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By James Dempsey
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the desire of many Indians (1) to enlist was greeted with surprise. It was assumed that the Indians, who had suffered poverty and privation at the hands of the government and non-Indian society in general, would have no reason to fight in a "foreign" war. What people did not realize was that a number of Indians had retained a warrior ethic, in spite of government efforts over nearly half a century to suppress it. To young Indian men, the achievement of military distinction was a traditional ideal. Though diminished in intensity, this ideal still lived within certain Indian cultures. The Blackfoot Nation, for example, believed the age-old saying, "It is better for a man to be killed in battle than to die of old age or sickness."
It is estimated that more than 3,500 Indian soldiers served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), even though they were exempt from military service. Many of them fought in front line combat positions overseas. By the end of the war, 35 percent of the eligible Indian population of Canada had enlisted. This was at least equal to the proportion of non-Indian enlistment in Canada. Actual figures will never be known because many Indians who enlisted were from as far north as the Northwest Territories and were not included in the national registration. Still other enlistees were not recognized or recorded as being Indian, due to limited information.
Search for Soldiers of the First World War in the Canadian Expeditionary Force database.