Native Veterans

An Indian chief blesses a new recruit
spacer From the Battle at Queenston Heights in the War of 1812 up through World War I (1914-1918), World War II (1939-1945), and the Korean War (1950-1953), native peoples have fought long and hard. Volunteering en masse for active duty, despite being exempt from Canadian conscription laws, it is estimated that 4,000 men gave of themselves to fight in the Great War of 1914. Many natives, living in some of Canada's most remote areas, enlisted with great personal effort. One man by the name of William Semice walked from Lake St. Joseph to Port Arthur in order to enlist. This was a distance of over 500 miles. John Campbell, another patriotic native, travelled three thousand miles by trail, canoe, and river steamer to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Vancouver (The Indian News, 1970, Vol. 13, No. 8, p. 3).

Believing in the good of their people and country, approximately thirty-five per cent of all eligible natives enlisted for active service. According to a report issued in 1920 by Canada's Deputy Superintendent General:

The Indian soldiers gave an excellent account of themselves at the front, and their officers have commended them most highly for their courage, intelligence, efficiency, stamina and discipline. In daring and intrepidity they were second to none and their performance is a ringing rebuttal to the familiar assertion that the red man has deteriorated. The fine record of the Indians in the great war appears in a peculiarly favourable light when it is remembered that their services were absolutely voluntary, as they were specially exempted from the operation of the Military Service Act, and that they were prepared to give their lives for their country without compulsion or even the fear of compulsion. It must also be borne in mind that a large part of the Indian population is located in remote and inaccessible locations, are unacquainted with the English language and were, therefore, not in a position to understand the character of the war, its cause or effect. It is, therefore, a remarkable fact that the percentage of enlistments among the Indians is fully equal to that among other sections of the community and indeed far above the average in a number of instances. As an inevitable result of the large enlistment among them and of their share in the thick of the fighting, the casualties among them were very heavy,and the Indians in common with their fellow countrymen of the white race must mourn the loss of many of their most promising young men. The Indians are especially susceptible to tuberculosis, and many of their soldiers who escaped the shells and bullets of the enemy succumbed to this dreaded disease upon their return to Canada as a result of the hardships to which they were exposed at the front (Canada, Sessional Papers, Vol. LVI, No. 27, 1920, pp. 13-14).

Five Native Soldiers
spacer A generation of young native Canadian men bravely fought on the battlefields of Europe during the Great War. Approximately 300 of them never returned home alive. Nevertheless, when Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939, the native community once again quickly responded. Four years later, in May 1943, the government declared that, as British subjects, all able Indian men of military age could be called up for training and service in Canada or overseas (Summerby, 1993, p.21). Therefore, in direct contrast to World War I, most natives were not exempt from conscription. By this time however, many able-bodied natives had already voluntarily joined the ranks for overseas duty.

Natives volunteered to fight in the air, on land, or on the high seas. During the first three years of the war enlistment was made difficult by racism. The air force had stipulated that recruits be of "pure European descent" and the Royal Canadian Navy required applicants to "be a British born subject, of a White Race" (Gaffen, 1985, p. 64). Max Basque, an Indian from Whycocomagh, experienced this racism. As a former merchant marine Max travelled to Montreal to enlist in the Canadian Navy:

The Navy recruiting officer looked at me. He said, "Are you an Indian?" I said, "Yes, sir." "Sorry we don't take Indians in the Navy. But... you're not a full-blooded Indian." "No I'm not," I said. "I don't think there's any full-blooded Indians east of Winnipeg!...But on the books I'm an Indian. Here's my border-crossing card." You know, we used to carry those cards, that I'm an Indian, this and that. Didn't have any pictures, like. "Well," he said, "you got a French name: B-a-s-q-u-e. We'll sign you as a Frenchman." I said "No, you won't.... That's not a French name, anyway. It's Basque--it's from northern Spain." "Well," he said, "we'll sign you on as Basque." I said, "No. On the books, I was born on the Indian reservation and I've always gone as an Indian all my life.... What in the world? Disown my own race, just to get into the Navy?" I said, "I'm a Canadian, even if I am an Indian. Same as you are....I was born here in Canada." Max Basque never did join the Canadian Navy (Cape Bretons Magazine, No. 52, p. 58).

Joan Martin
spacer Once enlisted, the native soldier received different treatment on the battlefield than in the barracks. On the battlefield he had a good ear for approaching danger and a keen eye for a target. In the barracks he was the target of racial jokes and slurs. Likewise, back home in Canada, his dependents faced discrimination. John Diefenbaker, leader of the opposition, was aware of this situation and brought it to the attention of the Canadian House of Commons (Commons Debates, Apr. 28, 1942). Nevertheless, native soldiers and their dependents continued to experience discrimination.

As a result, the native contribution to the Western world's freedom went largely unreported and unnoticed. It is only recently that native veterans have begun to be heard. In fact it was not until November 11, 1992, that native veterans were permitted to place a wreath at the cenotaph during memorial services. Traditionally they had to wait until the conclusion of the official service before showing respect for their fellow comrades (Micmac News, Nov. 1987, p. 8-15).

Cameron Brant
spacer More than 6,000 Canadian natives served during World War I and World War II. On November 11th, and always, we should remember that native soldiers and their fellow Canadians can be proud of their many courageous accomplishments in Canada's defence. Soldiers, both native and non-native, gave their lives to defend values that were and continue to remain meaningful to Canadians. Let us together, as one nation, continue to honour both our native and non-native veterans.

The text on this page has largely been taken from Native Soldiers Foreign Battlefields by Janice Summerby. Ottawa: Veterans Affairs Canada, 1993.

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