Donald Maracle is the chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. Arthur Cockfield is a professor and associate dean of academic policy with Queen’s University Faculty of Law.
Indigenous veterans have made important contributions in every armed conflict involving our country.
Consider, for instance, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. During the colonial era, the Mohawks fought for the British Crown during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812. Later, they fought for Canada in the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War. Most recently, members of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte served in the War in Afghanistan, including Master Corporal Kristal Lee-Anne Giesebrecht, a medic who was killed when her vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Southern Kandahar in 2010.
While exact numbers are unknown, hundreds or possibly thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people fought with the British Crown and local militias in the pre-Confederation era, when the fate of the future country was on a knife’s edge. With respect to 20th-century conflicts, Veteran Affairs Canada estimates that 12,000 Indigenous peoples fought in the Canadian Armed Forces, mainly in the First and Second World War.
While each veteran no doubt has a compelling story, here are a few notable contributions.
Molly Brant was born around 1736 in the Mohawk village of Canajoharie in what is now New York State. After her husband Sir William Johnson died in 1774, Ms. Brant actively supported the British Crown against the Americans during the Revolutionary War, playing important roles as a negotiator and advocate for Mohawk and Iroquois peoples – and as a provider of critical intelligence to British commanders. Later, she settled in Kingston, and several of her eight children with Sir William would go on to become important political and military leaders in Canada.
Then there is the legendary Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, born in 1768 in what is now Ohio. He led a multi-tribal force and fought to establish an independent nation for Indigenous peoples within a large section of the United States. To help achieve his goals, he sided with the British Crown in the War of 1812. He also allied with other Indigenous leaders, including the Mohawks John Brant and John Norton, to fight the Americans when they invaded what was then Upper Canada. Tecumseh also joined British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock in the siege of Detroit, helping to force the city’s surrender. Tecumseh and most of his men were killed soon after in the Battle of the Thames, near Chatham, Ont.
Another important figure in Canadian military history is Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa hero who was born in what is now the Shawanaga First Nation reserve in Nobel, Ont. He enlisted in 1914 and became a member of the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion during the First World War. During his service, he fought in many of Canada’s most important battles, including Ypres and Passchendaele, surviving gunshot wounds and poison gas.
As a sniper, Mr. Pegahmagabow was credited with 378 kills, which made him the deadliest soldier in this brutal war to end all wars. Despite his many military awards, he returned to Canada to face poverty and persecution. Like so many Indigenous veterans at the time, he was also denied the right to vote. Later, he became the chief of what is now known as Wasauksing First Nation and is recognized as one of the first modern activists to fight for Indigenous rights.
Like the plight of Mr. Pegahmagabow, in too many cases Indigenous peoples were repaid with betrayal by the Canadian government when they returned home from combat. Despite centuries of service by the Mohawks, for example, the Canadian government continues to refuse to honour treaty rights that date back to the 1600s.
While recognizing this complicated history, on Remembrance Day we can honour and remember the many contributions of Indigenous veterans.
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