FRANCE – Last week Canada celebrated the victory and honoured brave Canadians who fought and died taking Vimy Ridge in France during the First World War. But many of the reports and TV specials did not mention the Onkwehonwe Warriors who fought alongside the British, Australian, American and Canadian soldiers.
Vimy Ridge was a watershed battle that turned the tide of the war in favour of the allied forces; breaking a stagnant quagmire of death, disease and destruction the allied forces and German soldiers were locked in.
“The largest influx [of volunteers] came from the Six Nations and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte,” writes historian Timothy Winegard. “Those who stayed home also lent a hand; the Six Nations Women’s Patriotic League of 1914 crafted items and stocked care packages to be sent overseas to help their men. First Nations’ women gained more jobs as a result of the war, but in 1917 they were not granted the vote alongside non-aboriginal women.”
The Canadian Corps, which included several aboriginal warriors, was ordered to seize Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Situated in northern France, the heavily-fortified seven-kilometre ridge held a commanding view over the allied lines. The Canadians would be moving across an open graveyard. Previous French attacks had failed costing them more than 100,000 casualties.
Francis Pegahmagabow, First World War veteran was the First Nations soldier most highly decorated for bravery in Canadian military history and the most effective sniper of the First World War. Three times awarded the Military Medal and seriously wounded, he was an expert marksman and scout, credited with killing 378 Germans and capturing 300 more. Later in life he served as chief and a councillor for the Wasauksing First Nation, and as an activist and leader in several First Nations organizations.
The 107th “Timber Wolf” Battalion was a unit largely made up of indigenous people from Manitoba and Ontario, including Lieutenant James Moses of the Delaware band from Six Nations of the Grand River.
“Though many people on Bear Island were nominally Christian by the First World War, some of the women invited a shaman to perform a shaking tent ceremony to let them know how the boys going off to war would fare,” wrote veteran Steve Turner of Aurora in his memoirs. “After he came out from the tent, he told the people that all the boys going to war would be injured, except for one who wouldn’t suffer an injury, but all would return home alive.”
“Donald McKenzie, a relative involved in Vimy—returned without suffering a wound. All the other men from Bear Island were wounded overseas, wrote Steve Turner, Aurora, Ont.
In all, more than 500 status Indian servicemen lost their lives on foreign battlefields during the world wars, and the number of casualties—including those injured—was much higher. Their notable contributions to the war effort became a source of inspiration and self-confidence to themselves, to their communities and to Canadians in general. In fact, some reserves saw every eligible man sign up to fight.
“The Germans kept coming, swarming over the trenches in attack. Our machine-guns got red hot and the air was filled with smoke. When the fighting finished, I went over to the front line to see the damage. It was an awful mess—Germans and Canadians lay all over, some wounded, some dead. I went back to rest and wrote to Blanche: ‘The boys have gone, but not their sweat nor their blood. That will remain forever.'” — James Redsky, First World War veteran
Some reserves were nearly depleted of young men. For example, only three men of the Algonquin of Golden Lake Band who were fit and who were of age to serve remained on their reserve. Roughly half of the eligible Micmac and Maliseet men of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia signed up, and, although small, Saskatchewan’s File Hills community offered practically all of its eligible men. In B.C., the Head of the Lake Band saw every single man between the ages of 20 and 35 volunteer.
Support from native communities for the allied war effort was by no means unanimous. For example, some band councils refused to help the allied war effort unless Great Britain acknowledged their band’s status as independent nations. Such recognition was not granted.
Although its council opposed reserve enlistment, the Iroquois Six Nations of the Grand River provided more soldiers than any other Canadian Indian band. Approximately 300 went to the front. In addition, members of this reserve, the most populous in Canada, donated hundreds of dollars to help war orphans in Britain and for other war-relief purposes.
Many of the Six Nations volunteers were originally members of the 37th Haldimand Rifles, a regiment in the non-permanent active militia based on the reserve. It provided most of the members of the 114th Canadian Infantry Battalion, which had recruited throughout the area. Joining the Grand River volunteers in this battalion were 50 Mohawks from Kahnawake, Quebec, and several Mohawks from Akwesasne. Some natives from Western Ontario and Manitoba also became members. In the end, two of its companies, officers included, were composed entirely of Indians. In recognition of its large Indian make-up, the battalion adopted a crest featuring two crossed tomahawks below the motto, “For King and Country”. As well, members of the Six Nations Women’s Patriotic League embroidered a 114th flag, which they adorned with Iroquoian symbols.
We owe it to our veterans to keep the memory of their service alive. To this end, members of Canada’s native community began forming veterans organizations and recording their wartime experiences in newsletters, books and films. In the introduction to We Were There, a collection of war-related memories produced by the Saskatchewan Indian Veterans Association, the editor explains, “I wanted to publish … to let Indian children know that their fathers and grandfathers fought for the freedom we now cherish. Many of the Indian veterans who fought for this freedom did not come back.” This book was meant to honour those who could still tell their stories, and those who were left behind.