More than 4,000 members of First Nations volunteered for the First World War and 3,000 in the Second World War
Aboriginal men and women have served Canada in all wars. In the War of 1812 before Canada was wholly independent of Great Britain, thousands of First Nations and Métis fighters fought alongside British troops and settler militia, defending Canadian territory against American invasion.
Commander of the British forces, Major-General Isaac Brock, saw these warriors as exceptional fighters. First Nations groups from most of Canada took part in all the major battles.
According to several British commanders, the battles were won because of the participation of their Indigenous allies.
When the First World War began, many Indigenous people volunteered in part because of the legacy of their forefathers in the War of 1812. Initially in 1914, there was confusion and indecision over their enlistment, but in 1917, they were recruited and it’s estimated that more than 4,000 Aboriginals served, in addition to Métis and Inuit. While fighting alongside other Canadians, prejudices and stereotypes were broken down as they made friends with their comrades and proved their abilities. Their knowledge of tracking and hunting made them an asset in combat. At least 50 were awarded medals for bravery and heroism.
Aboriginal women were active on the home front, contributing to the war effort through fundraising and other means.
In part because of the indecision and poor treatment of Aboriginals during the First World War, a lower number volunteered for the Second World War, but at least 3,000 enlisted, including 72 women. They served in every capacity, but there is one elite unit that only recruited Cree speakers.
The Cree Code Talker Program of the Air Force was Canada’s secret weapon. First Nations’ soldiers who spoke Cree transmitted secret messages to another Cree-speaking code talker, who translated it back to English. If the message was intercepted by Germans, they wouldn’t understand the language. Code talkers were sworn to secrecy and even today, no one knows how many or who served in this capacity. Many returned home and never told their families about their overseas assignment.
Charles Tomkins was a Métis man from Alberta who kept his code talker service a secret until he was interviewed about his military service at age 85.
Following are other distinguished Aboriginal soldiers:
- Chief Joe Dreaver of Mistawasis Cree Band in Saskatchewan served in both world wars. During the First World War, he was a sniper and earned the Military Medal, in Belgium. For the Second World War, he re-enlisted, leaving his farm and bringing 17 men with him, including three of his sons. At 48, he was too old for overseas service and remained in Canada with the Veterans Guard, watching over prisoners of war in Alberta.
- John McLeod, an Ojibwa, served overseas in the First World War and was a member of the Veterans Guard during the Second World War. Six of his sons and one of his daughters enlisted. Two sons were killed and another two were wounded. In 1972, John’s wife, Mary, the first Indigenous woman named Canada’s Memorial Cross Mother, placed a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day on behalf of all Canadian mothers who lost children in war.
- Charles Byce, of Cree ancestry, joined the Lake Superior Regiment. He won the Military Medal in the Netherlands and the Distinguished Conduct Medal in the Rhineland Campaign. His citation for the latter reads: “His gallant stand, without adequate weapons and with a bare handful of men against hopeless odds will remain, for all time, an outstanding example to all ranks of the Regiment.”
- Thomas George Prince, an Ojibwa from Manitoba, volunteered as a paratrooper. He served with the elite Canadian-American commando unit, the First Special Service Force, known to the Germans as the Devil’s Brigade. He earned the Military Medal during battle in Italy, and the Silver Star, an American award for gallantry, for reconnaissance work in France. These awards were presented to him by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.
- Brigadier Oliver Milton Martin, a Mohawk from the Six Nations Grand River Reserve, reached the highest military rank ever held by an Indigenous person. During the First World War, he served in both the army and air force. During the Second World War, he oversaw the training of recruits in Canada. For his 20 years of excellent service, he was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officer’s Decoration.
- David Greyeyes, a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Band in Saskatchewan served in seven European countries in many difficult roles, including commanding a mortar platoon in Italy. During the Italian Campaign, he earned the Greek Military Cross for valour in supporting the Greek Mountain Brigade. In 1977, he was awarded the Order of Canada. His citation reads: “Athlete, soldier, farmer, former Chief of the Muskeg Lake Reserve, Saskatchewan, and ultimately Director of Indian Affairs in the Maritime and Alberta Regions. For long and devoted service to his people, often under difficult circumstances.”
- Cpl. Huron Brant of Ontario’s Bay of Quinte Band was decorated with the Military Medal in Italy in 1943. One year later, he was shot and killed during an attack near Rimini. Brant was one of the more than 200 Indigenous soldiers who were killed in the Second World War.