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.

From Enlistment to Burial Records: The Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War

Each year, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) receives countless questions on how to locate military services files, such as:

  • How do I find out more about a soldier (or a nursing sister) in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF)?
  • When and where did he enlist?
  • How old did the soldier say he was? (Many underage soldiers gave an earlier year of birth when they enlisted)

A great place to begin your research is on our Genealogy and Family History’s Military pages.

To help guide you through the process, our experts have put together the following explanations.

Attestation papers

Also known as “enlistment” documents, these records indicate the date and place of birth, the marital status and the name and address of the next of kin.

The Soldiers of the First World War database contains references to more than 600,000 people who served during that conflict. Most of the corresponding attestation (enlistment) papers can be viewed online, including those of the Nursing Sisters.

To learn more, consult our article “Canadians and the First World War: Discover our Collection”.

Service files

These records contain key documents such as record of service, casualty form, discharge certificate and medal card. It also provides the name or number of
the unit in which the individual served overseas.

Find more information in our articles “What You Will Find in a Canadian Military Service File” and “Understand the Abbreviations Commonly Found in Military Service Files”.

War diaries

The War Diaries are a daily account and historical record of a unit’s administration, operations and activities.

Consult the War Graves page for information on the burial location of a soldier who was killed in action.

If the soldier survived the war, the Veterans Death Cards give information such as the next of kin, burial location and date of death. The digitized images, which are in alphabetical order, can be navigated in sequential order.

For the soldier who was decorated, a nominal index to medal registers, citation cards and records of various military awards provides further information on many soldiers’ achievements.

Our article “War Diaries: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war” can also guide you with your research.

Published histories

For an easy-to-read overview of the unit’s activities, we recommend starting with “published histories.” These books are often called “regimental histories” and our article Published Histories: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war” will give you more information.

Thematic guides

The Guide to Sources Relating to Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force
lists references to records and files that complement the research in First World War records. This thematic guide further describes the contribution of most units in the CEF.

Other past articles of interest this Remembrance Day:

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

New Finding Aid Online: Non-Permanent Active Militia

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is pleased to announce that a new finding aid for the Non-Permanent Active Militia, RG 9 II-B-7, is now available online. View the 8,799 lower level descriptions today!

During the First World War, units of the Non-Permanent Active Militia were called upon to perform a variety of military tasks in Canada, notably to guard strategic sites such as armouries, bridges and canals.

The files are arranged alphabetically and can include a variety of forms dealing with enlistment, medical and dental history, hospitalization, discipline, pay, discharge and subsequent correspondence relating to the individual’s eligibility for war service gratuities and other service-related issues. Attestation papers, which are completed at the time of enlistment, are present in a number of the files. They include the recruit’s name and address, next-of-kin, date and place of birth, occupation, previous military experience and distinguishing physical characteristics.

This sub-series also contains small quantities of exceptional files: for members of the permanent force, for members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) prior to embarkation overseas, for members of Royal Flying Corps, and for nursing sisters and other members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

Although the outside dates for the records are 1908-1983, the vast majority were created during the period 1914-1919.

Want to learn more about how to use finding aids? Consult our articles “Discover Finding Aids!” and “ Discover Finding Aids – Part Two”.

Be alerted when we have added new finding aids online by subscribing to our RSS feed.

For more information on recent announcements at LAC, visit “News”.

Guide to Sources Relating to Units of the CEF is Now Available Online

We are pleased to announce the launch of the Guide to Sources Relating to Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The guide is an indispensable starting point for researching the records that document Canada’s participation in the First World War. It is a unique finding aid that brings together references to records and files scattered throughout several different archival fonds, which relate to almost every unit in the CEF.

The Guide was originally developed over many years by Barbara Wilson, an archivist with the former National Archives of Canada, now Library and Archives Canada. The guide has subsequently been updated with more recent acquisitions from official records, private papers and diaries, and by many other contributors from Library and Archives Canada. The guide was reviewed and updated with references to the Ministry of Militia and Defence records and daily orders, which are described by Library and Archives Canada as Record Group 9 or RG9.

For more information on recent announcements at LAC, visit “News”.