The exact number of First Nations people to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force is not exactly known; what is known, however, is that many Native men volunteered to serve in World War One. Behind this effort was a web of colonialism, prejudice, and politics. A recent documentary, Honouring First Nations Veterans, shares unique stories and perspectives on the impact of war within First Nations communities. A newspaper article from the Fort William Daily Times Journal (March 28 1919, page 14) outlines the efforts and contributions of several First Nations people during the First World War.
Private Peter Belanger was a runner (messenger) with the 52nd Battalion and was wounded in action. Private Augustin (Gus) Belanger, with the 52nd Battalion, was killed in action on May 25, 1917. He was awarded the Military Medal Posthumously, the citation reads: "On June the 5, 1916, this man carried important despatches to the front line companies crossing a mile and a half of open country under intensely heavy shell fire. Although buried in a trench by the debris from the bursting shell fire, he continued his journey, twice coming under machine gun fire, and safely delivered the despatches. During the whole period of the 3rd to 14th June 1916, his conduct in delivering messages was most conspicuous."
Private Peter Belanger (left) 52nd Battalion,Private Augustin (Gus) Belanger (right) 52nd Battalion, Military Medal, both from Fort William First Nation, Ontario. Photo Credit: Library & Archives Canada/Thunder Bay Military Museum.
Little information is available about Pte Joe DeLaronde; the newspaper article linked above outlines his accomplishments in service during the First World War. DeLaronde came from Nipigon and joined the 52nd Battalion out of Fort William, ON.
Pte Thomas Godchere
Vimy Ridge, in northern France had been fortified by the Germans with well wired trenches, deep dugouts, inter-connecting tunnels and concrete bunkers. It was an important pivot in the enemy's defences. There on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917 came the Allies first successful major offensive on the Western Front. On that day the entire Canadian Corps of four divisions, under the British Commander, Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng, took the heights of Vimy which became a symbol of Canadian achievement. An Ojibway, Private Thomas Godchere of Long Lake Band, Longlac Ontario, was awarded the Military Medal, “ For gallant and distinguished conduct in reconnoitring and scouting under heavy shell and rifle fire after the attack on the 9 April 1917. This man has always shown great coolness and daring while out on scouting patrols.” Thomas Godchere was killed in action when he made his final patrol that day.
Private Thomas Godchere, Military Medal, 120nd Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force, from Long Lac 58 Band, Ontario.
Photo Credit: Library & Archives Canada/Thunder Bay Military Museum
Pte David Kejick DCM
Private David Kejick, an Ojibway from Fort William First Nation, earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was described as "a genial giant of a man, six foot-six, in his moccains and strong as a bull". He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal because he displayed marked courage and intelligence during the attach on enemy positions at Tilloy on 1st October 1918. When his Company was held up by heavy fire, he on his own initiative ran into the open and with his lewis gun at the hip, fired four pans into the enemy machine guns. His fire was so effective that a party of the company on the right were able to advance and capture four machine guns together with 70 prisoners.
Private David Kejick, Distinguished Conduct Medal. 52nd Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force, from Fort William First Nation, Ontario.
Photo Credit: Library & Archives Canada/Thunder Bay Military Museum.
Private Frank Michon of the Fort William band joined the 52nd Battalion at Port Arthur, Ontario. When the battalion left Port Arthur for overseas in November 1915 some two hundred men were left behind. Pte Michon was to have been one of these men but he packed up his kit and got aboard the train with the others. At St. John's the extra man was discovered and Colonel Hay (Commanding Office of the 52nd Battalion) decided to keep him. Frank was twice wounded. He was taken prisoner by the Germans but managed to escape after being held for three months. He successfully made his way through Germany and safely crossed the front.
Private Frank Michon, 52nd Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force, from Fort William First Nation, Ontario.
Photo Credit: Library & Archives Canada/Thunder Bay Military Museum.
Aboriginal Veteran's Day (November 8)
Remembering the Contribution of Indigenous Peoples to First and Second World Wars; November 8 is dedicated to honour First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Veterans in Canada.
It is a day set aside to recognize those veterans who are often overlooked by scholars and the general public, particularly for the contributions made during the First and Second World Wars at home and abroad. It has been estimated that those who chose, as all Aboriginal Peoples who participated in both conflicts were volunteers, to leave their traditional lands achieved the most honours per capita. The contribution made by the various Peoples in Northwestern Ontario is no different.
During the First World War, of the more than four thousand who left their lands to fight, approximately half were decorated for bravery. These included individuals such as Agustin Belanger of Fort William First Nation, who was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery for repeatedly delivering messages integral to the Battle of Mount Sorrel while under machine gun and artillery fire over a period of days. Sergeant Leo Bouchard from Lake Nipigon won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.” Private David Kejick was awarded a DCM for displaying “marked courage and intelligence during the attack on enemy positions at Tilloy” on October 1, 1918. In gratitude, the village of Kejick on Shoal Lake was named in his honour.
Though most Canadians are unaware of the fact, thousands of Aboriginal men and women from across Canada enlisted to fight in the Second World War (status and non-status). Thousands more Métis also enlisted. One notable individual was Sergeant Charlie Byce of the Lake Superior Regiment, who was awarded both the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions in Holland and Germany.
What is remarkable is that those Peoples who did fight did not have the same rights as others who served. An unfortunate legacy for the brave members of the various Nations throughout Northwestern Ontario was what many veterans call the “honorarium” they each received at the war’s end. Federal law prohibited Aboriginal Peoples from having the vote and, as a result, the thousands of native veterans that had fought to stem the tide of tyranny and dictatorship found themselves without a voice in Canada unless they gave up their Status Indian rights (under a law that was not changed until July 1, 1953). They were also the only group in Canada determined to be ineligible for the Veterans Land Act benefits.
Deciding to give up Status rights would affect not only them individually, but also their descendants. Compounding the issue were internal conflicts between the Department of Veterans Affairs, which wished to extend all benefits to Aboriginal soldiers, and the Department of Indian Affairs, which adhered to the treaties and to past government practice. As a result, most veterans were unaware of, or unable to access, the benefits that should have been available to them.
To their credit, their fellow soldiers from the all the regiments raised in Northwestern Ontario voiced their consternation to commanding officers, city and town officials, and their Members of Parliament. However it fell on deaf ears. Many Aboriginal Veterans took leadership roles in their communities and spearheaded social and political movements. After decades of petitionsIt was not until 2002 that federal government offered a redress package to Aboriginal Veterans in 2002, extending it to Métis and non-status in 2004.
Dr. Michel S. Beaulieu (Chair, Lakehead University Department of History)