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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 CountryThe "Greater Production Campaign" saw notable increases in British Columbia agriculture and stock raising, but in Alberta the crops were only fair each year because the weather had stunted their growth.38 Statistics from the government's annual reports showed a steady though gradual increase of grain production on Indian reserves during the war years.

On a smaller scale, individual families were encouraged to plant "Victory gardens." Mr. Christianson, the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in Saskatchewan, stated in 1943 that Indians under his jurisdiction were ahead of all others in planting Victory gardens. A year later, though the gardens were increasing, actual interest had declined. Mr. Christianson attributed this to the fact that vegetables were not the Indian's natural food, and that spring planting was also the time for visiting relatives. This "wanderlust" occupied all the Agents' time as they tried to keep their wards at home with their gardens.39 Victory gardens were also planted in Alberta, and Mrs. Lucy Swite, a former Alberta Indian, remembers the problems there as being very similar.40 These gardens were an attempt by the government to lighten their own responsibilities to the Indians by making them more "subsistent" on their own grown food, which in turn would enable the government to cut down on its assistance to them.

Increases in grain production on Indian Reserves in western Canada. 1943-1945. Data from Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report, 1946.

Wheat Oats
  Acres Bushels Acres Bushels
Saskatchewan, 1943 9,015 165,106 13,515 294,845
Saskatchewan, 1944 11,038 221,944 12,536 314,622
Saskatchewan, 1945 12,674 160,835 14,647 304,744
Alberta, 1943 8,793 85,531 9,978 259,651
Alberta, 1944 12,741 128,277 10,264 321,209
Alberta, 1945 13,827 199,262 10,177 183,490
British Columbia, 1943 3,100 61,175 3,047 72,240
British Columbia, 1944 3,049 46,697 3,157 70,425
British Columbia, 1945 3,420 76,179 3,882 97,357
Canada, 1943 24,530 387,939 43,258 877,575
Canada, 1944 31,808 501,681 40,082 1,064,579
Canada, 1945 33,516 502,934 41,324 846,26141

In the early 1940s, as Canadian industry began to change to a wartime footing, jobs became plentiful and Indians who had suffered chronic unemployment were able to profit by the situation. The railways, packing plants, lumber mills and factories employed Alberta natives, while many also found summer jobs working on local farms.42

Indians were also included in the government's Selective Service Plans and relocated in other parts of the country. Two hundred men from the West who were rejected from active service were moved to Ontario forests, where they cut and peeled pulpwood.43 Another ten were sent to munitions factories in the East, and some worked in kitchens or did domestic work because these jobs had been practically drained of labour.44 Such abnormal movements within the native population had some detrimental effects, including the introduction of epidemics of influenza, typhoid, diphtheria, whooping cough and measles to the northern Indians of the Yukon and Mackenzie River basin.45

However, the war generally brought better times for Indians. R.A. Hoey, Acting Director of Indian Affairs, stated near the end of the war, that construction in the north and northwest had employed many Indians, who also had benefited from a 35 per cent increase in the price of furs.46

Indian contributions to Canada's war effort were officially acknowledged by government officials and in ceremonies during the war. In November L941 when Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King visited Regina, he met with Indian leaders and commented on their attitude towards Canada's war effort: King stated that "he was proud to see the real natives of Canada lining up in the war effort, and that they were accomplishing what was most desired: the complete unity in the Dominion's war effort."47 On the King's Birthday list of 2 June 1943, a number of natives were cited for showing excellent leadership and loyalty to the British Crown, and for serving as fine examples to Indians throughout Canada.48

Government policies and measures taken during the course of the war at times overrode not only their exemption from conscription but other rights Indians had acquired from the treaties. On 1 May 1942, Ottawa announced that Indians would be subject to the provisions of the national war services regulations, including compulsory military training.49 A year later, in July 1943, during a Commons Debate, T.A. Crerar defined his government's position on taxation of natives. He stated that "the Indians are not subject to income tax upon income they derive from the reserve, but if an Indian, for instance, a medical doctor who practices his profession outside the reserve, he is liable to income tax.50 These conditions exist even to this day.

Indian reaction came in the form of a protest march to Parliament Hill on 23 October 1943. The protesters left a petition with J.W. Pickersgill, Prime Minister Mackenzie King's private secretary. It stated that Indians were exempted from paying income tax by Proclamation of King George I, and that Queen Victoria also had signed a treaty granting Indians military exemptions. Their petition further noted that Canada's natives already supported the war effort by donations and by voluntarily joining the services.51

Other accusations were made by opposition Members of Parliament concerning government policies towards Indians. The Hon. John G. Diefenbaker outlined one such problem for Indians in Canada.

I want to speak of the situation concerning the Indians in this country. They have not been mentioned during this debate; they very' seldom receive any mention; but if all the people of this country had enlisted as generally as have the Indians, there would have been no need for a plebiscite or of discussion along the lines on which I am speaking ..... [The J reserves have been depleted of almost all the physically fit men. The Indians in service ask, "Why are we discriminated against? Why are the ordinary rights to go to refreshment places and so on which are allowed to other members of the army denied to us? Why is it that dependent's allowances for wives of other soldiers is $35.00 while the Wife of an Indian receives $10.00 and $15.00 a month.52


38. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1945, p. 164.

39. IMR, Vol. 6, No. 3, [April 1943].

40. Interview with Mrs. Lucy Swite, February 1983.

41. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1946.

42. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1945, p. 164.

43. IMR, Vol. 5, No. 1, [January 1942].

44. IMR, Vol. 5, No. 9, [November 1942].

45. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1943, p. 148.

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

47. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources, Annual Report for 1944, p. 152.

48. Ibid., p. 152.

49. IMR, Vol. 5, No. 5, [May 1942].

50. Debates, 4th Session, 19th parliament, 23 July 1943, p. 5308.

51. IMR, Vol. 6, No. 8, [November 1943].

52. Debates, 3rd Session, 19th parliament, 28 April 1942, p. 1960.

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