During the World Wars, thousands of Aboriginal people voluntarily enlisted in the Canadian military. It’s over 14,000 Aboriginal people served in the Canadian forces ( and American for some of them) during the conflicts, 1,600 of them dead in service.
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 250 were awarded medals for bravery and heroism.
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. Some First Nations argued that promises made during treaty negotiations excused them from conscription in foreign wars. 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.
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.
At least 1,000 of them were conscripted during the First World War and despite all the precautions taken, there are some cases of conscripted Indigenous soldiers serving in combat.
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 or French.
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. 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.
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. 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 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. 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.
With 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
The equal treatment that Aboriginal veterans experienced disappeared once they returned home to Canada. 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. 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.
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. 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.