada’s First World War effort. More than 4000 First Nations soldiers fought for Canada during the war, officially recorded by the Department of Indian Affairs (see Federal Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs). In addition, thousands more non-Status Indians, Inuit, and Métis soldiers enlisted without official recognition of their Indigenous identity. More than 50 Indigenous soldiers were decorated for bravery in action, including the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) soldier Francis Pegahmagabow, Inuit soldier John Shiwak, and Cree soldier Henry Norwest.

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Bertha Clark-Jones

Bertha Clark-Jones (née Houle), OC, Cree (Nehiyawak)-Métis advocate for the rights of Indigenous women and children (born 6 November 1922 in Clear Hills, AB; died 21 October 2014 in Bonnyville, AB). A veteran of the Second World War, Clark-Jones joined the Aboriginal Veterans Society and advocated for the fair treatment of Indigenous ex-service people. She was co-founder and first president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Clark-Jones devoted her life to seeking equality and greater power for women in Canada.

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Indigenous Peoples and the Second World War

In 1939, Canada found itself at war for the second time in a generation. As in the First World War (1914-18), thousands of Indigenous soldiers and nurses volunteered for the war effort at home and abroad, serving with distinction in the Canadian army, navy, and air force. At least 3090 First Nations soldiers enlisted in the Canadian military in the Second World War, with thousands more Métis, Inuit, and non-Status Indian soldiers serving without official recognition of their Indigenous identity.

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Cree Code Talkers

Cree code talkers were an elite unit tasked with developing a coded system based on the Cree language for disguising military intelligence. They provided an invaluable service to Allied communications during the Second World War. Although their contributions remained hidden until recently, in part because the code talkers had been sworn to secrecy, their service helped to protect Western Allies and to win the war. Indeed, the Allies’ enemies were never able to break the code.

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Francis William Godon (Primary Source)

Francis William Godon was only 19 years old when he first served with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles during the Second World War. As an anti-tank gunner, the young Métis soldier was one of 14,000 Canadians who invaded Normandy on 6 June 1944. Read and listen to Godon’s first-hand account of the horrors of that day and the important role the Allies’ victory played.

Please be advised that Memory Project primary sources may deal with personal testimony that reflect the speaker’s recollections and interpretations of events. Individual testimony does not necessarily reflect the views of the Memory Project and Historica Canada.

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First Nations and Métis Peoples in the War of 1812

First Nations and Métis peoples played a significant role in Canada in the War of 1812. The conflict forced various Indigenous peoples to overcome longstanding differences and unite against a common enemy. It also strained alliances, such as those in the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy in which some branches were allied with American forces. Most First Nations strategically allied themselves with Great Britain during the war, seeing the British as the lesser of two colonial evils and the group most interested in maintaining traditional territories and trade.

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Sam Steele

Sir Samuel Benfield Steele, CB, KCMG, mounted policeman, soldier (born 5 January 1848 in Medonte, Canada West; died 30 January 1919 in London, England). As a member of the North-West Mounted Police, Steele was an important participant in the signing of Treaty 6 and Treaty 7, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the North-West Rebellion and the Klondike gold rush. His military career began as a private in the Red River Expedition, included service in the South African War as an officer commanding Lord Strathcona’s Horse and as a major general during the First World War.

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War of 1812

The War of 1812 (which lasted from 1812 to 1814) was a military conflict between the United States and Great Britain. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada was swept up in the War of 1812 and was invaded several times by the Americans. The war was fought in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, and in the United States. The peace treaty of Ghent (1814), which ended the war, largely returned the status quo. However, in Canada, the war contributed to a growing sense of national identity, including the idea that civilian soldiers were largely responsible for repelling the American invaders. In contrast, the First Nations allies of the British and Canadian cause suffered much because of the war; not only had they lost many warriors (including the great Tecumseh), they also lost any hope of halting American expansion in the west, and their contributions were quickly forgotten by their British and Canadian allies (see First Nations and Métis Peoples in the War of 1812).