Indigenous Peoples and the World Wars

Thousands of Indigenous peoples served in the Canadian military forces in the First World War and Second World War; most were volunteers. On the home front, most Indigenous communities participated in the national war effort in diverse ways. The world wars were dramatic events for Indigenous peoples in Canada (see Indigenous Peoples and the First World War and Indigenous Peoples and the Second World War). Conflict offered these marginalized populations opportunities to renew warrior cultural traditions, reaffirm sacred treaties, prove their worth to indifferent non-Indigenous Canadians, break down social barriers and find good jobs.

Monument national des anciens combattants autochtones, Ottawa

Volunteering for War

Officially, about 4,000 First Nations soldiers (Status Indians) served overseas in the First World War, while 4,250 First Nations soldiers served in the Second World War. Recent research has revealed that thousands more First Nations, Métis, and Inuit soldiers (such as John Shiwak from Labrador, who served in the First World War) volunteered for service without self-identifying as Indigenous. At least 72 First Nations women also served in the armed forces. In total, more than 500 Indigenous soldiers died and many more were wounded or captured in the world wars.

On the home front, most Indigenous communities participated in the national war effort in diverse ways, by donating money and working for the war industry. Despite their contributions and sacrifices, however, Indigenous peoples remained marginalized, without basic civic rights like the right to vote (see Indigenous Suffrage).

Did you know?
According to Yann Castelnot, a Quebec-based amateur historian, 14,900 Indigenous people served with the Canadian armed forces during the First World War and Second World War, thousands more than previous estimates. For more than 20 years, Castelnot has been researching Indigenous men and women that have served with British, French, Canadian and American forces since the 17th century.

Legacy and Memory

After the First World War (1914-18), there was little recognition given to Indigenous peoples for their contribution to the war effort. Unlike during the First World War, however, Canadians acknowledged Indigenous participation during the Second World War (1939-45). 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 Indigenous 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. Traditionally, Métis and Inuit veterans’ grievances have not received the same hearing. In recent years, however, Indigenous veterans have gained much greater recognition in local and national acts of remembrance, including Aboriginal Veterans Day on 8 November (inaugurated by Winnipeg’s city council in 1994) and a National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa (unveiled in 2001).

Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow

Further Reading

  • Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1914-1916 Volume One (2007).

    Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918 Volume Two (2008).

    Tim Cook, The Necessary War: Canadians Fighting the Second World War 1939-1943, Volume One (2014).

    Tim Cook, Fight to the Finish: Canadians in the Second World War 1944-1945, Volume Two (2015).

    P. Whitney Lackenbauer, et al., A Commemorative History of Aboriginal Peoples in the Canadian Military (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2010).

    Grace Poulin, Invisible Women: World War II Aboriginal Servicemen in Canada (Thunder Bay: Ontario Native Women’s Association, 2007).

    R. Scott Sheffield, “Fighting a White Man’s War? First Nations Participation in the Canadian War Effort, 1939–45,” in Canada and the Second World War: Essays in Honour of Terry Copp, ed. by Geoffrey Hayes, Mike Bechthold and Matt Symes (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012) and A Search for Equity: A Study of the Treatment Accorded to First Nations Veterans and Dependents of the Second World War and the Korean Conflict. The Final Report of the National Round Table on First Nations Veterans' Issues (Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations, May 2001).

    Robert J. Talbot, “‘It Would be Best to Leave Us Alone’: First Nations Responses to the Canadian War Effort, 1914–18,” Journal of Canadian Studies vol. 45, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 90–120.

    Timothy C. Winegard, For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012).

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