Throughout the war, more than 4,000 Indigenous people served in uniform during the conflict. It was a remarkable response and in some areas, one in three able-bodied men would volunteer. Indeed, some communities (such as the Head of the Lake Band in British Columbia) saw every man between 20 and 35 years of age enlist. Indigenous recruits joined up for a variety of reasons, from seeking employment or adventure to wanting to uphold a warrior tradition that had seen their ancestors fight alongside the British in earlier military efforts like the War of 1812 and the South Africa War.
Many Indigenous soldiers called upon traditional hunting, scouting and disciplinary skills to deadly effect as snipers, scouts and messengers. The duties were straightforward and dangerous. Snipers kept the enemy unnerved with their rifle-fire by shooting at targets from concealed positions. Scouts and messengers moved behind enemy lines in advance of an attack to determine the enemy’s positions and capabilities. At least fifty awards for bravery were awarded to Indigenous soldiers of the CEF, the stories below represent just a few.
Francis Pegahmagabow, better known as “Peggy”, was the most decorated Indigenous soldier of the First World War. An Ojibwa from the Perry Island Band in Ontario, he enlisted almost immediately following the declaration of war. He was awarded the Military Medal (MM) plus two bars for acts of bravery in Belgium and France. His original MM was awarded in recognition of “continuous service as a messenger from February 1915 to February 1916.” His first bar to the Military Medal was won during the Battle of Passchendaele and his second bar was won during the final months of the War in the Battle of the Scarpe.
Pegahmagabow was one of only 39 members of the CEF who received two bars to the Military Medal. You can read more about this brave soldier at A Peaceful Man
Two sons of the Six Nations Cayuga chief, Alexander George Smith, Alexander Jr. and Charles Smith, enlisted three months after the outbreak of the war. Both served overseas as officers, achieving the rank of Captain, and both were awarded the Military Cross (MC) for gallantry. Alex, Jr. earned his MC during the second Allied assault on the Somme. He was wounded and recovered to return to his unit. Eventually he became sick and was returned to Canada where he was posted to a camp where many Polish soldiers trained. When the war ended, he was named an Officer of the Order of the Black Star, a Polish order, for his distinguished service at the camp; one of only five Canadians to receive this honour. The younger brother, Charles, earned his MC on the road to Mons, Belgium, two days before the end of the war.
Sam Glode, a Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia, joined the CEF at the age of 35, becoming a sapper with Company 6, Royal Canadian Engineers. The company dug tunnels, carved dugouts in Vimy and patched roads near Amiens. Shortly after the Armistice, the Canadian Corps was moving towards Germany for occupation duties. Glode was with a team searching for mines and demolition charges. On 19 and 20 November, 1918, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). The citation read “He showed great devotion to duty and an utter disregard of personal danger.”
More than 4,000 Indigenous soldiers served with the CEF, although the number is likely much larger as records are not accurate and many of the “non-status Indians” and Metis were not included. In all, more than 300 “status Indians” died during the War. Hundreds more were wounded, in body and in mind. The actual toll to the First Nations of Canada will never be fully understood.
As a result of the great service and contribution provided by the members of Canada’s First Nations throughout the history of Canada, in 2021, the Governor-General declared 12 November to be Indigenous Veterans Day.