Indigenous Veterans - Veterans Affairs Canada (2023)

The First World War

Introduction

While exact statistics are difficult to determine, the rate of Indigenous participation in Canada's military efforts over the years has been impressive. These determined volunteers were often forced to overcome many challenges to serve in uniform, from learning a new language and adapting to cultural differences, to having to travel great distances from their remote communities just to enlist.

The First World War raged from 1914 to 1918 and 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 tradition that had seen their ancestors fight alongside the British in earlier military efforts like the War of 1812 and the South African War.

Indigenous Veterans - Veterans Affairs Canada (1)

Blood Tribe recruits, 191st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, Fort Macleod, Alberta. (Photo and caption: Glenbow Archives, NA-2164-1)

Valuable skills

Many Indigenous men brought valuable skills with them when they joined the military. Patience, stealth and marksmanship were well-honed traits for those who had come from communities where hunting was a cornerstone of daily life. These attributes helped many of these soldiers become successful snipers (military sharpshooters) and reconnaissance scouts (men who stealthily gathered information on enemy positions). Indigenous soldiers earned at least 50 decorations for bravery during the war. Henry Louis Norwest, a Métis from Alberta and one of the most famous snipers of the entire Canadian Corps, held a divisional sniping record of 115 fatal shots and was awarded the Military Medal and bar for his courage under fire.

Indigenous Veterans - Veterans Affairs Canada (2)

Cameron Brant was one of the 88 Six Nations' war-dead whose names are recorded on a tablet donated to the Six Nations Reserve by the Prince of Wales. This portrait of Brant was sketched by Irma Coucill for the Indian Hall of Fame. (Woodland Cultural Centre)

Indigenous Veteran's stories

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The Second World War

Answering the call again

When the Second World War erupted in September 1939, many Indigenous people again answered the call of duty and joined the military. By March 1940, more than 100 of them had volunteered and by the end of the conflict in 1945, over 3,000 First Nations members, as well as an unknown number of Métis, Inuit and other Indigenous recruits, had served in uniform. While some did see action with the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force, most would serve in the Canadian Army.

Indigenous Veterans - Veterans Affairs Canada (7)

Huron Brant receiving his Military Medal in Italy.

Photo: Library and Archives Canada PA-130065.

Code Talkers

While Indigenous soldiers again served as snipers and scouts, as they had during the First World War, they also took on interesting new roles during this conflict. One unique example was being a "code talker." Men like Charles Checker Tompkins of Alberta translated sensitive radio messages into Cree so they could not be understood if they were intercepted by the enemy. Another Cree-speaking "code talker" would then translate the received messages back into English so they could be understood by the intended recipients.

Decorations for bravery

Indigenous service members would receive numerous decorations for bravery during the war. Willard Bolduc, an Ojibwa airman from Ontario, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his brave actions as an air gunner during bombing raids over occupied Europe. Huron Brant, a Mohawk from Ontario, earned the Military Medal for his courage while fighting in Sicily.

Indigenous Veterans - Veterans Affairs Canada (8)

Lieutenant David Greyeyes in September 1943.

(Photo: Department of National Defence)

(Video) Aboriginal Veterans Day - November 8, 2016

Indigenous people also contributed to the war effort on the home front. They donated large amounts of money, clothing and food to worthy causes and also granted the use of portions of their reserve lands to allow for the construction of new airports, rifle ranges and defence installations. The special efforts of First Nations communities in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia were also recognized with the awarding of the British Empire Medal to acknowledge their great contributions.

Memorials

Memorials main page

  • Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

    National Aboriginal Veterans Monument

    Honours the contributions of all Indigenous people in war and peace support operations from the First World War to today.

  • Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada

    Francis Pegahmagabow monument

    Commemorates Canada's most decorated Indigenous soldier of the First World War.

    (Video) Remembrance Day 2021: The story of Canada's most decorated Indigenous soldier
  • Garden Village, Ontario, Canada

    Nipissing First Nation War Memorial

    Dedicated to the band's war dead and veterans of the First and Second World Wars.

  • Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    Sgt. Tommy Prince Memorial

    Dedicated to the memory of Sergeant Thomas (Tommy) George Prince, soldier with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and recipient of the Military Medal.

The Korean War

Expanding duties

The Korean War erupted in 1950 and several hundred Indigenous people would serve Canada in uniform during the conflict. Many of them had seen action in the Second World War which had only come to an end five years earlier. This return to service in Korea would see some of these brave individuals expanding on their previous duties in new ways.

Tommy Prince, an Ojibwa from Manitoba, served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Korea. He would draw upon his extensive infantry experience in the Second World War with missions like a "snatch patrol" raid. Prince was second-in-command of a rifle platoon and led a group of men into an enemy camp where they captured two machine guns. He also took part in the bitter Battle of Kapyong in April 1951 which saw his battalion subsequently awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation for its distinguished service—a rare honour for a non-American force.

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Tommy Prince (right) with a brother at Buckingham Palace, where he was awarded two gallantry medals.

(C.J. Woods / Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-142289)

(Video) Remembrance Moments: Canada's Indigenous Veterans

Medals

Medals main page

  • Orders and Decorations Military Medal (MM)
  • Campaign Stars and Medals (1866-1918) Victory Medal (Inter-Allied War Medal)
  • Orders and Decorations British Empire Medal (Military and Civil) (BEM)
  • Campaign Stars and Medals (1939-1954) United Nations Service Medal (Korea)
  • Orders and Decorations Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)

Post-War Years

Life in the military

Indigenous men and women have continued to proudly serve in uniform in the post-war years, as well. Like so many of those who have pursued a life in the military, they have been deployed wherever they have been needed—from NATO duties in Europe during the Cold War to service with United Nations and other multinational peace support operations in dozens of countries around the world. In more recent years, many Indigenous Canadian Armed Forces members saw hazardous duty in Afghanistan during our country's 2001-2014 military efforts in that war-torn land.

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A Canadian Ranger during a patrol in Nunavut in 2012.

Photo: Department of National Defence IS2012-1012-06

Canadian Rangers

Closer to home, Indigenous military personnel have filled a wide variety of roles, including serving with the Canadian Rangers. This group of army reservists is active predominantly in the North, as well as on remote stretches of our east and west coasts. The Rangers use their intimate knowledge of the land there to help maintain a national military presence in these difficult-to-reach areas, monitoring the coastlines and assisting in local rescue operations.

Legacy

The story of Indigenous service in the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War and later Canadian Armed Forces efforts is a proud one. While exact numbers are elusive, it has been estimated that as many as 12,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit people served in the great conflicts of the 20th century, with at least 500 of them sadly losing their lives.

Indigenous Veterans - Veterans Affairs Canada (20)

CF Snowbirds fly over the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument

(Video) Heroes Remember: Indigenous Veterans

Honouring contributions

This rich heritage has been recognized in many ways. The names given to several Royal Canadian Navy warships over the years, like HMCS Iroquois, Cayuga and Huron, are just one indication of our country's lasting respect for the contributions of Indigenous Veterans. This long tradition of military service is also commemorated with the striking National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa. This deeply symbolic memorial features a large bronze eagle at its top, with four men and women from different Indigenous groups from across Canada immediately below. A wolf, bear, bison and caribou—powerful animals that represent "spiritual guides" which have long been seen by Indigenous cultures as important to military success—look out from each corner. Remembrance ceremonies are held at this special monument, including on Indigenous Veterans Day which is observed each year on November 8.

Veterans Affairs Canada acknowledges the assistance of Fred Gaffen, whose research was drawn upon in the creation of this publication.

FAQs

How many indigenous veterans are there in Canada? ›

Today, more than 2,700 Indigenous members continue to serve in Canada's military forces. We are grateful for their sacrifices and contributions to Canada's history and to Canada's security.

Why is there an indigenous Veterans Day in Canada? ›

It's a day to recognize and acknowledge the many contributions and sacrifices of Aboriginals not only to Canada's war efforts but to its peacekeeping reputation. The National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Confederation Park in Ottawa.

Why are there separate days for indigenous veterans? ›

National Indigenous Veterans Day began in Winnipeg in 1994 when Indigenous veterans were not recognized in Remembrance Day activities, and is now celebrated in many communities across Canada.

Are you a Veteran if you were in the reserves Canada? ›

All Regular and Reserve Force Canadian Armed Forces members who completed basic training and were honourably released are eligible to receive the Veteran's Service Card upon request.

Did Indigenous soldiers lose their status? ›

Many status Indian soldiers had to become enfranchised before they could sign up to fight in the Second World War, which meant that when they returned to their home communities, they no longer had Indian status.

Why do you think almost 4000 First Nations men served in the Canadian Army in the First World War? ›

Like most Canadians, many Indigenous men served in the infantry with the Canadian Corps in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Indigenous peoples' military roles were influenced by their traditional hunting and military skills combined with the racial stereotypes held by recruiting officers and military officials.

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