Contributions of Aboriginal Peoples in the First World War (1914–1918)

Aboriginal peoples have a long tradition of military service in Canada dating back several centuries. Although not legally required to participate in the war, an estimated 4,000 Status Indians, and an unrecorded number of Métis and Inuit enlisted voluntarily and served with the Canadian Corps in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

Almost all of the young men on many reserves enlisted for service. For example, approximately half of the eligible Mi’kmaq and Maliseet from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia volunteered for overseas duty. In other provinces, the number was even higher. In the small Saskatchewan community of File Hills, nearly all of the eligible men signed up to fight.

Postcard image of Aboriginal men from File Hills, Saskatchewan, who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force

A number of Aboriginal men who served in the CEF became snipers or scouts. Private Henry Norwest, a Métis from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, was one of the most famous snipers. Another proficient sniper was Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa from Parry Island Band, near Parry Sound, Ontario. Three-time recipient of the British Military Medal and two bars, Corporal Pegahmagabow was the most highly decorated Aboriginal soldier of the First World War. Lieutenant Cameron D. Brant, from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, enlisted only three days after the Germans declared war on August 4, 1914. He died from poisonous gas during the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, in April 1915. Another Aboriginal man who served in the war was Olympic runner Tom Longboat, also from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve.

Aboriginal women also made great sacrifices and played significant roles working behind the battle scenes. Nurse Edith Anderson, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, joined the Army Nurse Corps of the American Expeditionary Forces, and worked at an American hospital base in Vittel, France. Most of her work involved caring for patients who had been shot or gassed.

The exact number of Aboriginal soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War is not known. It is estimated that at least 300 men were killed during battles or died from illness, such as tuberculosis.

2 thoughts on “Contributions of Aboriginal Peoples in the First World War (1914–1918)

  1. It would be difficult for “Patrick Riel” (born 1876) to be a grandson of Louis Riel — who was not married until 1881, and, in any event, whose three children (Jean Louis, 1882, Marie Angelique 1883 and “a boy”, 1885) had no issue.

    • Dear D. Brown,

      Thank you for your email regarding LAC’s Blog article, “Contributions of Aboriginal Peoples in the First World War (1914-1918). While this Patrick Riel was a member of the extended Riel family, you are correct that he could not have been the grandson. We will fix this error in the post immediately.

      Have a nice day,

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