‘Aboriginals and the War Effort: The Hidden Story’

We celebrate the contributions made to our country’s military by aboriginal soldiers – as well we should – and we acknowledge the injustices that many faced despite their service. However, there is also another side to the story…

“The enactment of conscription in 1917, which included Status Indians, sparked great protest from ‘First Nations’ {aboriginal} peoples. In response, the government granted a limited exemption from overseas combative service for Status Indians…

“Many ‘First Nations’ {aboriginals} felt mixed, indifferent or even hostile to contributing to the war, some because of a difficult past relationship with the government or because this was ‘not their war’. In more remote regions, Métis {mixed race}, Inuit and ‘First Nations’ {Indians} were insulated from global events and the war barely touched their daily lives.

“‘Indigenous’ {aboriginal} soldiers were mostly integrated into regular military units, rather than serving in segregated “all-Indian” units… Most ‘indigenous’ {sic, ‘aboriginal’} veterans’ accounts speak of how their fellow soldiers accepted and respected them — racial prejudice had no place in the trenches

“In 1939, Canada declared war… Once again, ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} youth volunteered in the thousands, more still were conscripted, and communities contributed to the national war effort… A combination of factors funnelled the vast majority of ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} recruits into the army where they were integrated as individuals. Both the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) required volunteers be “of pure European descent and of the white race”, until 1942 and 1943 respectively

“Arguably, the scale and diversity of ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} engagement in the war effort was greater in this conflict, but so to was the breadth and determination of opposition to conscription… Once again, ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} military servicemen and women generally experienced respect, acceptance and promotion in the forces. Brigadier Oliver Martin, a Mohawk from the Six Nations Grand River reserve, was the highest-ranking ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} officer of the war…

“After some uncertainty, Status Indians were included in mandatory military training and military service in Canada. ‘First Nations’ {aboriginal} leaders remembered the limited exemption in 1918 and protested that it was unjust to compel people without citizenship rights to fight to defend those same rights. Nevertheless, this policy remained unchanged until late 1944, when the conscription crisis forced Prime Minister Mackenzie King to begin sending conscripts into combat overseas, including Status Indians. This, however, violated promises made during negotiation of several historical treaties and Indian Affairs requested a limited exemption for Status Indian conscripts, which was passed in December, 1944. The exemption covered only recruits from Treaties 3, 6, 8 and 11, roughly one-fifth of the Status Indian population (in the Prairies and Northwest Territories). Relatively few ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} men were included in the 2,463 conscripts that actually saw combat in 1945. While anti-climactic, conscription remained a major concern for ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} people throughout the war…

“‘Indigenous’ {aboriginal} women saw relatively little in the form of racial prejudice in women’s auxiliaries, as Métis Dorothy Asquith recalled,

[e]verybody was so involved in what was happening with the war nobody was involved in such pettiness.

“While collaboration marked the majority of ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} experience of the Second World War, not all were enthusiastic about joining the cause. Even amongst those supportive, their willingness to contribute was neither unlimited nor unconditional. Wartime taxation and lingering prewar grievances plagued ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal}–government relations, but conscription inspired more resistance than any other issue.

Across the country, and throughout the war, ‘indigenous’ {aboriginal} communities protested conscription. Young men ignored their call to report for medical examination and avoided authorities (sometimes with support from community elders), and one violent riot broke out when the RCMP tried to arrest draft evaders from the {notoriously racist} Kahnawake {Mohawk} Reserve south of Montréal…”

–‘Indigenous Peoples and the World Wars’,
R. Scott Sheffield, Canadian Encyclopedia, April 19, 2016
https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indigenous-peoples-and-the-world-wars
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