Manitoba man defied racism with unit of aboriginal soldiers in First World War

Lt.-Col. Glen Campbell raised a military unit in Winnipeg 100 years ago that helped aboriginal soldiers avoid racism. About half of the soldiers in the 107th (Timber Wolf) Battalion were aboriginal; many were recruited from residential schools.

'Under fire, you're not really concerned about the colour of the skin … of the person on either side of you'

Lt.-Col. Glenlyon (Glen) Campbell of the 107th Battalion, at Camp Hughes in Carberry, Man., in 1916. (Courtesy of Glen Campbell)

A Manitoba man is being remembered for defying racism during the First World War.

Lt.-Col. Glenlyon (Glen) Campbell raised and mobilized the 107th (Timber Wolf) Battalion in Winnipeg 100 years ago this month. More than 500 of the 900 men were aboriginal, including men who were Cree, Ojibway, Mohawk, Sioux and Delaware. Campbell recruited many of them from residential schools.

"He had so much respect for the First Nations people and knew they could do just as well as the other soldiers," said Glen Campbell, who's named after his great-grandfather. "All of his men really respected him."

When the First World War began in 1914, the Canadian government discouraged aboriginal people from enlisting. In 1915, after experiencing heavy casualties in Europe, the Canadian military needed more troops and the government relaxed its policies. By 1917, the government actively recruited aboriginal soldiers. 

Campbell raised the battalion in November 1915 and the soldiers trained at Camp Hughes in Carberry, Man. Campbell led the unit overseas in 1916, at age 53. Campbell's superiors wanted to break up the 107th Battalion and use the soldiers as reinforcements for other battalions, but Campbell convinced them to keep his soldiers together. 

"He felt that if he could keep the First Nations people under his command, he could shield them from a lot of the racism they faced at home," his great-grandson said.

Strong ties

Campbell had strong ties to aboriginal people his entire life, starting with his dad, who was an explorer and a fur trader for the Hudson Bay Company in British, Columbia, the Yukon and Saskatchewan.

"Most of his early life, he had spent with and around First Nations people," Campbell's great-grandson said. "He just always had a fascination with their lifestyles and their cultures and basically assimilated into that culture for quite a while, where he hunted and trapped and lived with the First Nation people."

Campbell later married Harriet Burns, the daughter of Chief Keeseekoowenin from the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation near Riding Mountain, Man.

Going to war

The Timber Wolf Battalion mainly functioned as a pioneer unit that built and maintained roads and laid communication lines.  

A letter from Gen. Sir Arthur William Currie to Lt.-Col. Glenlyon (Glen) Campbell. (Courtesy of Glen Campbell)
"To be able to go to France, I don't think they were considered capable of being just a full fighting battalion, probably because of racism again," said Campbell's great-grandson.

But the Timber Wolf Battalion did fight in the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 under Campbell's command before he died from longstanding kidney diease in October 1917. The unit went on to fight at Passchendaele. 

"They came out of Vimy Ridge fairly unscathed, but Hill 70, they took a lot of casualties," said his great-grandson.

Campbell took the deaths of his men hard.

"He got to know the families of a lot of these soldiers fairly well. He took it fairly hard to lose too many men and to have so many gassed and injured," his great-grandson said.

Even though the indigenous soldiers suffered racism before the war, Campbell's great-grandson said the men were simply seen as soldiers during combat. 

"When you're sitting in the trench under fire, you're not really concerned about the colour of the skin or the heritage of the person on either side of you, because you depend on them for making it through the battles," he said.

An adventurous man

Campbell also fought in the North-West Rebellion of 1885, entering as a private and leaving as a captain.

He was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba and a member of Parliament in Ottawa, and he sometimes gave speeches in Ojibway and Cree.

He later became the chief inspector for what's now called Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

He also took part in the first Calgary Stampede and was instrumental in getting indigenous peoples to participate in the event. 

Campbell's great-grandson described him as a strong leader and an adventurous man. 

"One time he jumped out of a tree onto the back of a moose and rode it for a distance. Apparently one time the circus was in town in Winnipeg, and one of his friends dared him to go in the cage with the lion, which he did," he said.

"I'm really proud of my ancestors."

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