First Nations contributions to WW I and WW II: Lest we forget

Our soldiers fought for the shared values of freedom and democratic rights for all, but these soldiers returned from the war and quickly realized those freedoms and rights did not equally apply to them as they did their non-native comrades, writes Gordon Peters.

'Equality on the battle field did not mean equality at home,' writes Gord Peters

Sgt. Tommy Prince (centre), from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, served in WWII and in Korea with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. His cunning and bravery earned him a dozen medals, including battle honours for service in Korea with the PPCLI. (PPCLI Museum and Archives in Calgary )

Every year on Remembrance Day I think about my grandfathers, father, uncles, and the 6,000 First Nations soldiers who served alongside the Canadian Forces throughout the First and Second World Wars.

These men and women were not Canadian citizens and not subject to conscription efforts. Regardless, they volunteered and stood as allies with their settler brothers — nation to nation — in defence of the land and our collective freedoms. They made valuable contributions to the war efforts and earned more than 50 medals throughout both conflicts. 

Our soldiers fought for the shared values of freedom and democratic rights for all. However, these soldiers returned from the war and quickly realized those freedoms and rights did not equally apply to them as they did their non-native comrades. 

Equality on the battle field did not mean equality at home

The policies of enfranchisement under the Indian Act meant that many returning soldiers had their identity as “Status Indians” stolen from them. The act stated that any Indian who was absent from the reserve for four consecutive years would lose their status. 

As a sniper in WW I, Francis Pegahmagabow was deadly accurate, and although difficult to substantiate, was credited with 378 kills. The Ojibway war hero, from the Wasauksing First Nation, faced poverty and persecution when he returned to Canada. (CBC)
Upon returning home, many also learned that their reserve lands had been sold to the Soldier Settlement Board. This process converted reserve land to “fee simple” land, reducing the overall size of reserve areas and ultimately the treaty responsibilities tied to that land. It also enabled the purchasing of land within the reserves by non-natives, further encroaching on traditional territories. 

For many years after the wars, our people continued to fight for basic human rights and freedoms. In post-war colonial Canada, First Nations were continuously oppressed as the settler government worked to build a national Canadian identity — one that did not include First Nations. 

These oppressions included legislative measures like the Canadian Citizenship Act which unilaterally included First Nations without our consent. These paternalistic policies further limited the rights of First Nations and attempted to disconnect the government of Canada from its treaty responsibilities.

In the face of the hundreds of First Nations soldiers who gave their lives defending freedom and civil liberties, Canada continued forward with policies of discrimination, assimilation and oppression. 

Lest we forget

This year, I challenge all Canadians to not forget. Do not forget the lives sacrificed by native and non-native soldiers. Do not forget the shared values that those soldiers carried into battle together. Do not forget the freedoms and liberties that continue to be lost on Canadian soil to this day.

Stand with your First Nations brothers and sisters, and help us defend our human rights as we did overseas so many years ago. Take the time to learn about our history and treaties. Demand an inquiry for our missing and murdered women. Don’t stand for inequitable service provisions in our communities. 

Together — nation to nation — we can move forward. Let us honour our collective sacrifices and losses, and continue to build a better future.

This article was published on the website of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians. It has been republished with permission. 


Grand Chief Peters is Lenape from the Delaware Nation Moravian of the Thames and is a member of the turtle clan. Peters has worked with First Nations both politically and non-politically for 35 years. He is currently the Grand Chief for the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians and Peters has owns and operates a negotiation and consulting business.


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