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Author’s Note

The Dominion of Newfoundland, which included mainland Labrador, was independent of Canada; it did not join the confederation until 1949. During the First World War, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment/Royal Newfoundland Regiment was raised, and distinctly maintained, from Canadian divisions and the Canadian Corps. The unit fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front independent of Canadian formations and government. Although Newfoundland–Labrador’s indigenous history, including that of the First World War, is now generally allied to that of Canada, it will be excluded from this analysis. Given its small and remote population (an estimated 1,700 in 1914), Newfoundland did not formulate any specific military policies towards indigenous peoples. Through Canadian and Newfoundland–Labrador archival records, I have confirmed only twenty-one men of indigenous heritage who served in Newfoundland forces during the war.

Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest that the scattered Yupik, Iñupiat and Inuit populations of Canada, totaling roughly 3,450 in 1914, were given any consideration by either the Ministry of Militia or Indian Affairs as a source of military manpower. In fact, they were wholly ignored in both policy and practice. Accordingly, these peoples are generally excluded from this synopsis, as are the Métis. The Métis were not legally bound to or defined by the tenets of the Indian Act, and they were able to enlist in the same manner as Euro-Canadians. The experience of First Nations peoples is, therefore, the focus.

Introduction

From a population numbering 7.88 million, over 620,000 Canadians served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) between 1914 and 1919. This number included over 4,000 First Nations individuals from a total 1914 population of 103,774 (excluding non-status individuals). This enlistment figure represents 35 percent of First Nations men of military age, roughly equal to the percentage of Euro-Canadians who enlisted. According to a 1919 Indian Affairs report of the Great War, “it must be remembered, moreover, that there were undoubtedly cases of Indian enlistment which were not reported to the department.”[1] The exact number of Canda’s indigenous population to serve in the First World War cannot be decisively tabulated. Most Status Indians were not recorded as such upon enlistment, as attestation papers did not record race. Likewise, Indian Affairs lists compiled through the “Return of Indian Enlistments” form by agents for individual reserves in 1917, and again in 1919, rarely included those from the Territories, and, most conspicuously, Non-status Indians.[2]  Nevertheless, through these lists it is certain that at minimum 4,000 status Indians were enrolled in the CEF.

Although embarrassingly under-prepared at the outbreak of war, Canada was able to deploy an expeditionary force much larger than could have been imagined.  With Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August 1914, most First Nations communities and leaders openly declared their loyalty and sought avenues to exemplify their allegiance and worth to both Canada and the Crown. The majority of treaties and military alliances were fostered with Britain, not with Canada. Many communities offered support of men and money directly to the king, or the “Great White Father.” The majority believed that by entering and engaging in Canadian society as Indians, they could participate on equal terms and win the respect of the dominant non-Indian society in order to gain rights for their own peoples. Accordingly, many viewed the First World War as an extension of this approach.

Canada had a long history of British-First Nations alliance throughout the settler-state experience. First Nations groups had been British (and French) allies during the colonial wars, as Britain and France vied for North American hegemony. Following the 1817 Rush–Bagot Treaty and the American Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which nullified future American and external European threats, they lost their importance as military allies. However, while First Nations peoples lost their military importance as a collective, individuals continued to support British military campaigns after the War of 1812 when mustered by imperial/Canadian authorities. Given this pattern of allegiance to the British Crown, enthusiasm towards the First World War was not historically unfounded.

The 1904 Militia Act also identified those Canadians eligible for military service. Section X stated, “All the male inhabitants of Canada of the age of eighteen years and upwards, and under sixty, not exempt or disqualified by law and being British subjects, shall be liable to service in the militia; provided that the Governor-General may require all the male inhabitants of Canada capable of bearing arms.”32[3] The act, however, made no specific mention of indigenous peoples even though they had consistently been called upon to assist in Canadian or imperial ventures.

Unofficial Exclusion

With the initiation of hostilities, the majority of British and Canadian politicians and senior commanders, believed that the “war would be over by Christmas.” Within this general atmosphere, Canada initially promulgated an unofficial exclusionist policy regarding enlistment of indigenous peoples. The war, however, was not short-lived, and contributions by First Nations individuals, overseas and on the home front in support of Britain, increased dramatically over the course of four-and-a-half years of horrific warfare.  Although the majority of people offered their immediate support to the war effort, their active participation remained dependent on the existing 1904 Militia Act or, in the absence of any clear policy, on the whims of the federal government. Throughout 1914 the general policy towards service remained one of exclusion or limited involvement.

On 8 August 1914, four days after the British declaration of war, the minister of militia, Sir Sam Hughes, received a query from Colonel W.E. Hodgins asking, “Is it intended that Indians who are anxious to enlist for service Overseas are to be taken on the Contingent?”  Hughes replied on the same day: “While British troops would be proud to be associated with their fellow subjects [First Nations peoples], yet Germans might refuse to extend to them the privileges of civilized warfare, therefore it is considered … that they had better remain in Canada to share in the protection of the Dominion.”[4] Many historians have incorrectly applied Hughes’s statement to represent an official policy of exclusion, while others inaccurately argue that this passage was not widely disseminated. First, although the Ministry of Militia tried to dissuade indigenous enlistment in 1914 and 1915, no official policy of exclusion was ever promulgated. Secondly, this passage was identically reproduced, and extensively circulated, in correspondence concerning Indian service, from its first usage in August 1914 until December 1915, when official authority was finally given to enlist Indians.  Hodgins, who received the initial reply from Hughes, became the adjutant general of militia shortly thereafter. When replying to enquiries concerning his ministry’s Indian enlistment policy, Hodgins simply quoted the passage relayed to him earlier by his superior. Eventually, this passage was frequently used by officials in the Ministry of Militia and the Departments of Indian Affairs and Justice. It became the unofficial policy surrounding Indian service until December 1915.

There was also apprehension that including Indians in an expeditionary force could violate treaties.  During the negotiations of Treaties 1 through 6 (1871–86) — covering roughly the southern half of the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and western Ontario — Indian chiefs specifically asked about military service. In October 1873, during the discussions of Treaty 3, governmental representative Alexander Morris was asked by an Ojibwa chief from Fort Frances, Ontario: “If you should get into trouble with the nations, I do not wish to walk out and expose my young men to aid you in any of your wars.” To this Morris replied: “The English never call Indians out of their country to fight their battles.”  Morris echoed this sentiment to Cree chiefs at Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, in August 1876 during consultations over Treaty 6A: “I assured them, you will never be asked to fight against your will; and I trust the time will never come of war between the Queen and the great country near us…. My words, where they are accepted are written down, and they last; as I have said to others, as long as the sun shines and river runs.” [5] Treaties were signed collectively, not by Canada, but in the name of Queen Victoria; thus, Indian nations saw treaties as an alliance with the Crown through Canada, not with Canada itself. Indians often related more to the British Crown than to Canada, because treaties signed on behalf of Queen Victoria signified sovereignty in partnership with Britain.

Throughout 1914 Indian men rushed to recruiting depots for reasons other than loyalty to the British Crown. Although the warrior ethic had stagnated as a result of residential schooling, religious education, and isolation on reserves, it had not been completely repressed. While many joined for money, adventure, and employment, as did their white comrades, scores of others enlisted to revive the warrior tradition and gain social status within their communities.[6]  War in Europe seemed a feasible means to circumvent governmental policies and the Indian Act, and it offered freedom and escape from reserve life. In summary, unofficial policies of exclusion and inclusion were operating conjointly until December 1915, although exclusion remained the dominant premise. This dichotomy led to great confusion within departments and among Indians and their agents as to the regulations pertaining to Indian service. Correspondence from agents, chiefs, and individual Indians asking for clarification of policy flooded into both the Department of Indian Affairs and the Ministry of Militia throughout 1914 and 1915. Most, but not all, replies were consistent with an exclusionist policy. However, under the frantic “call to arms” units recruited directly from their regions, without interference from the Ministry of Militia or the DIA.  Local recruiting officers, therefore, had absolute discretion over whom they enrolled, provided recruits met the medical standards. Although race was not recorded on enlistment documents, some recruiting officers listed “Indian” under the section entitled “Description of [Name] on Enlistment — Complexion” on the attestation form.

The war was generally met with a jingoistic outpouring in the British segments of Canada in 1914, and support for the imperial government was given in the form of men, material, and money. The outward support for the war given by most Indian leaders did not in all cases reflect the opinions of those whom they purportedly represented. Many Indians did not endorse the recruitment of their men for a European war. This was no different from the divisions within the Euro-Canadian populations and should be viewed as such. Most French-Canadians, and some Irish-Canadians, did not back the war effort either. For many Indian leaders seeking full and equal sovereignty, support offered directly to the Crown was viewed as a means to lobby the imperial government to pressure Canada to alter oppressive laws.  As the war progressed and Canadian forces expanded and accrued the horrific casualty rates of modern trench warfare on the Western Front, Canadian policies regarding Indian service were substantially altered to provide for greater inclusion to meet the pragmatic requirements for manpower. Britain increasingly looked to her dominions as a source of men and materials.

Indian Service

Within this general atmosphere, in October 1915 the British War Office issued the most important imperial documents of the war pertaining to indigenes of all dominions. Official inclusion of Indians in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the clarification of policy in December 1915 were directly linked to the requests of the imperial government.  On 8 October 1915 all governors general and administrators of British dominions and colonies received a confidential memorandum from the Canadian-born colonial secretary, Andrew Bonar Law:

The [War] Cabinet have asked for a report as to the possibilities of raising native troops in large numbers in our Colonies + Protectorates for Imperial service. What is wanted is an estimate of the numbers that could be raised; the length of time needed for training; an opinion as to their fighting value; and any pertinent remarks on such points as climatic restrictions on their employment, the influence of religion…[and] the difficulty of officering.

A second request was sent on 18 October. War exigencies now required the military inclusion of indigenous men.  In the British interpretation, the loyal service of Indians during the colonial period still resonated and was again requested in aid of the empire. A third, albeit not as direct, call was written by Bonar Law, on behalf of the king on 25 October. [7]  

A November 1917 report from the Ministry of Militia replied to the question of “whether there was any General Order of the Department by which Indians were not allowed to enlist. No Such General Order was issued. Towards the latter part of 1915, the number of Indians who volunteered to enlist was continuously increasing, and representations were made from the Crown … that they should be allowed to do so, and the following circular letter was issued on December 10, 1915. This regulation has never been altered since that time.”[8]  The aforementioned circular from the Ministry of Militia promulgated “that owing to the large number of applications for enlistment of Indians, authority is hereby granted to enlist Indians in the various Units for Overseas Service.” The response to the change in Indian enlistment policy was overwhelming. A number of battalions formed after December 1915 had a high percentage of Indians, although none rivalled the 107th and the 114th which 50% to 75% Indian in composition. Most were dispatched overseas in 1916, although all, save for the 107th were broken up as reinforcements, many boosting the Indian complexion of the enduring 107th.  In November 1916, roughly one year after the official sanction, the distribution of known Indian enlistments (1,187) was released by the DIA and was widely published in newspapers across the country.  The same report stated that Indians had donated $24,679.30 to various war funds.[9]

Canadian recruitment policies at the outbreak of war and into 1915 could not sustain national formations in the face of mounting casualties, a decline in voluntary enlistment and an expanding expeditionary force. Pragmatism required policies be altered to allow for the inclusion of Indians, and eventually for their conscription. Canada introduced conscription with the controversial Military Service Bill on 11 June 1917, to the indignation of most French-Canadians. Confusion and capricious policy concerning the position of Indians was immediate and pronounced. On 29 August the Military Service Act (MSA) legally sanctioned conscription.

The act applied to all male British subjects in Canada, including Indians, Asians, and blacks, between the ages of twenty and forty.  Driven by the necessities of the war, Canada’s policy towards Indian military service had reversed since 1914. Ottawa was now demanding, under law, Indian participation.  Before the closing registration date of 1 February 1918 arrived, however, Ottawa passed legislation exempting Indians (and Japanese) from the terms of the MSA based on the tenets of prior treaties.

The need for manpower, however, drastically influenced the military position of Indians during 1917 and 1918, and voluntary recruitment drives were undertaken on reserves across the country.  In addition to serving as snipers and scouts, Canadian Indians were employed in every other branch of the combat arms and auxiliary formations except for the Royal Tank Corps.  They served in both the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve, and the Royal Navy. Three members of the defunct 114th Battalion served as pilots in the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force.[10]  One, Lieutenant Oliver Milton Martin, went on to serve in the Second World War, attaining the rank of brigadier general, the highest position ever attained in the Canadian Forces by an Indian.  In total, at least seventeen Indians were commissioned officers in the CEF during the First World War.  For the majority of men who served in the Great War, the camaraderie created by the horrors of trench warfare transcended race. From the historical record available, it appears that the age-old adage of relying on the man beside you in combat, and in turn fighting for him, held true for most men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, regardless of race, colour, or creed.

Legacy

For all nations, the sacrifice of the First World War was measured in blood and the staggering number of dead. This was no different for the Indian nations of Canada. They shared equally in the burdens of war, and they still remind the government of their sacrifices for king and country. Indian casualty rates, however, cannot be precisely calculated, since race was generally not recorded on military records.  Based on nominal roles and soldier-specific details submitted by individual Indian agents (or reserves), it is known for certain that at least 4,000 status Indians served in the CEF and that they suffered roughly 1,200 casualties. These numbers exclude non-status Indians, Inuit-Yupik, and Métis, and are based on the 1914 status-Indian population of 103,774, which increased only slightly during the war years. (The 1917 population was 105,998.)  While the number of Canadian Indians awarded honours is not officially known, Veterans Affairs states that “at least 50 medals were awarded to aboriginal people in Canada for bravery and heroism.”[11]  Indian women also formed patriotic and Red Cross societies on their reserves. They made bandages, knitted various items of clothing, and raised funds by selling traditional crafts. The Canadian Red Cross Society stated that the articles made by Indian women were the finest quality of knitting and sewing they received.  By the end of the war, Indians had donated almost $45,000 to war funds.[12]

Nevertheless, significant Indian participation in the war effort both on and off the battlefield did little to alter governmental policy. Indian veteran Private Daniel Pelletier remarked: “The army treated us all right … there was no discrimination ‘over there’ and we were treated good.”[13] This relative equality, however, was not manifest in government veteran programs and benefits, and Indians remained wards of the state under the paternalistic Indian Act.  Indian veterans also did not receive equal consideration for pensions, disability or War Veterans’ Allowance, despite the promises.  Following the war, with their service no longer required, Indian soldiers returned to the position of unwanted peoples and did not receive equitable treatment as veterans.

The inclusion of Indians in the Canadian Expeditionary Force was a pragmatic decision on the part of the Canadian government, one based on the necessity for manpower to meet national war aims and in response to requests from British authorities. This inclusion was not intended to transcend contemporary social, political, or cultural norms within Canadian society. The elevated and unprecedented participation of Indians during the First World War, however, was a potential catalyst to accelerate their attainment of equal rights. This did not happen. Paternalistic and authoritative policies prevailed, and the recognition of Indian military contributions was fast forgotten. War service, both on and off the battlefield, did not alter their socioeconomic or political realities within Canada, nor did it hasten the attainment of equal rights or enfranchisement. Following the war, veterans were also denied access to most veteran programs.

Conclusion

In late 1917 Arthur Meighen, minister of the interior and superintendent-general of Indian Affairs, summarized the relationship between Indians and Canada during the Great War: “It is an inspiring fact that these descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of a continent so recently appropriated by our own ancestors should voluntarily sacrifice their lives on European battlefields, side by side with men of our own race, for the preservation of the ideals of our civilization, and their staunch devotion forms an eloquent tribute to the beneficent character of British rule over a native people.”[14] No better statement represents the negligible impact Indian participation in the war had on the broader social and political realities of Indians within Canada. Indians were willing, through the bonding experience of a common war, to enter into Canadian society as equals. Canada, as evidenced by Meighen’s declaration, rejected this offer, refusing to acknowledge the shared experience of the First World War and, more importantly, the benefits that could have been derived from it. The sacrifices of Indian soldiers and communities shaped the eras that followed. These experiences challenged notions of Indian identity, as well as their appropriate place in national orders. Although the Great War began 100 years ago, for the indigenous peoples of Canada the war for cultural, territorial, and socio-economic equality and recognition is still being fought today.

 


 

[1] Duncan Campbell Scott, 1919 Report of the Deputy Superintendent General for Indian Affairs: The Indians and the Great War—House of Commons Sessional Paper No. 27 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1920), 13.

[2] LAC, RG 10, Vol. 6767, File 452-17. Return of Indian Enlistments, 1917; LAC, RG 10, Vol. 6771, File 452-29. Return of Indian Enlistments, 1919; Duncan Campbell Scott, 1919Report of the Deputy Superintendent General for Indian Affairs: The Indians and the Great War—House of Commons Sessional Paper No. 27 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1920), 13.

[3] LAC, RG 24, C-1-a, Vol. 6564-Part I. Revision of the Militia Act, 1904.

[4] LAC, RG 24-c-1-a, Vol. 1221, Part 1 HQ-593-1-7. Hodgins to Hughes, with Reply, 8 August 1914.

[5] James Dempsey, Warriors of the King: Prairie Indians in World War I (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1999), 38–39.

[6] Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914–1916, Vol. 1 (Toronto: Penguin Group Canada, 2007), 28–30.

[7] House of Lords Records Office/Parliamentary Archives (London, UK), Andrew Bonar Law Papers, BL/55/16. Memorandum Colonial Office to Governors General and Administrators of British Dominions, Colonies and Protectorates, 8 October 1915; Cabinet Memorandum to the Dominions: The Question of Raising Native Troops for Imperial Service, 18 October 1915 (also contained in Harcourt Papers-445).

[8] LAC, RG 24-c-1-a, Vol. 1221, File HQ-593-1-7. Letter from Ministry of Militia to A.G. Chisholm (Lawyer, London, Ontario), 26 November 1917.

[9] For example, these numbers appear in the Ottawa Citizen, “Red Men on the Firing Line,” 19 November 1916, and the Regina Leader, “Indians are doing their bit in the Great War,” 18 November 1916.

[10] Duncan Campbell Scott, 1919 Report of the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Sessional Paper No. 27: The Indians and the Great War (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1920), 15, 27.

[11] Veterans Affairs Canada, athttp://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/pdf/cr/pi-sheets/Aboriginal-pi-e. pdf.

[12] LAC, RG 10, Vol. 6762, File 452-3. Native Contributions to War Funds; Department of Indian Affairs, Annual Report of the DIA, 1917 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1918), 18.

[13] LAC, RG 10, Vol. 3211, File 527, 787. Various Correspondence on Loft and the League of Indians of Canada, 1919–1935.

[14] Department of Indian Affairs, Annual Report of the DIA, 1917 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1918), 17.

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