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Alberta's Indians and the Second World War

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James Dempsey

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryIn the first war, recruiting was done unofficially. In the second war, however, recruiting parties officially campaigned on reserves to attract native recruits. One such Second World War recruiting party visited the Assiniboine reserve at Sintaluta, Saskatchewan, and four men enlisted in category A, forming the first group of volunteers in Canada's first platoon of Indians.20 Sometimes recruiting also was carried out by the Indian Agent on the reserve.21

Canadian Indians participated in the war and were as much a part of the action as any other group. They engaged the enemy and won recognition for their exploits, receiving commendations and medals for their involvement. Such a man was Sergeant George A. Campion from Alberta who fought with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and was awarded the Military Medal.22

The arrival of the Canadian forces in England drew general comments from the English press, but the Indian members of the force were singled out for particular attention. At Aldershot, a British newsman stated that "a group of eagle nosed Red Indians padded down the gangway in moccasins and were known to be admirable snipers."23 This was a reference to six Micmacs, who actually were in service boots like other members of the force, and did not really look any different from the other soldiers. The Glasgow Evening News called them "Maginot Mohicans," while a British naval officer present commented that "there is unmistakable red Indian characteristics in many of those individuals, don't you think?"24

The press also made comparisons to the current war and previous wars in which Canada's Indians had been involved. "Canada's Indians fought against the British in former years but now they fight with them, using motorcycles and uniforms instead of ponies and plume feathers, and Bren and Lewis guns over bows and arrows."25

Opinions and comments from non-Indians who saw action with Canada's natives were varied, though usually favourable. An officer with the Battleford Light Infantry [16th/22nd Saskatchewan Horse], who had 400 Indians under his command, stated that "they made excellent scouts and runners and knew their way around rough country."26 Lieutenant-Colonel A.W. Embury said, "They are fine men to have with you in a tight spot," while Sgt. Norman Watson commented, "I like them. They have a sense of humour and don't frighten easily." Major Gordon Brown stated, "You couldn't ask for better men in action, especially on night patrols. They move soundlessly. They are natural hunters. Some regiments used them exclusively as scouts and snipers."27 One consideration, however was that military confusion sometimes resulted from native names; an Indian calling himself "Teepee" Star refused to write or pronounce his name, but instead used hand gestures or drew a picture. Johnny No Name also ran into obvious problems when officers refused to believe that No Name was his real name.28

Neither the Indian volunteers in Canada's army in England, nor the Canadian treatment of Indians back home, escaped the notice of the German propagandists. "Lord Haw Haw," the infamous German propaganda broadcaster, mentioned the natives' arrival in England, and stated on his radio program, "England says her only task is to defend European culture. She has even enlisted red Indians in this defense. It is well known that London is not very discerning when choosing cannon fodder."29 The newspaper Voelkischer Beobachter in Berlin attacked the Indian Affairs Department in Canada by charging atrocities in that department.30

Canada's Indians were notably diligent in their support of the war effort on the home front, and their contribution to the war funds was a prime example of Indian dedication. Although they were the poorest of any ethnic group in Canada, a total of $23,596.71 was donated, with the Red Cross being the favourite fund, accounting for $13,797.50. Others were the War Effort funds, $2822.51; the Wings for Britain Fund, $2427.61 and the Canadian War Service Fund, $1787.45.31

The Hobbema reserves donated $2080 for ambulances from their band funds,32 while the Blackfoot Indians donated $3050 to the Red Cross.33 The money for such donations was raised in a variety of ways. Many bands converted large sums of band-fund interest money into war savings certificates, or turned in part of their $5.00 per year treaty money. Some donations were given directly to the interested party, while some donations were in the form of material objects such as furs. The Moose Lake Indians of Manitoba donated skins and moccasins as well as $40.00. The value of the furs brought their donation up to $3000 by December 1940.34

Other donations were made in the form of repaired garments and knitted socks, mufflers, and comforts bound for the soldiers overseas. Included with these items were treats and cigarettes for Indian servicemen, sent from reserves like File Hills in Saskatchewan.35 Most of these articles were sent through one of the ten war service clubs or Homemakers' Clubs run by Indian women.36 The federal government accepted most donations, but if the band funds were too low the offer was rejected.

The "Greater Production Campaign" that had been initiated during the First World War was reinstated during the Second World War, in cooperation with the Indian Affairs Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources. When the land controlled by Indians was examined, it was found that of the 2,159,652 acres cleared, only 210,921 acres were being cultivated. From these statistics, it was thought the Indians as a group had never been self-supporting from a production standpoint, and therefore special measures would have to be taken.37

This attitude resurrected the old idea that the best way to use land was through farming, and since most of the Indians on farmable land had been hunters, they did not naturally take to farming. Their land had to be actively used, according to the predominant Canadian perception, or else be taken over by non-Indians as had happened during the Great War. However, efforts were made to avoid the forced sale of land that had occurred during the First World War, and the few sales which did occur were for military bases rather than farming.

Efforts taken by the government to raise production on Indian land came in the form of programmes emphasizing subsistence on gardens, use of instructional charts for farming and supplying seed, nets, cattle, bulbs, goats, poultry, and fruit trees. At the same time fishing was extended in the lake areas.


20. IMR, Vol. 4, No. 6, [November 1941].

21. IMR, Vol. 5, No. 4, [April 1942].

22. Fred Gaffen, Forgotten Soldiers. [Penticton, British Columbia: Theytus Books, 1985], p. 131.

23. Edmonton Journal, January 1940.

24. Ibid.

25. Free Press, 10 October 1940.

26. IMR, Vol. 5, No. 8, [October 1942].

27. IMR, Vol. 9, No. 3, [March 1946].

28. Ibid.

29. Edmonton Journal, 6 June 1940.

30. IMR, Vol. 3, No. 6, [September 1940].

31. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1946, p. 196.

32. IMR, Vol. 3, No. 6, [September 1940].

33. IMR, Vol. 7, No. 7, [October 1944].

34. IMR, Vol. 3, No. 9, [December 1940].

35. IMR, Vol. 5, No. 6, [June 1942].

36. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1945, p. 165.

37. IMR, Vol. 7, No. 4, [April 1944].

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