The Participation of the First Nations in the World Wars

Some 4,000 members of the First Nations who were of age to serve enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. The number represents 35% of the registered male population, a proportion comparable to that of the non-Native male population. It does not, however, take into account Non-Status Indians, Métis and Inuit. The latter participated on a voluntary basis, being exempt from compulsory military service (Military Service Act – Order-in-Council P. C. 111; 17 January 1918) in accordance with promises made at treaty signings (Treaty No. 3; 1873). Their numbers would have been much higher if a large proportion of volunteers had not been refused for health reasons or lack of training, or pursuant to Canadian government policies that prohibited the enlistment of “Status Indians” until December 1915. Many succeeded nonetheless in circumventing the official policy at the risk of losing their Indian status (see the enfranchisement policy) and served in the infantry battalions, pioneer, manoeuvre and forestry battalions, Railroad Corps, Veterinary Corps, Service Corps and Canadian Engineers Corps. Many communities also participated in the war effort in the country, particularly in agricultural production and Red Cross fundraising campaigns.

The same scenario and the same concerns resurfaced during the Second World War. At the end of 1940, many members of First Nations communities were located overseas or were working in the war industries in the country. Although the official numbers from the Department of Indian Affairs speak of approximately 3,500 Status Indians, other sources indicate to us that the number was in fact much higher. The health of the volunteers was so poor that a large number of them were refused and returned to their communities.

In addition, since the previous war had given rise to confusion regarding the rules to follow for enlisting members of the First Nations, recruitment officers were reluctant to register those that had volunteered. It was not until 1944 that Cabinet specified that all Indians were required to receive military training and serve in the country and that only the members of treaties 3, 6, 8 and 11 would be exempt from overseas service.