Indigenous people from every region of Canada served in the armed forces during the Second World War, fighting in every major battle and campaign of the conflict. To serve their country, Indigenous people had to overcome unique cultural challenges. Their courage, sacrifices, and accomplishments are a continuing source of pride to their families, communities, and all Canadians.
Many Outstanding Accomplishments
Indigenous Women’s Service
Some First Nations and Métis women are known to have enlisted with the women’s auxiliary services of the Army (CWAC), RCN (WRCNS, “Wrens”) and RCAF (RCAF-WD), filling many different clerical, first aid and mechanical roles, both in Canada and overseas (72 Status Indian women are known to have served overseas). They experienced many parallels with other servicewomen in the form of pervasive sexism in the forces and a nasty “whisper” campaign in the press that painted women in uniform as promiscuous. Indigenous women saw relatively little in the form of racial prejudice in women’s auxiliaries, as Métis Dorothy Asquith recalled, “[e]verybody was so involved in what was happening with the war nobody was involved in such pettiness.”
Indigenous people engaged widely and often enthusiastically in the war effort: donating huge sums to humanitarian and patriotic causes; participating in drives to collect scrap metal, rubber, bones (even from old buffalo jumps); conducting public and ceremonial expressions of support and loyalty; and working in war industries and production in unprecedented numbers. Labour shortages across the country provided more work opportunities, at higher wages, than Indigenous people had ever seen. It was, oddly, the best of times financially for many families.
While collaboration marked the majority of Indigenous experience of the Second World War, not all were enthusiastic about joining the cause. Even amongst those supportive, their willingness to contribute was neither unlimited nor unconditional. Wartime taxation and lingering prewar grievances plagued Indigenous–government relations, but conscription inspired more resistance than any other issue. Across the country, and throughout the war, Indigenous communities protested conscription. Young men ignored their call to report for medical examination and avoided authorities (sometimes with support from community elders), and one violent riot broke out when the RCMP tried to arrest draft evaders from the Kahnawake Reserve south of Montréal.
Not Treated As Equals
The overall nature of Indigenous military service in the Second World War was little changed from the First World War, as a combination of factors funnelled the vast majority of Indigenous recruits into the army where they were integrated as individuals. Both the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) required volunteers be “of pure European descent and of the white race,” until 1942 and 1943 respectively. The RCAF appears to have exempted Status Indians from this provision early in the war. Nevertheless, inadequate healthcare and schooling for Indigenous populations in the early 20th century meant few could meet strict medical and demanding education standards. By the mid-point of the war, only 29 Status Indians were in the RCAF, 9 in the RCN (despite the racial barrier) and approximately 1,800 in the army. This pattern held until the war’s end.
Once France surrendered in June 1940, Canada accelerated and expanded its military commitment, and initiated conscription for home defence in September 1940 (see National Resources Mobilization Act). After some uncertainty, Status Indians were included in mandatory military training and military service in Canada. First Nations leaders remembered the limited exemption in 1918 and protested that it was unjust to compel people without citizenship rights to fight to defend those same rights. Nevertheless, this policy remained unchanged until late 1944, when the conscription crisis forced Prime Minister Mackenzie King to begin sending conscripts into combat overseas, including Status Indians. This, however, violated promises made during negotiation of several historical treaties and Indian Affairs requested a limited exemption for Status Indian conscripts, which was passed in December 1944. The exemption covered only recruits from Treaties 3, 6, 8 and 11, roughly one-fifth of the Status Indian population (in the Prairies and Northwest Territories). Relatively few Indigenous men were included in the 2,463 conscripts that actually saw combat in 1945. While anti-climactic, conscription remained a major concern for Indigenous people throughout the war. conscription remained a major concern for Indigenous people throughout the war.
Coming Home Was A Shock
Indigenous service personnel returning to Canada in 1945–46 looked forward to the generous and diverse benefits provided by a grateful nation, benefits that were theoretically available to all veterans equally. In practice, however, Status Indians’ access to advising, application forms and all programs was not equal, as Indian Affairs handled most of their case files in ways that disadvantaged many veterans. Métis veterans similarly have felt they were ignored and largely shut out of benefits. Whether or not they received benefits, Indigenous veterans faced a steeper climb to successfully re-establishing themselves in civilian life than their non-Indigenous comrades.
Coming home after years away at war was a happy memory, but many veterans subsequently struggled to settle back into normal life. Large numbers still carried physical and psychological scars; some turned to alcohol to cope or could not remain in one place, or job, for long. Mobility was common, especially for Métis veterans. Undoubtedly, veterans contributed to rapid Indigenous urbanization in the 1950s and 1960s. They also contributed to an increase in Indigenous political organization, especially at the regional and provincial levels, in the post-war period. However, many found the return to societal racism and marginalization difficult after the acceptance they experienced in uniform. Perhaps this explains anecdotal reports suggesting that many Indigenous veterans re-enlisted for service in the Korean War, approximately 1950–53. Amongst them was the most decorated Indigenous soldier of the Second World War, Sergeant Thomas Prince, who did two tours in Korea.
The brave Indigenous men and women who left their homes during the Second World War to contribute to the struggle for peace were true heroes. The extra challenges that they had to face and overcome make their achievements all the more notable.