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Aboriginal Participation in Canadian Military Service

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John Moses

Native History Researcher
Canadian Ethnology Service
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Originally published in The Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin: Canada’s Professional Journal on Army Issues, vol.3, no.3 (Fall 2000), 14-18. Reproduced by permission.

The aim of this paper is to indicate a spectrum of attitudes as exhibited by status Indian communities and individual Aboriginal persons in Canada in response to perceived challenges and opportunities arising from Canada’s involvement in the First and Second World Wars.1 It is anticipated that a familiarity with Canadian Aboriginal issues will become an added feature in the professional knowledge of Canadian Forces (CF) personnel. This is in view of further likely domestic operations within Canada including provision of Aid to the Civil Power; and in view of the continued expansion of Reserve programs such as the Canadian Rangers, and current Regular Force recruitment initiatives including the CF Aboriginal Entry Program and the Sergeant Tommy Prince Army Training Initiative. Insofar as CF personnel will be dealing with First Nations constituencies within these contexts, it is appropriate they further their knowledge of First Nations socio-political and historical issues pertaining to military affairs in Canada.

Aboriginal communities across many parts of Canada have a tradition of military service in support of the Crown during conflict and war. However, this service has never been unconditional, nor without complication or controversy for those First Nations individuals and communities concerned. For status Indian people in Canada, the question of participation or non-participation in the two World Wars was divisive within Indian reserve communities and in some cases among individual families. The legacies of these divisions continue to be felt in some communities today.

A detailed history of Aboriginal/European relations is beyond the scope of this paper. However, initial periods of First Nations/European contact across what is now eastern North America may be characterized in terms approaching relative equality. During peacetime the European powers involved (prior to 1664 including the English, French and Dutch) were interested in maintaining the cooperation of their First Nations counterparts in pursuit of joint economic projects, principally those involving the fur trade, the success of which was largely dependent upon indigenous labour. In wartime, these same powers sought to secure the active support of their First Nations opposites as military allies, or to secure from them guarantees of neutrality.

Throughout this period, known historically as the era of the peace and friendship treaties, issues of land cession and surrender were typically not a feature of negotiations entered into between First Nations and imperial or colonial governments. For example, a peace and friendship treaty signed on March 10, 1760 provides the historical basis upon which the controversial decision in the Marshall Aboriginal fishing rights case rests. It was negotiated between the Crown and Mi’kmaq leadership during the several months following the fall of the French at Louisbourg (June 1759) and Quebec (September 1759), but fully three years in advance of the final cessation of hostilities between the English and the French with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. This particular treaty thus came into being during a time in which the Crown was actively courting the favour of the Mi’kmaq, who were previously allied with the French. This treaty’s context was thus very much one of mutual advantage and conciliation between Mi’kmaq and Crown interests, precisely at a time when the British were attempting to consolidate and entrench their hegemony across the Maritimes.

In the absence of such alliances particular coalitions of First Nations, acting under astute political and military leadership (often combined in the person of a single charismatic individual), were prepared to orchestrate events such that new circumstances more agreeable to their own immmediate interests might be secured. Pontiac, an Odawa war leader formerly aligned with the French, united numerous First Nations to wage guerrilla war against British-held posts across the eastern Great Lakes region and the Ohio River valley throughout the summer and autumn of 1763. This was in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the regime of New France with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and at a time when it was becoming clear to those First Nations previously aligned with the French that the British did not intend to assume the same relatively liberal approach to First Nations trade and sovereignty issues that the French had pursued. Pontiac’s actions in consequence were partly responsible for the British implementation of the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763 by which the Crown sought inter alia to establish a policy mechanism whereby a formalized system of negotiating land transactions between First Nations interests and Crown authority might be established.

The Royal Proclamation remains foundational to any discussion of Aboriginal rights, land claims, and the Aboriginal law of Canada. The late Bora Laskin, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, described its significance most dramatically when he wrote, “This Proclamation was an Executive Order having the force and effect of an Act of Parliament and was described …as the ‘Indian Bill of Rights’. Its force as a statute is analogous to the status of Magna Carta …”.2 The Royal Proclamation meanwhile has been constitutionally enshrined by virtue of its reference in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms at s. 25, within the Constitution Act, 1982. Thus its impact continues to be felt to this day, representing to some First Nations the Crown’s historic recognition of their status as sovereign independent nations. In Canadian courts, it represents acknowledgement of Canada’s fiduciary obligations and special trust relationship toward First Nations interests as the British Crown’s modern successor in North America.

Thus from the mid-17th through early 19th centuries successive military alliances of particular First Nations with their respective European and colonial counterparts played a role in determining a balance of power which would ultimately result in the formation and subsequent development of the modern Canadian and American nation states as they exist today. Throughout this era what essentially were First Nations armies under First Nations leadership could be mobilized to serve alongside European and colonial allies in the field in pursuit of joint military-strategic objectives. In the absence of such alliances, First Nations were – for a period of time – capable of prosecuting total warfare or warfare with limited objectives on their own behalf.

Strategic alliances, however, between European-colonial powers, and First Nations acting under charismatic indigenous leadership, were more common. The Mohawk war captain Thayendanega or Joseph Brant was a staunch ally to the British throughout the American Revolution and beyond. The Shawnee leader Tecumseh organized and led a broad coalition of First Nations forces who fought alongside the British against the Americans during the War of 1812. John Norton, Joseph Brant’s own chosen successor at the Six Nations of the Grand River territory, led guerrilla bands and irregular forces of Grand River warriors across the Detroit and Niagara frontiers alongside the British throughout 1812-1814.

It is significant that from 1755 until 1830, a branch of the British Army known as the Indian Department was responsible for the Crown’s administration of Indian affairs in North America. With the resolution across North America of successive power struggles between various imperial regimes and their successor states; with the diminishment of the fur trade as a foundation of the North American economy; and with enormous Aboriginal population declines concomitant with exponential increases in European immigration, the support of the First Nations across eastern North America was no longer required in various endeavours as it once had been, whether in military or economic terms. In effect First Nations had ceased being regarded as potential military allies or trade partners and increasingly were seen as economic liabilities and as impediments to territorial development and expansion. By 1830 the administration of Indian affairs in British North America passed from military control to civil authority.

It was at this time that the assimilation of Aboriginal populations (entailing their Christian religious conversion and elimination of distinctive cultural patterns), and the attainment of First Nations lands, became the objective of colonial and subsequently dominion Indian policy. In a departure from the former practice of negotiating peace & friendship treaties, a new policy of concluding land cession & surrender treaties was initiated. This new policy approach was formalized in present-day Ontario as early as 1850 with the negotiation of the Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior Treaties that year. West of the Great Lakes it was entrenched by 1871, and from 1871 through 1921 Numbered Treaties 1 to 11 were concluded across the present-day prairie provinces and much of the Yukon and NWT. These treaties typically provided for the cession and surrender of First Nations traditional territories and hunting grounds in exchange for promises of reserved lands and the payment of certain considerations either as lump-sum monetary payments or in other cases as fixed annuities.

With the coming of Confederation, section 91(24) of the Constitution Act 1867 provided the federal level of government with authority over “… Indians and lands Reserved for Indians …”. This federal authority was codified in 1876 with the passage of the first consolidated Indian Act. Prior to this time separate pieces of colonial legislation provided a policy framework for the administration of Indian affairs within the respective provinces. The notion of “Indian status” was first introduced in Lower Canada (Canada East) as early as 1850, with the passage of “An Act … for the better protection of the Land and Property of Indians in Lower Canada”. This Act contained the first legal definition of who was to be considered an “Indian” from the perspective of government.3


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