By the mid-19th century the fortunes and prospects of First Nations communities across the central and eastern portions of British North America had changed dramatically. No longer in a position during time of conflict to mobilize under their own indigenous leadership, by the dawn of the 20th century First Nations persons resolving to demonstrate their communities’ continuing allegiance to Crown military authority were compelled to do so through enlistment as individual service personnel in the armed forces of the Canadian dominion.
In socio-political terms, as across the entire range of all Aboriginal dealings with successive European, colonial and national governments, so too in regard to military affairs did First Nations pursue different courses of action in response to the challenges and opportunities posed by the realities of armed conflict. These ranged from that historical era during which the various European and colonial powers actively courted the assistance of particular First Nations as full allies in pursuit of joint military-strategic objectives, to the modern wars of the 20th century. In either instance, while many Aboriginal persons – both women and men – made collective or individual decisions to support the warfighting efforts, either through activities on the homefront or as warrior participants, other communities and individuals espoused carefully reasoned arguments in justification of their stances of neutrality or non-involvement.
During both World Wars the Crown considered all Aboriginal people in Canada as British subjects, the ambiguity of their actual citizenship status within the Canadian dominion notwithstanding.4 However, some First Nations maintained that prior treaties or other agreements with the Crown, and the force and effect of the federal Indian Act legislation of the era, combined to exempt their band members from compulsory military duty. Others felt that their voluntary participation in the war effort would enhance their claims toward full citizenship and legal equality in Canada come peacetime. In any event the more draconian aspects of the Indian Act, including bans on political organization, traditional spirituality, and restrictions on off-reserve travel, were removed by 1951. The legal right to vote without penalty in federal elections was ultimately extended to all status Indians in Canada in 1960.
During the First World War the leadership of particular First Nations communities objected to the activities of recruiters on reserve lands and opposed the attempted conscription of band members under the Military Service Act of 1917. 5 During the Second World War, the political organization le Comité de Protection operating out of the Huron reserve near Quebec City maintained that Indians were exempt from service under the wartime National Resources Mobilization Act by virtue of their inferior citizenship status under the Indian Act, and in view of their sovereignty as they inferred it from their interpretation of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Other communities in northern Ontario claimed similar exemptions under the 1850 Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior Treaties. 6
Of those who did participate in 20th century war efforts, the service records of many First Nations individuals and Indian reserve communities are impressive. By the closing months of the Second World War (i.e January, 1945) the Indian Affairs branch issued a directive exempting prairie and northern status Indians covered by Treaties 3, 6, 8 and 11 from overseas service. However, by this relatively late date in the conflict no fewer than 324 men from the various bands signatory to these treaties had already enlisted. 7 Oral testimony from the Golden Lake Reserve in eastern Ontario maintains that of the reserve’s entire able-bodied male population eligible for service during the Second World War, all but three volunteered for duty. The First World War record of the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, Ontario is likewise notable. Of a total reserve population of approximately 4,500 in 1914, 292 men and 1 woman (a nurse with the Army Nurse Corps of the American Expeditionary Force) voluntarily enlisted for duty overseas. The majority of these were posted to the largely status Indian 107th and 114th Battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of these, 29 were killed in action, 5 died of wounds or illness, one became of prisoner of war, and one was reported missing.8 These figures notwithstanding, the issue as to whether or not band members would participate in the war effort was divisive within the community, and indeed the political legacy and ramifications of individual and family decisions taken to serve during 1914-1918 are felt to this day.
The experiences of individual First Nations servicemen and women during their recruitment and upon their release varied greatly. As indicated above, during the First World at least two battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were raised largely among status Indian communities. 9 During the Second World War, both the RCAF and RCN for the first part of the conflict maintained racially-based recruitment policies. Although these were removed from both branches by 1943, they had the net effect of placing (with exceptions) the majority of Aboriginal volunteers in the army. 10 Confusions during the Second World War both on the part of Indian Affairs officials and service recruiters as to the implications of the Indian Act for potential status Indian volunteers further complicated matters.
In some instances status Indian volunteers were told they could not be commissioned or even enlist, and still hold legal status as Indians under the Indian Act. In other instances upon their return to Canada, newly repatriated Indian veterans were told that because of their ambiguous citizenship and legal status under the Act, they were ineligible to receive veterans benefits, or that they would have to renounce their Indian status in order to apply. In yet other instances veterans returned home to find that in their absence their regional Indian agents had arbitrarily removed their names from their Indian reserve band lists. In some cases after the First World War, agricultural lands were made available for farming by veterans under the terms of the Soldier Settlement Act, but at the expense of expropriating the land from Indian reserve allotments. Similar problems were encountered post-Second World War in relation to the Veterans’ Land Act. 11 During the Second World War, Indian reserve lands in some instances were expropriated by the federal government for use as military training and proving grounds.
These issues aside, as a function of their wartime and overseas service, many Aboriginal people had the experience of leaving their home communities for the first time in their lives and encountering not only non-Aboriginal people, but also other Aboriginals from other areas of the country. Often friendships formed with other Aboriginals while in training and overseas were instrumental after the Wars in facilitating the organization of some of the first Aboriginal political organizations. Approximately 4000 status Indians (and an unrecorded number of Metis, non-status and Inuit) volunteered for service during the First World War. Status Indian enlistments for the Second World War are recorded at 3090. 12 In 1919 newly returned Mohawk war veteran Fred Loft, from the Six Nations Reserve, founded the first national Aboriginal political organization in Canada, the League of Indians of Canada. In 1927, partly in response to the activism exhibited by organizations such as the League of Indians of Canada, amendments to the federal Indian Act made it illegal for status Indians to organize politically, or to retain legal counsel in pursuit of claims against the government. Like the bans on traditional spiritual activity, such restrictions were to remain in force until 1951.
There is research to indicate that in both World Wars Aboriginal Canadians volunteered for military service in proportionally greater numbers than the rest of the Canadian population at large. Aboriginal veterans and their supporters were vocal in demanding an improved situation for themselves and their communities in post-War Canadian society. After having fought overseas to defend the human rights and sovereignty of Allied nations abroad, Aboriginal veterans, their families and their communities began to question with renewed vigour their own inferior citizenship and legal status within Canada. When the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948, many of its provisions could not be said to apply to Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
From 1946 through 1948 the “Special Parliamentary Committee on Postwar Reconstruction and Re-establishment” and “Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons Appointed to Examine and Consider the Indian Act” heard submissions from many status Indian persons and organizations, including Indian veterans. 13 Such committees and increasing media exposure helped focus public attention on the circumstances of Aboriginal peoples in Canada in the post-War era. Many returned veterans assumed leadership roles within their own communities or within the fledgling Aboriginal political organizations. Some pursued opportunities within the public service.
From the mid-1940s to the present, Aboriginal Canadian political, cultural and social activists and leaders, many of them veterans, have been at the forefront of challenging the Canadian status quo relative to the treatment of Aboriginal peoples in this country in ways that have directly contributed to developments and refinements within our legal system. These have advanced our understanding of civil and human rights, and have resulted in a more pluralistic and democratic social fabric and civil society from from which all Canadian have benefited, and which have contributed to Canada’s profile and reputation abroad. It is significant that within Aboriginal communties today, whether on November 11 or otherwise, when homage is paid to surviving veterans and the fallen, the emphasis is not so much upon the fact of their overseas service and sacrifice, as upon their contributions within their respective communities at home. 14