WW I hero Francis Pegahmagabow given Aboriginal Day honour

Renowned for his breathtaking courage and legendary talent with a sniper rifle, Francis Pegahmagabow was a soldier and Indigenous leader who left an indelible mark on Canada's history.

He brought his warrior spirit to the battlefield and later to political activism

The life-size bronze statue of Francis Pegahmagabow was funded by the federal government, the Armed Forces, First Nations, advocacy groups and private donors. (CBC)

His Ojibway name was Binaaswi, translating roughly to "the wind that blows off."

How apposite it is, then, that a hard wind was blowing off the choppy waters of Ontario's Georgian Bay when the most decorated Indigenous soldier in Canada's history was finally given an honour befitting the man.

History largely remembers him as Corp. Francis Pegahmagabow — the deadliest sniper and scout of the First World War, credited with 378 kills and 300 captures.

But those in the tight-knight Indigenous communities where he lived have always remembered him for so much more than his astonishing accomplishments during the war. He was a father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, leader, fierce activist and icon.

And on Tuesday, National Aboriginal Day, a life-sized bronze monument of Pegahmagabow was unveiled in Parry Sound, Ont., almost 100 years after he earned his first medal for courage in battle.

It was a tribute that many believe should have come sooner. 

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"He was a warrior chief," said Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, before a packed crowd — one that included Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse, commander of the Canadian Army — gathered at the shores of the bay. The wind carried his words into the distance.

Francis Pegahmagabow, shown here in an undated portrait, volunteered to join the military as soon as Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. At the time, there was a general ban on Aboriginal people joining the army, but that didn't stop him. (CBC)

Beside Bellegarde as he spoke, the monument: Pegahmagabow standing defiantly with an eagle perched on one arm; his right hand clenched in a tight fist; a Ross rifle slung over his shoulder; a caribou at his feet to represent his clan.

Bellegarde added that on this day, there was no other place in Canada he'd rather be because the tribute to Pegahmagabow so aptly encapsulated how the process of reconciliation can start to take shape.

Not even a citizen

He was a man who fought for a country that didn't even recognize him as a citizen and was happy to let him languish in poverty. At the same time, he fought fiercely for the rights of Indigenous people his entire life, a man determined to keep the traditions and knowledge of his people alive and thriving.

"Francis Pegahmagabow went unrecognized in this country for decades and decades despite being one of our country's great heroes," said Joseph Boyden, the acclaimed novelist. Pegahmagabow's bloody exploits on the battlefield inspired one of the main characters in his 2005 novel Three Day Road.

Author Joseph Boyden said Francis Pegahmagabow was a 'brilliant man' who was able to channel his warrior self to do good for his people in peace. (CBC)

"He was a warrior, but he was also a peacemaker."

After almost four years of near-constant combat in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, he served as both chief and councillor of what is now the Wasauksing First Nation. He also rose to be Supreme Chief of the Native Independent Government, an early precursor of the Assembly of First Nations.

All of this with the indelible physical and psychological scars the war inflicted on him. It's difficult to imagine the horrors that Pegahmagabow would have witnessed.

He fought in the Second Battle of Ypres, the first time chemical gas was deployed as a weapon.

Perry Bellegarde, left, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called Pegahmagabow a 'warrior chief,' saying the monument's completion is 'reconciliation in action.' (CBC)

He charged into the hellfire at the Battle of the Somme, a gory horror that claimed the lives of more than one million people. The Germans called it "das Bludbat" — the bloodbath.

He also navigated the death and decay of the mud-soaked fields near Passchendaele, a battle that killed 4,000 Canadians and wounded 12,000 others.

The legend of 'Peggy'

Through it all, the legend of "Peggy," as he was known in the trenches, only grew.

Pegahmagabow earned renown for crawling alone under the cover of darkness into no man's land, camouflaging himself in the cratered earth — sometimes for days at a time — until a German helmet filled his rifle scope.

Francis Pegahmagabow: Canadian War Hero

10 years ago
Duration 8:48
The First World War is full of stories of Canadian heroism. But the one belonging to Francis Pegahmagabow, a brave Canadian soldier is not well known.

For all his skill as a sharpshooter, however, he was perhaps even more effective as a scout and messenger, saving countless Allied lives by shuttling critical orders between trenches and units all along the front.

By war's end, Pegahmagabow had earned three Military Medals for his breathtaking courage. He's one of only 37 soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to hold that distinction.

Pegahmagabow was photographed in June 1945, while in Ottawa attending the conference where the Native Independent Government was formed. (Marius Barbeau/Canadian Museum of History)

And newly found documents show that by the time he was discharged in 1919, Pegahmagabow had risen to a rank that was then called company sergeant-major, several ranks above corporal.

Despite his sacrifice, once he took his uniform off, he faced discrimination from the very institutions he fought to uphold. He spent the rest of his life resisting just that kind of injustice.

"This is the most highly decorated Indigenous person in Canadian history, so you can imagine what other Native soldiers went through coming home," said Boyden.

Artist Tyler Fauvelle said bronze, from which he made Pegahmagabow's statue, is usually reserved for the 'people and events that we should remember for generation after generation.' (CBC)

At the unveiling, speaker after speaker recognized that the honour was "long overdue," in the words of Hainse, and the theme of reconciliation permeated the ceremony.

'Always taught his family about respect'

Pegahmagabow's youngest granddaughter, Anne-Marie Anderson, said it was an incredible relief to finally see her grandfather recognized for his courage and life's work.

"When I saw that cover come falling down, I felt this great feeling come over me," she recalled. "He always taught his family about respect, that we are all one people."

Artist Tyler Fauvelle spent eight months sculpting the statue, which then spent almost a year in the foundry being cast.

He said the decision to erect the monument in Parry Sound, rather than on the Wasauksing First Nation, was to ensure as many people as possible "will come to learn about Aboriginal contributions to this country."

Pegahmagabow, pictured in 1945, eventually became Supreme Chief of the Native Independent Government that he helped to form. He died in 1952, leaving six children. (Canadian Museum of History/Marius Barbeau/95293)

And the fact it's made of bronze means it could stand for "thousands of years."

"It's the most enduring way to remember the kind of people and events that we should remember for generation after generation."


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.