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Aboriginals and the War
In the Great War Canada's Metis and First Nations men volunteered to fight for Canada at the side of Great Britain. In the past, Aboriginal soldiers had fought for Britain during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, in repelling the Fenian Raids, on the Nile River in Africa in 1885 in the attempt to rescue General Charles Gordon from Khartoum, and in South Africa during the Boer War.
After the start of the Great War, Aboriginal soldiers were integrated into Canada's citizen army. Recruiters visited native communities and actively sought First Nations and Metis recruits. Those serving with the militia or NWMP were among the first to sign up. Some Canadian regiments were primarily First Nation. The 114th Regiment was led into battle by a flag created by the women of Six Nations portraying the clan animals of the Iroquois. Metis recruits were assigned to the 233rd Bn., Canadien-François du Nord-Ouest, and the 232nd Bn., the French Canadian Brigade. Their ability to understand and speak French was a definite asset in France.
Aboriginal recruits brought other skills and knowledge which contributed greatly to Canada's war effort. Many were experienced with firearms and understood survival by living off the land. They could read the environment, observe their surroundings and be alert for trouble. A number of Aboriginal soldiers became excellent snipers, and many became legends for their efficiency. Aboriginal soldiers became part of the Scouts Corps, the intelligence division which included scouts, observers and snipers. They usually operated in "No Man's Land" providing essential information on the enemy. Trench raids were introduced to the battlefield by the Canadian soldiers and were directly related to traditional Indian and Metis battle techniques. At first, British commanders rejected these tactics but they soon became essential to intelligence gathering and scouting. Aboriginal miners joined the tunnelers at Vimy Ridge. Men from the bush were assigned to the Forestry and Railway Construction Corps. Their work provided the framework for the tunnels and duckboards placed on the bottom of the trenches to keep the men's feet dry and prevent such diseases as "Trench Rot." Aboriginal women were among the nurses serving overseas. Teamsters served in the transport of men and materials to the front lines.
Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott maintained that Indians in the force "added something to the daring and efficiency of our troops." Aboriginal soldiers were rewarded for their service: at least 56 received a Military Medal; 2, Military Medals with Bar; I, Military Medal with two bars; 10 Distinguished Conduct Medals; 2, Military Crosses; 1, Russian Cross of St. George, 4th Class; and 1 Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
The exact number of Aboriginal soldiers is unknown. Research suggests that over 3500 Indians served, a comparable number of Metis and an unknown number of Inuit serving with the Canadian forces and the Royal Newfoundland forces. Communities welcomed the returning soldiers but realized that they brought with them battle wounds, physical and mental, and the Spanish Flu.