Indigenous Peoples and the World Wars

Thousands of Indigenous peoples served in the Canadian military forces in the First World War and Second World War, mostly voluntarily. On the home front, most Indigenous communities participated in the national war effort in diverse ways.
Thousands of Indigenous peoples served in the Canadian military forces in the First World War and Second World War, mostly voluntarily. On the home front, most Indigenous communities participated in the national war effort in diverse ways.

The world wars were dramatic events for Indigenous peoples in Canada (see Indigenous Peoples and the First World War and Indigenous Peoples and the Second World War). Conflict offered these marginalized populations opportunities to renew warrior cultural traditions, reaffirm sacred treaties, prove their worth to indifferent non-Indigenous Canadians, break down social barriers and find good jobs.

Monument national des anciens combattants autochtones, Ottawa

Monument dedicated to Indigenous soldiers who fought in the First World War and Second World War for Canada.

Volunteering for War

Thousands served in the military forces in each conflict, mostly voluntarily. Officially, about 4000 First Nations soldiers (Status Indians) served overseas in the First World War, while 4250 First Nations soldiers served in the Second World War. Recent research has revealed that thousands more First Nations, Métis, and Inuit soldiers (such as John Shiwak from Labrador, who served in the First World War) volunteered for service without self-identifying as Indigenous.

Historian Timothy Winegard has shown that in the First World War, recruitment and volunteerism of Indigenous soldiers breaks down into three phases. In the first phase, from August 1914 to December 1915, the Army “unofficially” accepted Indigenous soldiers. In other words, they allowed them to enlist but did not actively recruit them. In the second phase, from December 1915 to December 1916, the Canadian government and the Department of Indian Affairs relaxed restrictions against Indigenous volunteers as casualties grew for the Canadian Expeditionary Force after deadly battles like the Second Battle of Ypres (1915) and the Battle of the Somme (1916). The third phase took place from 1917 to the end of the war. In the third phase, Indigenous volunteers were officially encouraged as voluntary enlistment dried up across Canada and Prime Minister Robert Borden decided to institute conscription (mandatory military service). The Military Service Act (MSA) of August 1917, which declared conscription of men aged 20-45, initially included all Indigenous men (except for Inuit men), regardless of their legal Indian status. Although First Nations and other Indigenous men were exempted from the MSA in January 1918, many more continued to volunteer through the end of the war.

In total, more than 500 Indigenous soldiers died and many more were wounded or captured in the world wars. On the home front, most Indigenous communities participated in the national war effort in diverse ways, by donating money and working for the war industry. Despite their contributions and sacrifices, however, Indigenous peoples remained marginalized, without basic civic rights like the right to vote (see Indigenous Suffrage).

Legacy and Memory

After the First World War (1914-18), there was little recognition given to Indigenous peoples for their contribution to the war effort. Unlike during the First World War, however, Canadians acknowledged Indigenous participation during the Second World War (1939-45). As the country looked to create a new order in the aftermath of the war, many Canadians suddenly looked at their country’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and did not like what they saw. In this brief climate of recognition, Indigenous leaders, veterans groups and many other Canadians pressured the government for reform and citizenship rights, leading to a Parliamentary review in 1946 and major amendments to the Indian Act in 1951 (though voting rights were not granted at the federal level until 1960; see Indigenous Suffrage).

Thereafter, Indigenous veterans were largely forgotten until they began to organize and campaign for recognition of their sacrifices and restitution for grievances over veterans benefits from the 1970s to the 2000s. Perseverance paid off, with a consensus report accepted by both First Nations veterans groups and the government in 2001, followed by an offer of a public apology and offer of compensation in 2003. Traditionally, Métis and Inuit veterans’ grievances have not received the same hearing. In recent years, however, Indigenous veterans have gained much greater recognition in local and national acts of remembrance, including Aboriginal Veterans Day on 8 November (inaugurated by Winnipeg’s city council in 1994) and a National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Ottawa (unveiled in 2001). They are forgotten warriors no longer.

Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow
Canadian war hero and First Nations activist, Francis Pegahmagabow (1919).

Did You Know?
Yann Castelnot, a French-born, Quebec-based amateur historian, has spent the past two decades researching the names of more than 154,000 Indigenous soldiers that have served with the Canadian and American armed forces in wartime since the 1890s. Castelnot has uncovered the names of 14,800 Indigenous people that served in the Canadian armed forces during the First World War and Second World War, thousands more than previous estimates. For his efforts in identifying and honouring the Indigenous soldiers who contributed to the Canadian war effort in the world wars, Castelnot has been awarded the 2012 Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the 2017 Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers (both awarded by the Governor General of Canada), as well as a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation in 2017. Luc O’Bomsawin, an Abenaki veteran from Odanak, Quebec and founding president of the Aboriginal Veterans of Quebec Association, says that Castelnot’s work “is essential…The figures that he puts on are a lot more serious than what I’ve seen up to now.”

Further Reading

  • Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1914-1916 Volume One (2007).

    Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918 Volume Two (2008).

    Tim Cook, The Necessary War: Canadians Fighting the Second World War 1939-1943, Volume One (2014).

    Tim Cook, Fight to the Finish: Canadians in the Second World War 1944-1945, Volume Two (2015).

    P. Whitney Lackenbauer, et al., A Commemorative History of Aboriginal Peoples in the Canadian Military (Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 2010).

    Grace Poulin, Invisible Women: World War II Aboriginal Servicemen in Canada (Thunder Bay: Ontario Native Women’s Association, 2007).

    R. Scott Sheffield, “Fighting a White Man’s War? First Nations Participation in the Canadian War Effort, 1939–45,” in Canada and the Second World War: Essays in Honour of Terry Copp, ed. by Geoffrey Hayes, Mike Bechthold and Matt Symes (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012) and A Search for Equity: A Study of the Treatment Accorded to First Nations Veterans and Dependents of the Second World War and the Korean Conflict. The Final Report of the National Round Table on First Nations Veterans' Issues (Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations, May 2001).

    Robert J. Talbot, “‘It Would be Best to Leave Us Alone’: First Nations Responses to the Canadian War Effort, 1914–18,” Journal of Canadian Studies vol. 45, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 90–120.

    Timothy C. Winegard, For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012).

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