Over 18,000 Indigenous veterans served with the Canadian armed forces during both World Wars.
"How proudly the flag waved overhead, the bands played and the troops marched away from the reserves, the isolated villages, the city streets. We were Canadian Native soldiers... warriors in a proud tradition stretching back over the thousands of years into the dim past. We traveled by ship, by plane... and mostly on foot. In a dozen places - France, Germany, Italy... Japan - we raised our flags, and were buried in those foreign soils." World War II-1939-1945, AMMSA (November 9, 1984)
Over 18,000 Indigenous veterans served with the Canadian armed forces during both World Wars. Coming from different tribes from across the country, Indigenous veterans brought unique skills to the Canadian forces and played a valuable role in our ultimate success.
The painting shows Mary Greyeyes Reid being blessed by a native elder. Mary Reid was a Cree women who was the first Indigenous women to serve in the Canadian Women's Army Corp during the Second World War.
Indigenous Warriors in the First World War
In 1917, Mike Mountain Horse (Miistatosomitai), a 28-year-old member of the Kainai First Nation of southern Alberta, lay atop Vimy Ridge and watched German artillery bombard the nearby city of Lens, France.
"The scene before our eyes might best be described as that of a huge stage with lighting effects - [Very] lights from the Hun lines, and flames from bursting shells in the city of Lens. The red glare thrown back appeared like a great fire in the sky all the time,” wrote Mountain Horse, who had just joined the 50th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in France, in his book My People, the Bloods, describing his first experience in battle during the First World War.
"One could witness houses bursting suddenly into flame as projectiles from heavy artillery of the enemy struck them down. One could walk past Canadian howitzer batteries about a mile from the trenches in front and hear the 57-inch shells from these guns screaming overhead on their errands of death and destruction."
Following his baptism of fire at Vimy Ridge, Mountain Horse fought in the Battle of Amiens and the First Battle of Cambrai. After the war, he painted a story robe on a calf hide that told of his battlefield exploits. Among these he included scouting enemy terrain, bombing enemy trenches, being buried in a cellar for four days after the building he was inspecting was hit by an artillery shell, and single-handily fighting three German soldiers in hand-to-hand combat.
Mountain Horse, who was twice wounded during the war and awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery, signed up in 1916 to avenge the death of his older brother, Albert. Albert had died in 1915 of tuberculosis, an often-deadly lung infection, which he had developed after being badly gassed during fighting to hold the Belgium city of Ypres and its surrounding lands.
And while Mountain Horse’s story is remarkable (during his life worked as a scout and interpreter for the Royal North West Mounted Police, a locomotive labourer, a journalist and a tribal councillor), his is only one of the at least 18,830 stories of Indigenous veterans (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) to have served in the armed forces of Canada and Great Britain during both world wars and many other conflicts both at home and overseas.
That number -18,830- represents a new understanding of the number of Indigenous individuals to have served in the armed forces. It was revealed after Yann Castlenot, a resident of Quebec originally from the Vimy region of France, spent two decades combing through records all with an eye to discover the actual number of Indigenous veterans.
For many years, the official estimates were much lower, a result of inaccurate or non-existent record keeping. It was believed, for example, that at least 4,000 Indigenous people served with the CEF during the First World War because the war-time records did not always record whether enlistees or conscripts were Indigenous. Official lists, for instance, did not include Inuit or First Nations soldiers from Newfoundland, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.
But Castlenot found that in the First World War alone 6,500 Indigenous soldiers served with the CEF. Of those, 890 were killed and another 1,350 were wounded.
The Warrior Spirit
When the First World War began, thirty descendants of men who participated in the North-West Rebellion, including Louis Riel’s own nephew, Patrick Riel, enlisted in the CEF. They joined the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles), the same regiment that fought against the Métis at Fish Creek and Batoche. Patrick Reil served as a sniper and had 30 kills to his credit before he was killed by shrapnel in early 1916.
Indigenous people enlisted for many reasons. For some, like Mike Mountain Horse, who wanted to avenge the death of his brother Albert Mountain Horse in 1915, their reasons were quite personal and individual, while others joined looking for adventure or out of a sense of duty to the British Crown. Given that First Nations people consider the treaties they signed with the Crown as sacred promise, many First Nations people enlisted honourably to fulfill their promise.
But not all First Nations were eager to see their young people go overseas and fight. The Anishinaabe Nation of the 1873 Treaty 3, for example, initially tried to keep young Anishinaabe men from signing up as the nation had clearly stated during treaty negotiations that it wanted no part in Britain’s future wars.
For those who did join, they saw the wars as an escape from the oppression they experienced by officials governing the reserves, residential schools or the constraints placed upon them. It was also an opportunity to earn a wage. Others, whose warrior ethic was still alive, saw the First World War particularly as an opportunity to conduct themselves as their ancestors once had, and as historian James Dempsey wrote, "to young men, the achievement of military distinction remained an ideal."
"The war proved that the fighting spirit of my tribe was not diminished through reservation life," wrote Mike Mountain Horse. "When duty called, we were there, and when we were called forth to fight for the cause of civilization, our people showed all the bravery of our warriors of old."
And by the time the government enacted conscription in 1917, most eligible Indigenous men had already enlisted. Even those who were not in uniform helped the war effort in other ways, such as donating money to the Patriotic Fund.
In the First World War, at least 50 battlefield decorations were awarded to Indigenous soldiers and the Department of Indian Affairs regularly received reports of the bravery of Indigenous soldiers as well.
Among the many recipients of those awards and commendations, which included Mike Mountain Horse, are Francis Pegahmagabow and Henry Louis Norwest, both of whom were recognized as two of the best snipers and scouts of the First World War, while Thomas George Prince, who served in both the Second World War and the Korean War, remains the most decorated Indigenous veteran with 11 medals in all, including the Military Medal and the U.S. Silver Star with ribbon.
Prince served with the 1st Special Service Force (Devil’s Brigade), a mixed American-Canada assault unit in the Second World War and with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Korea.
Indigenous Warriors in the Second World War and after
During the Second World War, by the time conscription was enacted in 1941, most able-bodied Indigenous men had already volunteered, along with 72 women. John Diefenbaker, who in 1957 would become Canada’s 13th prime minister, pointed out in 1942 that "In Western Canada the reserves have been depleted of almost all the physically fit men."
Once they enlisted, Indigenous soldiers were quickly accepted as valued members of the armed forces. They were also quick to show their abilities... and suffered along with their fellow soldiers.
Just days after the D-Day invasion, eight Métis soldiers were among the 22 members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles executed by members of the 12th SS Panzer Division at the Chateau d’Ardrieu.
Indigenous soldiers offered Canada a distinct and unique advantage. Just as the U.S. forces used Navajo code talkers to send unbreakable messages during the Second World War, Cree soldiers also worked as code talkers among Canada’s armed forces. Messages were passed in Cree and then translated into English.
In 1972, Mary McLeod of Neyaashiinigmiing, Chippewas Unceded First Nation, Ontario, was chosen as the Memorial Cross Mother to represent Canadian mothers who lost sons during the Second World War at the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa.
Her son Private Alfred McLeod, was killed in Ortona, Italy on 17 Jan, 1944 while serving with the Perth Regiment. Her other son, Trooper John McLeod, was killed on 27 July, 1944 near Caen, France while serving with the 1st Hussars. Her husband John McLeod, an Ojibwa, served in both World Wars. Seven of their children enlisted in the military - six sons and one daughter.
The first National Aboriginal Veterans Day was held Nov. 8, 1994. The National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, located in Confederation Park in Ottawa, meanwhile, was erected in 2001. And, in 2005, a delegation of 20 Indigenous veterans, along with 14 Indigenous youths, undertook a spiritual journey to the battlefields of Europe to call home the spirits of the fallen.
Beyond the First and Second World wars and the Korean War, Indigenous people have served with the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy during the Cold War, as United Nations Peacekeepers and in Afghanistan. Over 18,800 Indigenous people have served in the armed forces since Canada became a nation 150 years ago.
The warrior spirit, which Mike Mountain Horse said had never left his people, can still be seen today in the youth who participate in programs connected to the armed forces, such as the Bold Eagle program that introduce youth to the armed forces. It is seen in the many Indigenous individuals who serve with the Canadian Rangers, a Canadian Armed Forces Reserve unit founded in 1947, who patrol the coastlines from 200 remote communities across Canada; and in the 2,500 Indigenous men and women currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Indigenous Warrior Stories
Mike Mountain Horse
Mike Mountain Horse (Miistatisomitai), was born in 1888 on the Kainai First Nation Reserve in Southern Alberta. At the age of 6 Mike was sent to Anglican residential school on the Reserve.
Before the war, Mike Mountain Horse worked as a police scout and interpreter for the Royal North West Mounted Police in Fort MacLeod. Mountain Horse enlisted in May 1916 at the age of 26 after his younger brother, Albert, died on his way home from service overseas.
Mike enlisted in the 191st Battalion, but transferred to the machine gun section of the 50th Battalion. During Mountain Horse’s two years of service, he was at the battle of Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Cambrai, and Amiens.
On 21 August 1917 during the Battle for Hill 70, Corporal Mountain Horse led the machine gun section of his battalion to an old building behind the German defences. There he secured their objective but was injured and subsequently buried alive when a German shell damaged the structure; it was 4 long days before he was eventually discovered and rescued.
Mike Mountain Horse was demobilized as an acting sergeant and was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He also had a Kainai warrior’s story robe created to commemorate his service.
Francis Pegahmagabow served in the First World War as a sniper, a scout and a messenger. He is today recognized as the top sniper of the war with 378 confirmed kills. He is also known to have captured 300 enemy soldiers.
Pegahmagabow was also highly decorated. He received the Military Medal, which was awarded for bravery, and two bars (which effectively means he received the Military Medal three times during the war). Pegahmagabow also received the 1914–15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal for his service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War.
Pegahmagabow was born in 1889 on the Shawanaga First Nation reserve on the shore of Parry Sound in Ontario. He was orphaned at the age of three and raised by the same man who raised his father. He left school at the age of 12 and began working at lumber camps and fishing stations. Nine years later he set out to complete his education.
Pegahmagabow enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914. He arrived in France with the 1st Canadian Battalion in February 1915.
His first experience in battle came in Belgium in April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. It was during this battle that the German Imperial Army first used poison gas as a weapon on the battlefield. Pegahmagabow was gassed, and while not badly enough to warrant hospitalization, the effects of the gas would affect him much later in life.
Pegahmagabow was promoted to lance corporal after the Second Battle of Ypres, and he would go on to experience the Battle of the Somme in 1916 where he earned the Military Medal. Although Pegahmagabow had been shot in the leg during the battle, he refused medical aid and continued to run messages between the battlefield and headquarters.
He won the two bars to his Military Medal during the Battle of Passchendaele in November 1917 and the Battle of the Scarpe in August 1918. He also fought at the Battle of Amiens and the Second Battle of Arras, both of which occurred in 1918.
Pegahmagabow survived the war and returned home where ongoing discrimination and racism pushed him to begin fighting for equal rights for Indigenous veterans who weren’t eligible to receive the same benefits as non-indigenous veterans. His work as an advocate led him to become chief of what is now Wasauksing First Nation from 1921 to 1925. He also served as a band councillor from 1933 to 1936. He later served two terms as supreme chief of the Native Indian Government, an early indigenous political organization.
During the Second World War, Pegahmagbow served as a guard at a munitions plant and as a sergeant-major for his local militia regiment.
The father of six died of a heart attack on August 5, 1952, at the age of 64. His family donated his medals to the Canadian War Museum in 2003. A monument was erected in his honour at Canadian Forces Base Borden and a building used by the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol bears his name.
“It must have been a damned good sniper that got Norwest.” Those words were etched on the temporary grave marker of Henry “Ducky” Norwest, a 50th Battalion sniper, after he was killed by a German sniper on August 18, 1918.
Henry Louis Norwest, a quiet, reserved but warm man known as “Ducky” for “ducking” the girls of London, England, was also one of the best snipers among the British forces with 115 confirmed kills. There is no record of how many unconfirmed kills Norwest had.
As a sniper, Norwest often travelled into No Man’s Land or behind enemy lines to do his work, which earned him the Military Medal during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and after his death, a posthumous bar for gallantry in the field.
Norwest was born in Fort Saskatchewan in 1884. Married with children and using only his first and middle names, he first enlisted on January 2, 1915 with the 3rd Canadian Mounted Rifles, but he was discharged for drunkenness. He re-enlisted on September 8, 1915, this time joining the 50th Battalion.
On the day of his death, Norwest and his spotter, Oliver Payne, had been searching for enemy soldiers during the Canadian push towards Amiens, France. Norwest, whose patience, skill and keen eye had earned him great respect, had aimed down the sights of his .303 Ross rifle at an enemy sniper. He was about to pull the trigger but his target shot first, shooting the Cree sniper through the head.
Immediately following Norwest’s death, General Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, ordered all Canadian guns in the area—from heavy and medium artillery to mortars and machine guns—to fire on Dead Wood where the Germans snipers were located.
“This was due and fitting respect to pay our famous Indigenous Sniper – and the Corps’ appropriate expression of sorrow for the death of the Empire’s greatest Sniper... Never before had a Private soldier been so honoured by his Battalion, Brigade, Division and Corps!” wrote 50th Battalion signaller Victor Wheeler in his book, No Man’s Land.
Norwest was buried near Amiens, France, in the Warvillers Churchyard. The canteen at the Royal Canadian Legion in Fort Saskatchewan was named in honour of Norwest in 2010, as was the field of honour at the Fort Saskatchewan cemetery.
One of Norwest’s .303 calibre Ross rifles is on display at the King’s Own Calgary Regiment gallery at The Military Museums in Calgary, Alberta.
Patrick Riel was 39 when he joined the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles) in August 1914. He was one of the very first people to join up at the outbreak of the war.
Never having learned to read or write, he signed his name on his attestation paper, with an "X." Riel was a Métis from Maniwaki, Quebec, a town which adjoins the lands of the Anishinabeg First Nation, an Algonquin band.
Riel was a highly successful sniper on the Western Front credited with 30 confirmed kills, before he died in January 1916 from wounds sustained in an artillery attack.
He left two daughters. Private Riel was also the grandson of the iconic Métis leader Louis Riel, who led the North-West Rebellion in 1885.
The name "Tommy Prince" graces a school, a street and a road, two monuments, a recreation centre, a barracks, a drill hall, two scholarships, and a cadet corps.
And for good reason. Prince was one of the most decorated Indigenous soldiers to have served in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces. He was awarded 12 medals in all during his service in the Second World War and the Korean War.
Among his many campaign medals are rare honours that recognize his bravery and heroism, namely the Military Medal and the U.S. Silver Star Medal. Prince earned both medals during the Second World War.
Thomas George Prince was born in 1915 in Petersfield, Manitoba. A member of the Brokenhead Ojibwa Nation, an Anishiniaabe (Saulteaux/Ojibwa) First Nation, Prince enlisted early in the war. He joined the Royal Canadian Engineers in 1940 but soon transferred to the Canadian Parachute Battalion and was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Prince joined the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, which alongside a group of American paratroopers, formed the 1st Special Service Force (FSSF) that became known as the Devil’s Brigade for its fearsome reputation. Prince was especially skilled at night-time raids against the German lines.
Prince received the Military Medal and Silver Star while serving as a member of the Devil’s Brigade for his actions during the fighting in Italy and France.
In Italy, while holed up in a farm house monitoring the Germans, an explosion cut the phone line he was using to communicate with his regimental headquarters. He put on some old clothes left behind by the farmer who owned the house and went out into the field. Pretending to be an upset farmer tending his fields he carefully set about fixing the communication lines. Shaking a fist at both the German and Allied forces in the area, he bent down to tie his shoe and quickly repaired the phone line and returned to the farmhouse to continue monitoring the Germans.
When the FSSF were transferred over to France, Prince’s determined and skilled heroics continued. Prince once walked 72 hours without food or water to report on the location of a German camp. Based on his information, the Allies captured 1,000 German soldiers.
After the war, Prince started a cleaning business and worked as an advocate for Indigenous rights, lobbying the government to change the Indian Act. Neither his advocacy work nor his business succeeded. Prince, like all Indigenous veterans, discovered that the equality and respect he had earned and experienced in the war was not always offered to him back home in Canada.
Prince returned to life as a soldier with the start of the Korean War in 1950. Prince joined the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and was soon back on the battlefield serving two tours in Korea.
Prince died in Winnipeg in 1977 at the age of 62. His medals are at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, and are listed below:
- Military Medal
- 1939/45 Star
- Italy Star
- Defence Medal
- France and Germany Star
- Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with clasp
- 1939/45 War Medal
- War Medal Korea 1950/53
- Canadian Volunteer Medal Korea
- Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal
- United Nations Medal Korea with 2 (2nd tour of Korea)
- Silver Star Medal (3rd highest decoration for valor)
Prince was formally presented with the Military Medal by King George VI in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in February 1945. He was presented with the Silver Star on 24 April 1945, one of only three people in military history to receive both medals.
The citation for the Military Medal reads (in part):
Sergeant Prince's courage and utter disregard for personal safety were an inspiration to his fellows and a marked credit to his unit.
The citation for the Silver Star reads:
So accurate was the report rendered by the patrol that Sergeant Prince’s regiment moved forward on 5 September 1944, occupied new heights and successfully wiped out the enemy bivouac [encampment] area. The keen sense of responsibility and devotion to duty displayed by Sergeant Prince is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the Allied Nations.
Tommy Prince is one of the most decorated First Nations soldiers of the Second World War.
The story of Charles Henry Byce, a Métis born in Chapleau, Ont., is unique in the annals of Canada’s military history.
Not only was Byce the only member of the Lake Superior Regiment to earn the Military Medal, he is also one of the very few to earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) as well. Only 162 Canadians were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) during the war, a British honour second only to the Victoria Cross.
Winning both the MM and the DCM gives him a rare distinction among soldiers—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—who have served with the Canadian Army. Coupled with the achievements of his father, Byce’s story is utterly unique.
Byce and his father, Harry, received the same medals—the DCM and the MM—while serving with the Canadian Corps in the First World War. The only difference between father and son is that the elder Byce, received the Médaille Militaire, which is the French equivalent to the MM.
Charles (Charlie) Henry Byce was born March 8, 1916 in Chapleau, Ont. His mother, Louisa Saylors, was Cree, while his father, Harry was non-Indigenous from Westmeath, Ont. Charlie grew up in Moose Factory, Ont.
Byce enlisted with the Lake Superior Regiment (Motor)—also known as LSR (Motor) or the Lake Sups—in January 1942. Outfitted with Universal Carriers, light armoured tracked vehicles, the LSR arrived in England in August of that year. The regiment landed in Normandy July 20, 1944.
Byce received the MM during fighting in the Netherlands in January 1945. Early in the morning of January 21, Byce crossed the Mass River with a fighting patrol of 24 other soldiers. Byce, as an acting corporal, commanded a five-man team assigned to provide covering fire for the rest of the team. Their mission that night was to capture German soldiers.
Byce’s team and the fighting patrol soon came under heavy enemy fire from well-entrenched positions. Byce drove off the German defenders three times, directly attacking the defensive positions and dugouts. The soldiers of Byce’s team and the fighting patrol withdrew with almost no casualties because of Byce’s single-handed attacks.
The citation that accompanied Byce’s MM noted "his magnificent efforts... his aggressive initiative and unselfish gallantry..."
Byce, now an acting sergeant, won the DCM on March 2, 1945, near the Hochwald Forest, located in northwest Germany. During an encounter with German Tiger tanks and infantry, Byce once again proved his ability to lead, strategize and fight. Byce led an attack on German defensive positions after the commanding officers of "C" Company were wounded or killed. Alone, as five German tanks prepared for a counter attack, Byce knocked out the first tank with an anti-tank gun.
Unable to stop the remaining tanks from moving forward, Byce had his platoon lie in wait until the tanks passed. He and his platoon drove off the infantry and then led the rest of "C" Company back to the lines held by the LSR (Motor).
Byce spent the rest of the day sniping at German soldiers, who were attempting to move forward beyond a railway embankment, killing seven and wounding eleven. The citation accompanying the DCM states that Byce stopped the enemy soldiers from attacking the Lake Sups.
"The magnificent courage and fighting spirit displayed by this Non-Commissioned Officer when faced with almost insuperable odds are beyond all praise. His gallant stand, without adequate weapons and with a bare handful of men against hopeless odds will remain, for all time, an outstanding example to all ranks of the regiment," according to the citation.
A bronze and granite monument dedicated to Charlie Byce, who died in 1994, was unveiled in his birthplace at Chapeau, Ont. in 2016. The medals of both Byce and his father are at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.