The name Oliver Milton Martin appears repeatedly in Native newspapers and magazines. He was a prominent figure: a soldier who reached the highest rank ever held by a Canadian Native and, in civilian life, a school teacher, principal and provincial magistrate.
A Mohawk from the Six Nations Grand River Reserve, Martin made his mark in both the army and the air force. He served in the First and Second World Wars, ending his service in 1944 with the rank of brigadier.
Martin’s military career began in 1909, when he joined the Haldimand Rifles militia regiment. Bugler was the first of his many military roles. In 1915, at the age of 22, he took leave from teaching to enlist in the regular force. Two brothers also volunteered. Martin eventually served as a company officer with the 114th and the 107th Battalions. As a lieutenant, he spent seven months in France and Belgium, where he survived a gas attack. In 1917, he qualified as an observer with the Royal Air Force and, the following year, he earned his pilot’s wings.
When the war ended, Martin returned to teaching and became a school principal in Toronto, Ontario. He also maintained his ties with his militia regiment. In 1930, he assumed command of the Haldimand Rifles, holding this position until the outbreak of war.
During the Second World War, Martin oversaw the training of hundreds of recruits in Canada. His first appointment, as a colonel, was commander of the 13th Infantry Brigade at a training camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake. The following year he was promoted brigadier and went on to command the 14th (Nanaimo) and 16th(Prince George) Infantry Brigades.
In the official history of the Algonquin Regiment the brigadier is remembered with fondness and respect. The Algonquins had arrived at Niagara-on-the-Lake after a long and festive train ride:
It was a sad and sore group of men who piled off the cars in Niagara. It was our good fortune to have Brigadier Martin as our new brigade commander, and he, sensing our condition, was most tactful and kindly. His first inspection of the unit, and his words to the men, won him at the outset our strong friendship and loyalty.72
In October 1944, the brigadier retired from active service. His impact, however, carried on for several years. According to a niece, “many of Brigadier Martin’s nephews and nieces joined the service during the Second World War. They wanted to serve their country and I’m sure they were influenced by their uncle’s military career.”
After leaving the armed forces, Martin was appointed provincial magistrate for Ontario District 6, the counties of York, Halton and Peel. He was the first Native to hold a judicial post in Ontario. The Mohawk magistrate served the district until his death in 1957.
Brigadier Martin received many rewards for his accomplishments. For his 20 years of service with good conduct in the militia, Martin was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officer’s Decoration. In 1953, he and his wife, Lillian, were invited to, and attended, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Today, the East York branch of the Royal Canadian Legion is named the Brigadier O. Martin Branch. The brigadier-magistrate is also a member of Canada’s Indian Hall of Fame.