Introduction: The League of Indians of Canada
In 1919, the League of Indians of Canada was formed by Frederick Ogilvie Loft, a Mohawk man from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. Loft was a veteran of the First World War who had served in France. The League of Indians of Canada was the first national Aboriginal political organization in Canada. Its main goals were to protect the rights and to improve the living conditions of First Nations people in Canada.
Aboriginal Peoples' Contributions to the First World War
In order to understand why the League of Indians of Canada was important, it is necessary to consider why and how it started.
Aboriginal peoples have a long tradition of military service in Canada. When the First World War began in 1914, they were considered wards of the state. This meant that federal government officials considered Aboriginal people to be incapable of taking care of themselves. Therefore, they were placed under the "care" and "protection" of the government, which acted as their guardian. As wards of the state, Aboriginal people were not required to enlist in the war.
Even though they were not expected to participate, many Aboriginal men and women enlisted voluntarily. About 4,000 Aboriginal people enlisted -- in other words, one in three individuals -- and served with the Canadian Corps in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).1 On many reserves almost all of the young men enlisted for service. For example, approximately half of the eligible Mi'kmaq and Maliseet men from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia volunteered for overseas duty. In other provinces, the number was even higher -- in the small community of File Hills, Saskatchewan, almost all of the eligible men signed up to fight.
Why Enlist When They Did Not Have To?
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the majority of Aboriginal people in Canada were living in extreme poverty. Many decided to enlist as a way to find work and to escape the boredom of living on reserves. Others volunteered in the hope that their participation in the war would help Aboriginal people gain legal equality with the rest of Canadians when the war was over.
Aboriginal Participation in the War
Many Aboriginal individuals who served in the CEF became snipers or scouts. A major reason was that they were skilled hunters, and this required stealth and the ability to shoot well. The role of snipers was to keep the enemy "on edge" by shooting their rifles at targets from concealed positions called "nests." Scouts had the dangerous job of creeping behind the front lines before a battle in order to gather information about the enemy.
Private Henry Norwest, a Métis man from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, was one of the most famous snipers. Another excellent sniper was Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibway man from Parry Island Band, near Parry Sound, Ontario. Lieutenant Cameron D. Brant, from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, enlisted only three days after the Germans declared war on August 4, 1914. He died from poisonous gas during the Second Battle of Ypres, France, in April 1915. Other Aboriginal men who served in the war were Olympic runner Tom Longboat, from the Six Nations reserve, and Patrick Riel, grandson of the famous Métis leader Louis Riel.
Aboriginal women also made great sacrifices and played significant roles working behind the battle scenes. Nurse Edith Anderson, a Mohawk woman from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, was one example. She joined the Army Nurse Corps of the American Expeditionary Force, and worked at an American hospital base in Vittel, France. Most of her work involved caring for patients who had been shot or gassed.
The exact number of Aboriginal soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War is not known. However, it is estimated that at least 300 men were killed during battles or died from illness, such as tuberculosis.
Although life was very difficult during the war, there were some surprising positive results of Aboriginal participation in the CEF.
In Canada, communication between Aboriginal groups was difficult because communities were spread far apart. Television and the Internet did not exist, and many people at that time did not have telephones. Aboriginal people living on reserves also experienced other barriers that prevented communicating with people who were not from their reserve. Part of the first Indian Act (created in 1876) stated that if Aboriginal people wanted to leave their reserve they had to get permission from their local Indian Agent first.
When they joined the war, many Aboriginal men and women left home for the first time in their lives. In Europe, they were able to meet other Aboriginal people from various regions of Canada. This gave them the opportunity to talk about common problems, such as poor living conditions on reserves back home in Canada. New friendships developed, which continued after their return home following the war.
Honours and Recognition
At least 50 Aboriginal individuals were awarded official medals in recognition for their bravery and heroism during the First World War. Corporal Pegahmagabow was one of the most highly decorated Aboriginal soldiers of the First World War. Three times he received the British Military Medal, which was awarded to soldiers from countries in the British Commonwealth.
Aboriginal men and women helped win a world war, along with other Canadians. Many developed new feelings of self-worth and a belief in the right to speak for themselves. The outcome of this new-found confidence was the formation of the League of Indians of Canada.
The Return to Canada
Aboriginal people had fought and died alongside other Canadians during the war. They had proven their patriotism and loyalty to the Canadian government. However, they were not entitled to many of the benefits that non-Aboriginal veterans received following the war.
Unlike non-Aboriginal veterans, Aboriginal men who had fought in the war were not granted land as part of "soldier's settlement." Instead, they were confined to their own reserve land. In fact, when Aboriginal veterans returned to their homes on reserves, many discovered that the government had purchased their land in order to sell it to the Soldier Settlement Board. This land was then sold to non-Aboriginal veterans who wanted to become farmers.
Following the war little changed in terms of the legal, social, or economic status of Aboriginal veterans. They were still considered to be wards of the state. Even though they had survived the war, many continued to live in poverty and could not find paid employment.
League of Indians of Canada
Frederick Loft, a Mohawk man from the Six Nations Band, served as a lieutenant in the Forestry Corps. Like many other Aboriginal veterans, Lieutenant Frederick Loft had the opportunity to talk to other Aboriginal soldiers about the problems and frustrations they shared. These included poverty; poor living conditions on Indian reserves; restrictions on hunting and trapping rights; and government policies aimed at eliminating Native languages and religious beliefs. Before his return to Canada, Loft also had a meeting with the Privy Council and the King of England. This gave him the opportunity to express his concerns about Aboriginal people in Canada.
Following the war, Loft questioned the unfair treatment experienced by Aboriginal veterans. He saw the need for a national organization to unite First Nations groups, and began organizing the League of Indians of Canada as a way to improve the lives of Aboriginal people across Canada. Loft started writing letters to band councils on reserves all over Canada. On November 25, 1919, Loft wrote:
I am enclosing you three circulars, a kind I am forwarding to all bands of the west. If you know any of the chiefs or councillors of any of the neighbouring Reserves send on to each. Tell them to write to me and to get busy all along the line. Tell them to write as I wish to get in touch with all I can sooner the better.
The first meeting of the League was held in September 1919 at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and the second at Elphinstone, Manitoba, on June 1920. A meeting for Saskatchewan Indian Nations was held the following year. After 1922, the organization held its annual meetings in the West because that region had the most active members.
Response from the Canadian Government and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs
In a letter that Loft wrote on November 14, 1919, he indicated that he wanted to work with the federal government:
We [the League] will co-operate with the Government, but we must have its sympathy, encouragement and assistance so as to make good.
However, cooperation from government officials did not take place.
From its beginnings, the Canadian government was wary of the goals and actions of the League. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, felt that the League interfered with efficient government administration.
Scott felt that political unity amongst Aboriginal people was contrary to Canadian cultural policies. In his view, Aboriginal people should assimilate and become part of mainstream Canadian society. Rather than clinging to their own cultural and religious traditions, they should conform to the customs and attitudes of the rest of Canada.
Scott also believed that the League would disappear if the government refused to cooperate. Therefore, he told his staff, the Indian Agents, not to communicate with Loft. On November 19, 1921, for example, Scott wrote to Saskatchewan Indian Commissioner William M. Graham:
I think it would be advisable to send all communications addressed to you by F.O. Loft to headquarters without even acknowledging them . . . from the first I have refused to allow him to thrust himself into the administration of the Department.
Conclusion: Achievements of the League of Indians of Canada
The League of Indians of Canada and its war veteran supporters did not accomplish everything they had hoped for. However, the League has been given credit for improving some of the more oppressive elements of the Indian Act after the 1950s. In 1951, the government removed the bans on political organization, traditional spirituality, and restrictions on off-reserve travel. In 1960, all Status Indians in Canada were given the legal right to vote in federal elections.
The League has also been recognized for laying the foundation for First Nations' political organization in Canada today. Ultimately, the Indian Association of Alberta and the Union of Saskatchewan Indians grew out of Loft's original League of Indians of Canada. The League was also the forerunner of the National Indian Brotherhood, now known as the Assembly of First Nations.
Further Reading: The documents pertaining to the formation of the League of Indians of Canada are located in the collection of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. The material chosen for Evidence Web is a small sample of the file related to the League of Indians of Canada. To read the full file of letters and newspaper articles, please visit www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/aboriginal-heritage/020016-4102-e.html.
The above file is part of the Red and Black Series, the administrative records created by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Dating from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, these documents represent an incredible historical resource. Covering everything from marriage licences to treaty rights, the Red and Black Series recount first-hand the complex and often contentious relationship between the Canadian government and Canada's Aboriginal people. Please visit the Aboriginal Documentary Heritage Web exhibition to view the entire file: www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/aboriginal-heritage/020016-2000-e.html.
1. Approximately 4,000 Status Indians enlisted, and an unrecorded number of Métis and Inuit people volunteered for service.