University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, 2011
246 pp., illus., $24.95 paperback
The widespread popularity of Joseph Boyden’s novel Three Day Road, with its two protagonist Cree snipers, fed the already long-established view of Canada’s First Peoples as skilled snipers and scouts in the Great War. Most history books, school texts, and documentaries focus exclusively on how these pre-war hunters and trappers transferred their skills to the battlefield, becoming fierce warriors.
But there is more to the story, and historian Timothy C. Winegard, a veteran of the Canadian Forces and author of a book on the Oka crisis, provides a more nuanced view. Like the 620,000 other Canadians who enlisted, First Peoples served at the front and behind the lines, while those who remained at home were deeply affected.
Winegard’s For King and Kanata had its origins as a Ph.D. dissertation. It reflects thorough research into Canadian and imperial archives, while at the same time retaining two clunky chapters that stumble through some academic and conceptual theory as well as an unnecessary backstory of First Peoples in Canada. The author is also at pains to inform the reader as to why he uses the contemporary historical term “Indians.” But after a potted start, the narrative and analysis are far stronger.
At the core of the book is the question of why First Peoples would fight in a war overseas when they were so poorly treated at home, without full democratic rights, marginalized on reserves, and victimized as wards of the state. While there are some powerful testimonials of First Peoples who refused to take up arms, Winegard highlights the long history of First Peoples warriors supporting the Crown in war stretching back to the eighteenth century. Many sought recognition and rights through their service and sacrifice.
At the front, First Peoples soldiers distinguished themselves in battle. Francis Pegahmagabow is one of the most recognized, receiving the Military Medal plus two bars for his bravery in battle and feared for his skill as a sniper — although he never attained the undocumented number of 378 kills that Winegard seems first to accept and then, later in the text, to question.
Winegard is on far stronger ground when exploring the multiple roles of these Canadian soldiers, which reach far beyond that of the “noble savage.” The author highlights First Peoples ranging from those who served in menial jobs behind the lines to those who flew in the British flying services, and he uncovers seventeen who were commissioned as officers. His reconstruction of the German views of indigenous peoples adds new levels of understanding to the widely held perception that Canadians, both white and native, had martial blood that made them uniquely good soldiers.
Turning his gaze to the home front, Winegard offers a powerful new story that draws out how desperately poor bands gathered precious funds for the war effort, even when they lived in terrible poverty. Despite facing prejudice from white Canada, First Peoples across the Dominion continued to engage in patriotic initiatives, purchase war bonds, and send care packages and knitting overseas to soldiers. Even as the Canadian government played up First Peoples’ contributions, it con-tinued to appropriate Native land.
Winegard traces the First Peoples veterans’ return to their bands and the harsh reality of having sacrificed for a country that still viewed them as an unwanted people. Many of the veterans fought to change repressive laws in a postwar Canada. Their actions met little success, another disillusioning legacy of the Great War.
For King and Kanata is the new standard history by which to understand Canada’s First Peoples and the Great War. Through this book, Winegard has become an important new historian in the ranks of Great War and First Peoples scholars.
— Tim Cook (Read bio)
Tim Cook is the author of six books of political and military history. His next book, to be published in September 2014, is The Necessary War: Volume One, Canadians Fighting the Second World War 1939–43.