Learn about: Indigenous veterans

It is important to remember the efforts that Indigenous Peoples (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) made in Canada and on the battlefront in wartime. These efforts reinforced their ancestors' traditions of dedication and sacrifice.

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Enlisting in the First World War

Imagine living in a small community all your life and the year is 1914. Picture yourself packing up your belongings, saying goodbye to your friends and family, and leaving your home on foot to reach a destination far away.

John Campbell was an Indigenous person who lived in the Northern Territories. To fight for Canada during the First World War, he hiked a forest trail and canoed for days. Then he was able to purchase a ticket for a steamboat heading to Vancouver, where he enlisted in the army. He travelled almost 5,000 kilometers to join the army. That's like travelling from the city of Montreal to the city of Vancouver.

Did you know?

More than 4,000 Indigenous Peoples in Canada left their homes and their families to help fight in the First World War.

Indigenous Peoples' contributions

More than 7,000 Indigenous Peoples made important contributions during the First World War (1914-1918), the Second World War (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953).

Most Indigenous veterans who served in the three wars did service in the infantry – the ground troops. A number of Indigenous soldiers became snipers or reconnaissance scouts. They used their traditional hunting and military skills to carry out dangerous tasks.

Snipers were required to use guns with precise aim. They shot at enemy targets from hidden positions called "nests."

Reconnaissance scouts had to be discrete at their tasks. Their job was to slip behind the front lines before an attack to determine the enemy's location and their weapon power, then secretly relay the information they found back to their home base.

Indigenous Peoples who stayed in Canada during the wars also made meaningful contributions. By the end of the two world wars, Indigenous Peoples donated about $67,000 to war relief funds like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and many generously gave reserve land for use as defence posts, airports and rifle ranges.

The story of Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture

Portrait photo of Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture. American Expeditionary Forces. John Moses Collection.

Indigenous women contributed valuable skills and services to all three wars.  At home, they helped raise money, knitted for soldiers or worked in factories. Overseas many were nurses.

For example, Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, from the Six Nations Grand River Reserve, Ontario, served as a nurse overseas in the First World War.

She worked at an American hospital base in Vittel, France, caring for wounded soldiers. Monture was the first First Nations woman to work as a trained nurse in Canada.

In 1983, Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, age 93, spoke with a reporter about her experiences during the war:

"We could walk right over where there had been fighting. It was an awful sight – buildings in rubble, trees burnt, spent shells all over the place, whole towns blown up."

Indigenous languages

Indigenous languages played a unique and crucial role in the wars.

Charles Checker Tompkins from Grouard, Alberta, was a Cree veteran of the Second World War. He and other Cree soldiers worked as "code-talkers." As a member of this special group, his job was to translate military messages into Cree before they were sent to battlefields in Europe.

Often messages came from military officials to provide orders and instructions for troop movement, supply lines and other specifics. It was vital that they remained secret from enemy ears.

After the coded messages had been received at their proper destination, they were translated back into English from Cree by another Indigenous "code-talker" and given to military officials to read.

The story of Thomas George Prince

Thomas George Prince (right), with his brother Morris Prince- February 12, 1945. Photographer: Christopher J. Woods. Library and Archives Canada.

Thomas George Prince was an outstanding soldier who enlisted in the Second World War in 1940 at the age of 24, and re-enlisted to serve two tours in the Korean War. He was one of Canada's most decorated Indigenous soldiers.

He left his home at the Brokenhead First Nation in Scanterbury, Manitoba, to work with the Royal Canadian Engineers.

By 1942, he was working in Europe with the Canadian Special Service Battalion, which became the 1st Special Service Force, a combined Canadian/American unit that specialized in scouting and launching surprise attacks on enemy installations. The German soldiers knew the force as the "Devil's Brigade."

On February 8, 1944, as a member of the "Devil's Brigade", Prince was spying on enemy activities in an old abandoned farmhouse near Littoria, Italy. As he watched German troops from inside the house, his communication lines were severed, leaving him without a way to send messages to his fellow soldiers.

Calmly, he changed into civilian clothing so that he looked like a local farmer (not a soldier), grabbed a hoe and, right before enemy eyes, acted like a farmer weeding his crops. He slowly approached the spot where his communication line was damaged, pretended to tie his shoelaces and quickly re-attached the broken wires.

He then slowly went back to the farmhouse. His quick thinking and courage in this situation enabled Prince to continue reporting on enemy activity so his unit could plan their attacks.

Prince was awarded the Military Medal and the American Silver Star for gallantry in the Second World War, the Korean Medal for his service in the Korean War, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal for his voluntary service and honourably completing 18 months total service, as well as the United Nations Service Medal for his military service in the Korean War.

Special thanks to Indigenous veterans

National Aboriginal Veterans Memorial. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Date taken: August 7, 2008.

Fighting in a war is not easy or pleasant. It can be lonely and very dangerous. About 500 Indigenous soldiers died during the First and Second World Wars.

Indigenous veterans made great sacrifices to serve in Canada's war efforts, both overseas and at home. Many of them overcame major challenges to serve in the wars, such as:

  • learning to speak English
  • adjusting to new cultures
  • being separated from family and friends

To honour Indigenous Canadians' bravery, sacrifices and contributions to war and peace keeping missions, the National Aboriginal Veterans Memorial was unveiled on National Aboriginal Day in 2001.

The monument represents all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. It was created by artist Lloyd Pinay from Peepeekisis First Nation, in Saskatchewan.

The monument was made possible by the National Aboriginal Veterans Association and the generous donations of the Canadian people.

Honours and awards

Photo of Huron Brant – Military Medal. Italy, 14 July 1943. Veterans Affairs Canada.

Indigenous veterans have many reasons to be proud of their military accomplishments.

Many Indigenous soldiers were decorated with honours and awards, and were highly praised for their skill and bravery.

During the First World War alone, at least 50 medals were awarded to Indigenous Peoples in Canada for their bravery while sniping and scouting, and for performing other daring and heroic acts. Throughout the wars, the Department of Indian Affairs (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) received thousands of letters from the battlefront applauding Indigenous marksmen and scouts.

Activity: Design a medal for an Indigenous veteran

Medals are a type of "decoration" or award given to soldiers for admirable work in the military. Many Indigenous veterans were awarded medals for their bravery and excellence during the world wars and the Korean War.

One of these medals was the Military Medal or "MM," which was awarded to several Indigenous veterans. Another important medal was the Silver Star, an American medal which was awarded to 59 Canadians.

If you could design a medal to award an Indigenous veteran for their war service:

  • What would it look like?
  • What colour and shape would you give it?
  • What kinds of pictures would you draw on it, if any?
  • Would you write something on it?
  • What would you want to say to them?

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