November 8, 2019
By Jordan Cryderman
During the First and Second World War, Indigenous volunteers in Canada faced tremendous challenges distinct from what a Canadian soldier experienced. Just to enlist, some travelled great distances from their remote communities to volunteer for a military that had a vastly different culture and spoke a different language. In fact, they were even discouraged to fight for Canada during the First World War.
Indigenous peoples were exempt from conscription during the First World War, as they were not considered to be Canadian citizens. For the Second World War, eventually Canada pushed for forcibly recruiting Indigenous soldiers, but they pushed back. The case of conscription went to court after numerous rallies, and the Indigenous side won. Nonetheless, Indigenous peoples across our country voluntarily enlisted during both world wars.
Upon returning home, Indigenous soldiers did not receive the same assistance as others. They even lost their Indian status after returning home from the First World War. As specified in the Indian Act, if one was absent from the reserve for four years, they would lose their status. During the Second World War, Indigenous soldiers had to become enfranchised if they wished to enlist.
Losing their status was not enough to stop many Indigenous people volunteering, as thousands fought for Canada during the First World War and Second World War. It is estimated that over 500 never made it back home.
So why sacrifice so much when Indigenous soldiers had so much to lose? Timothy Winegard, Lecturer in the Department of First Nations Studies at the University of Western Ontario and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Waterloo, says that the participation of Indigenous people in the First World War was “an extension of their ongoing effort to shape and alter their social and political realities, their resistance to cultural assimilation or segregation, and their desire to attain equality through service and sacrifice.” Not only did they want to protect their loved ones, but they wanted to be seen as equals.
Rebecca Hackett from Saik’uz would not have been born yet to see her father go off to war, but she can certainly remember the ramifications.
“He never spoke about the war, but I know he had a lot of nightmares about it. He would wake us up in the middle of the night shouting like a soldier.”
Rebecca’s father was Jimmie Quaw from Saik’uz First Nation, and was a rifleman in the New Westminster regiment in the Second World War.
“They probably thought they were going to get compensated when they fought,” says Rebecca.
Jimmie, like many other Indigenous soldiers, was looking for an escape from poverty, and thought enlisting in the military might be the answer. But that compensation never came for her father, or any other Indigenous soldiers.
“I believe my dad, after the war, was living in poverty. I found an old posting in the Vanderhoof newspaper stating a guy was caught stealing cattle, and it was my dad! They didn’t charge him because he was doing it to provide for his family. If my dad was in the military, why wasn’t he compensated?”
Upon returning home from the war, Rebecca says that her father was given a piece of land, but it had nothing on it, nor was it suitable for farmland. But that didn’t stop Jimmie from being a supportive father to Rebecca and her siblings.
“My dad always provided. He ran a 4H club on the reserve. He taught us how to look after cattle, and we really enjoyed that.”
Rebecca says that her father taught the children many things about tradition and culture, and emphasized the importance of education.
“He always hunted and caught his own food: beaver, bear, moose. He didn’t buy food very often, and he taught us to eat wild animals. I remember a story of me and my brother. We saw a bear chasing a horse in the stable. My brother told my dad, and they went to hunt for the bear together. My brother said ‘dad made me go with him and we chased that bear for hours.’ ‘Did you get it?’ I said. ‘Yeah, and we had to skin it right there!’”
“I’m lucky to be alive today because of my dad. I know it was probably pretty hard for him knowing he had nightmares about it for years. But I think him fighting for this country made him out to be the person he was, striving to survive. My dad was a survivor.”
A cenotaph is standing out in Saik’uz First Nation, and on it is Jimmie Quaw’s name. He, amongst the others on the list, will never be forgotten for the great service they provided for this country.
Winegard, T. C. (2011). Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War. Cambridge University Press.
Last modified: Wednesday 27-Sep-17 04:14:39 PDT