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Indigenous Peoples and the Second World War

In 1939, Canada found itself at war for the second time in a generation. As in the First World War (1914-18), thousands of Indigenous soldiers and nurses volunteered for the war effort at home and abroad, serving with distinction in the Canadian army, navy, and air force. At least 3090 First Nations soldiers enlisted in the Canadian military in the Second World War, with thousands more Métis, Inuit, and non-Status Indian soldiers serving without official recognition of their Indigenous identity.

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Indigenous Peoples and the First World War

Indigenous soldiers, nurses, and ordinary civilians made a major contribution to Canada’s First World War effort. More than 4000 First Nations soldiers fought for Canada during the war, officially recorded by the Department of Indian Affairs (see Federal Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs). In addition, thousands more non-Status Indians, Inuit, and Métis soldiers enlisted without official recognition of their Indigenous identity. More than 50 Indigenous soldiers were decorated for bravery in action, including the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) soldier Francis Pegahmagabow, Inuit soldier John Shiwak, and Cree soldier Henry Norwest.

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Brock Chisholm

George Brock Chisholm, CC, CBE, psychiatrist, medical administrator, soldier (born 18 May 1896 in Oakville, ON; died 4 February 1971 in Victoria, BC). After earning honours for courageous service in the First World War, Brock Chisholm became an influential psychiatrist. He introduced mental health as a component of the recruitment and management of the Canadian Army during the Second World War. He directed the army’s medical services, served in the federal government as deputy minister of health, and became the founding director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO). His vocal attacks on methods of indoctrinating children with societal myths made him a controversial public figure. He was an often provocative advocate of world peace and mental health. 

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Tecumseh

Tecumseh, Shawnee chief, leader of a First Nations confederacy, military leader in the War of 1812 (born circa 1768 in south-central Ohio; died 5 October 1813 near Moraviantown [Thamesville, ON]).

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Igor Gouzenko

Igor Sergeievitch Gouzenko, Soviet intelligence officer, author (born 26 January 1919 in Rogachev, Russia; died 25 June 1982 in Mississauga, ON). Igor Gouzenko was a Soviet cipher clerk stationed at the Soviet Union’s Ottawa embassy during the Second World War. Just weeks after the end of the war, Gouzenko defected to the Canadian government with proof that his country had been spying on its wartime allies: Canada, Britain and the United States. This prompted what is known as the Gouzenko Affair. Gouzenko sought asylum for himself and his family in Canada. His defection caused a potentially dangerous international crisis. Many historians consider it the beginning of the Cold War.

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Chinese Canadians of Force 136

Force 136 was a branch of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War. Its covert missions were based in Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia, where orders were to support and train local resistance movements to sabotage Japanese supply lines and equipment. While Force 136 recruited mostly Southeast Asians, it also recruited about 150 Chinese Canadians. It was thought that Chinese Canadians would blend in with local populations and speak local languages. Earlier in the war, many of these men had volunteered their services to Canada but were either turned away or recruited and sidelined. Force 136 became an opportunity for Chinese Canadian men to demonstrate their courage and skills and especially their loyalty to Canada.

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Canadian War Art Programs

Since the First World War, there have been four major initiatives to allow Canadian artists to document Canadian Armed Forcesat war. Canada’s first official war art program, the Canadian War Memorials Fund (1916–19), was one of the first government-sponsored programs of its kind. It was followed by the Canadian War Art Program (1943–46) during the Second World War. The Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program (1968–95) and the Canadian Forces Artists Program (2001–present) were established to send civilian artists to combat and peacekeepingzones. Notable Canadian war artists have included A.Y. Jackson, F.H. Varley, Lawren Harris, Alex Colville and Molly Lamb Bobak.

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Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from Public Service

Between the 1950s and the 1990s, the Canadian government responded to national security concerns generated by Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union by spying on, exposing and removing suspected LGBTQ individuals from the federal public service and the Canadian Armed Forces. They were cast as social and political subversives and seen as targets for blackmail by communist regimes seeking classified information. These characterizations were justified by arguments that people who engaged in same-sex relations suffered from a “character weakness” and had something to hide because their sexuality was considered a taboo and, under certain circumstances, was illegal. As a result, the RCMP investigated large numbers of people. Many of them were fired, demoted or forced to resign — even if they had no access to security information. These measures were kept out of public view to prevent scandal and to keep counter-espionage operations under wraps. In 2017, the federal government issued an official apology for its discriminatory actions and policies, along with a $145-million compensation package.

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Documenting the Second World War

When Canada declared war on Germany on 10 September 1939, tens of thousands of Canadians enlisted to serve in the armynavyair force and supporting services. The military scrambled to buy equipment, train recruits and prepare for war. Little thought was given, at first, to documenting the war effort. By 1940, however, the military was recruiting historians, most notably Charles Stacey, to collect records and write accounts of Canadian operations. In the following years, artists, photographers and filmmakers also served with the various branches of the armed forces. Today, their diligent work provides a rich visual and written catalogue of Canada’s history in the Second World War.

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Wop May

Wilfrid Reid (Wop) May, OBE, DFC, aviator, First World War flying ace (born 20 March 1896, in Carberry, Manitoba; died 21 June 1952 near Provo, UT). Wop May was an aviator who served as a fighter pilot in the First World War. May finished the war as a flying ace, credited with 13 victories, and was part of the dogfight in which the infamous Red Baron was gunned down. After the war, May became a renowned barnstormer (or stunt pilot) and bush pilot, flying small aircraft into remote areas in Northern Canada, often on daring missions. May flew in several historic flights, carrying medicine and aide to northern locations and assisting law enforcement in manhunts, including the hunt for Albert Johnson, the “Mad Trapper of Rat River” in 1932.

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Douglas Jung

Douglas Jung, CM, OBC, politician, lawyer, soldier (born 25 February 1924 in Victoria, BC; died 4 January 2002 in Vancouver, BC). Douglas Jung was a member of Force 136, a group of Chinese Canadian soldiers who fought behind enemy lines in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. After the war, Jung became a lawyer in British Columbia and was the first Chinese Canadian lawyer to appear before the BC Court of Appeal in 1955. On 10 June 1957, Douglas Jung was elected as the first Chinese Canadian member of Parliament.

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War of 1812

The War of 1812 (which lasted from 1812 to 1814) was a military conflict between the United States and Great Britain. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada was swept up in the War of 1812 and was invaded several times by the Americans. The war was fought in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, and in the United States. The peace treaty of Ghent (1814), which ended the war, largely returned the status quo. However, in Canada, the war contributed to a growing sense of national identity, including the idea that civilian soldiers were largely responsible for repelling the American invaders. In contrast, the First Nations allies of the British and Canadian cause suffered much because of the war; not only had they lost many warriors (including the great Tecumseh), they also lost any hope of halting American expansion in the west, and their contributions were quickly forgotten by their British and Canadian allies (see First Nations and Métis Peoples in the War of 1812).

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Louis Levi Oakes

Louis Levi Oakes (also known as Tahagietagwa), Mohawk soldier, war hero, steelworker, public works supervisor (born 23 January 1925 in St. Regis, QC; died 28 May 2019 in Snye, QC). During the Second World War, Oakes was a code talker for the United States Army. Code talkers used their Indigenous languages to encode radio messages to prevent the enemy from understanding them. When he passed away at age 94, Oakes was the last Mohawk code talker. (See also Cree Code Talkers and Indigenous Peoples and the World Wars.)

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Margaret Ecker

Margaret Alberta Corbett Ecker, journalist (born 1915 in Edmonton, AB; died 3 April 1965 in Ibiza, Spain). Margaret Ecker was an award-winning newspaper and magazine writer. She was the only woman to serve overseas as a war correspondent for the Canadian Press wire service during the Second World War. She was also the only woman present at Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1945. Ecker was made an officer of the Netherlands’ House of the Orange Order in 1947, making her the first Canadian woman to receive that honour.

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