Native Soldiers in WWI

Andréanne Dupont

On each November 11 since the end of the Great War, we remember all soldiers who fought, and often gave their lives while serving their country. We remember our Canadian soldiers, but we tend to forget that over 300 of them, who also died in this war, were from Native communities.

Native people's contribution to World War One and the subsequent ones is considerable. In the first one, they were more than 4,000 to voluntarily leave their tribes behind, to go and fight (Aboriginal Affairs). This number represented approximately thirty-five percent of all Indian males of military age at the time (Lackenbauer), which is really a high rate considering the Native population and the absence of conscription. In fact, the government first wanted to apply conscription to Natives, but they received protest's letters for many Indian communities considered this a grave injustice (Lackenbauer). "(…) status Indian did not have full rights of citizenship: they could not vote, for example, and were legally treated as 'wards' or 'minors.'"(Lackenbauer) Since they were considered as second class citizens for everything that required responsibility (as stated before they could not vote), why would they accept to be treated as citizens only when it served the government? Moreover, a third of their men old enough to be drafted were already going to war voluntarily. The government later back off, and no conscription was imposed on Natives.

The ones who freely chose to go to war often had to walk thousands of miles to reach a big city where they could enlist in the Canadian army. They were coming from remote locations and had no other transportation methods except for the canoe. An interesting fact revealed that the same government who would later on try to impose conscription on Natives to force them to go to war, first refused to have Indian in the army. According to them, the German might refuse to extend to the Native the privileges of civilized warfare. (Lackenbauer) Despite the restrictions some of them were already enlisted. They lifted the rule later on, allowing Native to go and fight for their country.

It is easily forgotten that Natives are no different from Canadians. They are part of this country population. They were living in this country way before the people who hid themselves behind the "full blooded" Canadian status. A young man named Max Basque, who wanted to enlist in the Navy, went to Montreal and was turn down because he refused to deny that he was a status Indian. Here is what he answered, according to Cape Breton Magazine, No.52, when the Navy's recruiting officer told him he would be ready to falsify his documents to enlist him as a Basque rather than as a Native: "No. On the books, I was born Indian all my life…What in the world? Disown my own race, just to get into the Navy? I'm a Canadian, even if I am an Indian. Same as you are…I was born here in Canada. (Mount Allison University)" It was really unfair to deny Natives the right to enlist in the army and, later on, to deny war veterans, who had given their bodies for the country, the same right as "full-blooded" Canadian war veterans. It is a total non sense that people who had the right to go to war and die alongside other "full-blooded" were deny the right to receive the same privileges when they came back to Canada. Moreover, when they were at war, Natives were treated as equals and even received the right to vote in 1917 (Lackenbauer). In Canada, they were treated as children again, denied their rightful rewards for having served their country voluntarily when others had to be drafted.

Natives' contribution to the war did not stop when they sent their children, husbands, fathers to war. They also gave about $45,000 to different wartime reliefs and aid funds even if their income was very low. (Library and Archives Canada) Native women also participated in the war efforts by becoming nurses or helping with charity work. (Lackenbauer)

Finally, Natives soldiers, as well as any Canadian soldiers, should be remembered for their efforts during the War. At least, even if the government did not give them what was their due, ordinary people like you and I can try to honor the memory of those men who died and served in the name of a country that was once stolen from them. They have remained in darkness for too many years. I will never forget about them. How about you?

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