Aboriginal contributions during the First World War
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During the First World War, thousands of Aboriginal people voluntarily enlisted in the Canadian military. While the exact enlistment number is unknown, it is estimated that well over 4,000 Aboriginal people served in the Canadian forces during the conflict.
About one third of First Nations people in Canada age 18 to 45 enlisted during the war. Métis and Inuit soldiers also enlisted; however, only status Indians were officially recorded by the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Aboriginal soldiers served in units with other Canadians throughout the CEF. They served in every major theatre of the war and participated in all of the major battles in which Canadian troops fought. Hundreds were wounded or lost their lives on foreign battlefields. Many Aboriginal people distinguished themselves as talented and capable soldiers and at least 50 were awarded medals for bravery and heroism.Footnote 1 Aboriginal women were active on the homefront, contributing to the war effort through fundraising and other means. After returning from service, many Aboriginal veterans experienced the same unequal treatment they experienced prior to the war. Aboriginal veterans were not awarded the same benefits as their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
On the eve of the First World War, Canada had no official policy on the recruitment of Aboriginal people. Although they were originally discouraged from enlisting, policy would shift during the war to become more accepting of Aboriginal enlistment and recruitment. In the early months of the conflict, Aboriginal people, eager to volunteer for service, were sometimes turned away, while others were permitted to enlist. High casualty rates and the need for more troops led to new policies regarding Aboriginal recruits. In 1915, military and government officials relaxed restrictions, issued formal guidelines and allowed Aboriginal recruitment. By 1917, the government took a more active role in recruitment as a response to the need for more personnel. Indian agents held recruiting events on reserves to encourage more First Nations members to enlist. In August 1917, the Military Service Act instituted conscription, mandatory military service for all British subjects of age to serve. The Act made no exemption for Treaty Indians, who had expected to be exempt because they did not have the rights of citizenship that obligated Canadian citizens to serve.Note de bas de page 2 Some First Nations argued that promises made during treaty negotiations excused them from conscription in foreign wars.Note de bas de page 3 Conscription was an extremely contentious issue and the Department of Indian Affairs received letters from First Nations demanding an exemption for status Indians. Many non-Aboriginal people publicly supported the exemption of status Indians from conscription.Note de bas de page 4
The sustained objection of First Nations people proved successful and on January 17, 1918, an Order-in Council (PC 111) was passed that officially exempted status Indians from combatant duties. Status Indians could still be called to perform non-combat roles in Canada, but the legislation made it easier for them to claim deferrals for industrial or agricultural work.Note de bas de page 5 The question of Inuit or Métis exemptions from conscription or exemption never arose. Though First Nations were eventually exempt from conscription, the episode bred distrust among Aboriginal people towards the government and may have led to somewhat lower Aboriginal enlistment rates in the Second World War.
Recruitment of Aboriginal people had varying impacts on their home communities. With the absence of such a large number of men, farming, hunting and other jobs fell to the women, children, and elderly within the community. Aboriginal communities were also divided over encouraging enlistment, which caused tension. Those who remained in Canada were able to find work relatively easily in munitions plants and other war industries, which were considered patriotic contributions. Despite the increase in jobs, many Aboriginal communities suffered financial hardships throughout and following the war. In particular when the veterans returned, the Aboriginal men who had taken on jobs were forced out in order to make room for returning veterans. The wartime industry negatively affected traditional means of livelihood such as hunting and fishing due to low demand at home and overseas. There were government separation allowances to support the families of recruits, but often the money did not reach the people in need or it was insufficient.
By and large, Aboriginal men enlisted at the same percentage as non-Aboriginal men but in some communities in even higher numbers. Many Aboriginal men were unfamiliar with both French and English, yet they enlisted anyway. Multiple attempts were made to form all-Aboriginal units; initially there was resistance but after 1915 and a similar policy in Britain, the formation of all-Aboriginal units began. There were varying attitudes, both positive and negative, towards the creation of all-Aboriginal units. Eventually, two battalions were formed: the 114th battalion known as "Brock's Rangers" and the 107th Timber Wolf battalion. There were not enough recruits to complete a fully Aboriginal battalion, so other Canadian soldiers were recruited. Although no battalions rivaled 107th and 114th battalions for Aboriginal enlistment, there were others that had high Aboriginal enlistment percentages. The high Aboriginal enlistment trends were most prevalent in the areas surrounding Aboriginal communities.Note de bas de page 6
Enlisting meant that Aboriginal people could use their traditional skills such as scouting, tracking, hunting and navigating in order to present their abilities on a global scale. Many boys, too young to serve, still ran away to enlist. There were various reasons that Aboriginal people enlisted including: the attraction of a regular wage, their friends or family members had enlisted, to satisfy their sense of adventure, to travel the world, and for patriotic reasons. Another reason for enlistment was to honour the past relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the British Crown during the War of 1812.Note de bas de page 7
Even though enlistment rates were high, the desire to enlist was not universal; in some communities such as the Six Nations in Ontario, Elders discouraged their young people from enlisting. Nevertheless, all across Canada Aboriginal enlistment rates were high, according to Indian Affairs Annual Reports.Note de bas de page 8 In Eastern Canada, for example, the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet sent nearly half of their eligible male population. Ontario and Quebec boasted some of the highest enlistment rates, particularly in Ontario. In Western Canada, a number of communities saw remarkably high enlistment rates in proportion to their total community population.Note de bas de page 9 Possibly due to slow communication and limited transportation routes, few Inuit men in the Northern Territories enlisted.Note de bas de page 10 Even so, fifteen men travelled thousands of kilometres from Labrador to enlist. While it is believed that a significant number of Métis men enlisted, the total number of Métis enlistees was not recorded as records at that time did not distinguish Métis from other enlistees.
Women in general were not permitted to enlist as soldiers during the First World War, but were able to enlist as nurses. There is little recorded evidence that Aboriginal woman enlisted as nurses.
Aboriginal Soldiers’ Experiences during the First World War
For the most part, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal soldiers shared similar experiences during the war. The transition to life in the military was initially difficult for some Aboriginal men, as many came from remote areas of the country where they followed their own cultural traditions. They had little contact with Canadians outside their communities, and often spoke neither English nor French. By most accounts, Aboriginal men adapted quickly to their new life as soldiers, often becoming valuable members of their companies. Like most Canadians, many Aboriginal men served in the infantry with the Canadian Corps in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Aboriginal peoples' military roles were influenced by their traditional hunting and military skills combined with the racial stereotypes held by recruiting officers and military officials. Many Aboriginal men served as snipers or reconnaissance scouts, some of the most hazardous roles in the military. Others served in support units in the CEF, including railway troops, tunneling companies and forestry units.
Military restrictions conflicted with some Aboriginal traditions which made aligning with the military's requests rather difficult. For example, some Aboriginal soldiers were discharged from the army for refusing to cut their hair. They also had a different approach to rank. Traditionally, there had not been sharp distinctions between war chiefs and warriors. The Warriors relationship with war chiefs was one of familiarity and equality. A warrior was allowed to question a war chief's plans and if he did not agree with them, he was allowed to leave the war party.Footnote 11 In contrast, there was a rigid military hierarchy in the Canadian Corps, which sharply distinguished between officers and other ranks.
A soldier's life was one of waiting to engage with the enemy and enduring feelings of boredom and tension, anticipation and foreboding. Patience was an important quality for snipers to possess as they often had to wait quietly for the enemy to approach. Aboriginal soldiers' descriptions of trench life were more positive than those of non-Aboriginal soldiers.
The most significant benefit of Aboriginal peoples' war service was interaction between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, which was not common in general Canadian society prior to the war. By serving alongside Aboriginal soldiers, Canadian soldiers came to better understand Aboriginal people, and to overcome many negative stereotypes. Aboriginal soldiers were seen as some of the most valuable and well-liked members of their units.Note de bas de page 12
Canadian Wartime Policies on the Homefront
For decades, government policy had been to encourage Aboriginal people to settle on reserves and take up farming. The First World War brought a transformation of Canada from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Farming continued to be an important activity during the war and Aboriginal people on the homefront made significant contributions in this area. In 1917, Arthur Meighen, Minister of the Interior as well as head of Indian Affairs, launched the "Greater Production Effort", a program intended to increase agricultural production.
The program aimed at providing incentives for Canadians to settle on land, take up farming, and produce food to feed the soldiers as well as the Canadian population at home. The project also encouraged both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to farm more extensively. The Greater Production Effort involved the use of so-called "‘idle' Indian land": fertile land on reserves that was not being used for farming.Note de bas de page 13 Such lands would be leased for up to five years to non-Aboriginal farmers for "proper use" or to establish Greater Production farms (federally managed agricultural experiments set up on western reserve lands). The Greater Production plan was publicly criticized by some non-Aboriginal people in Canada for not being in the interest of First Nations people. Furthermore, the Indian Act stated that reserve lands could not be expropriated for any purpose without the consent of the bands involved. To facilitate the implementation of the program, the government amended the Indian Act in 1918, eliminating the necessity of securing Indian consent. After the war, Greater Production farms continued to operate and were finally terminated in 1922.
Aboriginal People and the Homefront
Aboriginal men and women made important contributions to the war effort on the homefront during the First World War. Many Aboriginal communities and individuals made generous monetary donations to various war funds. Several communities established their own branches of the Red Cross and patriotic leagues through which they raised money for the war effort. They also donated food, clothes and other goods to relief organizations and purchased Victory Bonds. Such patriotic contributions were viewed as an alternative means of support, made in lieu of military service, as some Aboriginal people were opposed to members of their community serving overseas but were still eager to aid in the war effort. Despite the everyday financial pressures of many Aboriginal families, they still generously donated whatever money they could to the war effort. By the end of the war, Aboriginal people had donated almost $45,000 to war funds. Canadians gradually began to take notice of these contributions and celebrated them enthusiastically. Newspapers and magazines across the country proudly reported on Aboriginal efforts during the war, especially in communities with a high Aboriginal population. Soon, Aboriginal donations became a source of propaganda in order to encourage non-Aboriginal people to donate to the cause.Note de bas de page 14 Not all Aboriginal people were supportive of the war or the wartime policies; some petitioned for the soldiers from their communities to be returned home, many were opposed to active recruitment on reserves and there was considerable opposition in Aboriginal communities to the introduction of conscription in 1917.
Facing labour shortages, employers were quick to hire Aboriginal people, so men who were too young or too old to enlist found employment in this expanding labour market. For example, in 1914 200 First Nations workers, male and female, were employed by the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Company, a fish cannery, accounting for 32% of its total workforce. By 1917, the number of First Nations workers rose to 550, 42% of its workforce.Note de bas de page 15
Aboriginal Women’s Contributions
It was more common for Aboriginal women to remain on the homefront to look after their homes and communities, raise their children, or tend to their family farms while the men were away at war. Aboriginal women made their contributions on the homefront in the form of charitable activities through the Red Cross and patriotic societies. The first Aboriginal women's patriotic organization was the Six Nations Women's Patriotic League (SNWPL) formed on-reserve in Ontario in October 1914. These organizations contributed to the war effort by providing comforts to the soldiers such as knitted socks, sweaters, mufflers, and bandages. Even young girls in Aboriginal communities produced handmade items to send to soldiers. They also collected clothing, money and food to be sent overseas. The women even organized social events and bazaars where traditional crafts, hand-baskets, and beadwork were sold to raise money for the war effort. Aboriginal women's societies raised thousands of dollars.
Once the largely Aboriginal 114th Battalion was mobilized, the Six Nations women formed another society called the Brock's Rangers' Benefit Society in February 1916. This society provided comforts for the Aboriginal soldiers of this battalion, raising the necessary money by means of garden parties and tag days.Note de bas de page 17 Members of the Six Nations Women's Patriotic League even embroidered a special flag for the 114th Battalion, which they adorned with Iroquoian symbols.
Aboriginal women could not take advantage of the advancement of women's rights which occurred during the war period. Non-Aboriginal women were able to obtain jobs that were traditionally considered masculine and women's suffrage became a prominent issue. The Wartimes Elections Act was passed, which granted the right to vote to women whose husbands, sons or brothers were serving in the war, as well as to women serving as nursing sisters. However, this Act excluded Aboriginal women. The Military Voters Act of 1917 did give one-time franchise to all Aboriginal people serving in the military. First Nations soldiers could vote without fear of losing their Indian status.Note de bas de page 18 First Nations women were not allowed to vote without loss of status until 1960, with the exception of Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, an Aboriginal woman who served as a nurse during the First World War, because she was an active member of the military.
There were many Aboriginal people, particularly women, who opposed Aboriginal participation in the war and sought to have their husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers brought home. Often women struggled to survive financially without the men of their families and communities.Note de bas de page 19 The Department of Indian Affairs received many letters from women, especially in the final year of the war, requesting that their male relatives be sent home to help them. Requests for men to be discharged from military service did not necessarily indicate lack of support for the war.
When Aboriginal soldiers returned, they were often greeted with a hero's welcome. First Nations communities in the Prairies often held victory dances, called Sun Dances, for returning soldiers. These dances were prohibited by the government as part of its policy toward suppressing traditional aspects of First Nations culture that it deemed to be "primitive". However, these dances were occasionally allowed by select Indian Agents because they recognized the importance of honouring a soldier's service.
Post-War Experience of Aboriginal Veterans
At least 300 status Indians lost their lives in the First World War but Aboriginal soldiers also faced many challenges upon their return home. Many Aboriginal veterans returned with illnesses, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and influenza, which they had contracted overseas. Because mustard gas weakened the lungs, returning Aboriginal soldiers who had been victims of gas attacks were more susceptible to contracting tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses.Note de bas de page 20 Many unknowingly carried the deadly influenza virus back with them to their isolated and susceptible communities where it quickly spread. Sadly, many veterans died shortly after returning from the war as an indirect result of their service.Note de bas de page 21 Other Aboriginal veterans returned home injured and /or missing limbs which impacted their ability to provide for their families and communities. Some Aboriginal veterans turned to guiding non-Aboriginal tourists and hunters in order to provide an income for their families.Note de bas de page 22 Many Aboriginal veterans, continued to serve after the war, enlisting in local militia units or administering military training to young Aboriginal men and boys.
Like non-Aboriginal veterans, some Aboriginal veterans returned with an alcohol addiction that would cause problems for themselves, their families and their communities. Alcohol was often used by veterans to numb the physical and mental pain of the war experience, but it also contributed to health issues and social problems for all Canadian veterans.Note de bas de page 23
Aboriginal veterans' contributions in the war did not go unnoticed by government officials or the Canadian public. Through their service together, non-Aboriginal Canadian soldiers came to better understand and appreciate Aboriginal people, seeing them not in stereotypical terms, but as the men they suffered with in the trenches of Europe. Although their fellow veterans saw the Aboriginal veterans as equals, prejudice was still rampant at home.Note de bas de page 24
The equal treatment that Aboriginal veterans experienced disappeared once they returned home to Canada.Note de bas de page 25 Veterans' benefits and support from the Canadian government were put in place but the implementation of the programs on reserves was vastly different than elsewhere in Canada. The Soldier Settlement Acts of 1917 and 1919 were key government initiatives that attempted to look after veterans by providing them access to land and low interest rate loans for farming implements/improvements.Note de bas de page 26 The program was administered through the Soldiers Settlement Board, but when more land was needed and when Status Indian veterans expressed an interest in taking advantage of the program to farm on their own reserves, the Department of Indian Affairs became involved in the administration of the Act.Note de bas de page 27
Receiving military decorations and commendations provided many with the confidence to speak for themselves and advocate for expanded rights and fair treatment in society for all members of their communities.Note de bas de page 28 Consequently, following the war, Aboriginal people began to organize politically with veterans leading the charge. In 1919, Lieutenant F.O. Loft, a Six Nations veteran who had served with the Canadian Forestry Corps during the war, founded the first national pan-Indian political organization in the country, the League of Indians of Canada. It sought to improve conditions on reserves and believed that a unified stance through a political organization could challenge the Indian Act that governed the lives of First Nations people.
Bibliography: First World War
Dempsey, L. James. Warriors of the King: Prairie Indians in World War I. Regina: Canadian
Plains Research Center, 1999.
Lackenbauer, P. Whitney and Katharine McGowan, "Competing Loyalties in Complex Community: Enlisting the Six Nations in Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1917," in Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian Military: Historical Perspectives, P. Whitney Lackenbaur and Craig Leslie Mantle, eds. Kingston: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2007.
Moses, John with Donald Graves and Warren Sinclair. A Sketch Account of Aboriginal Peoples in the Canadian Military. Ottawa: DND Canada, 2004.
Norman, Alison. "‘In Defence of the Empire': The Six Nations of the Grand River and the Great War" in A Sisterhood of Suffering and Sacrifice: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First World War. Eds. Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw. Vancouver; Toronto: UBC Press, 2012.
Saskatchewan Indian Veterans Association. We Were There: Saskatchewan Indian Veterans. Saskatoon: Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nation, 1989.
Sweeny, Alastair. Government Policy and Saskatchewan Indian Veterans: a brief history of the Canadian government's treatment of Indian veterans of the two World Wars. Ottawa: Tyler, Wright & Daniel Ltd., 1979.