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Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War

By James Dempsey


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Military Service Act

Enlistment remained voluntary for all Canadians until 1917, when the Military Service Act (MSA) was passed, introducing conscription to males of military age. Reactions to the MSA were immediately forthcoming from Indian Nations themselves. Some Indians spoke out against the Act, believing that since they did not have the same rights and privileges of citizenship as other Canadians, they should not be conscripted. However, they also said that if they were given the same legal rights as non-Indian people, they would be willing to share the responsibilities and burdens of the Act. Despite this offer, regulations were passed by order-in-council on January 17, 1918, exempting Indians from conscription to combat service. The order referred back to the promises made in Treaty Three, as outlined in the Annual Report for 1915:

Whereas Petitions and memorials have been received from and on behalf of Indians pointing out that in view of their not having any right to vote, they should, although natural born British subjects, not be compelled to perform military service, and that in the negotiations of certain treaties expressions were used indicating that Indians should not be so compelled....

Any Indian Agent may make application for the exemption of any Indian attached to the Reserve over which such agent has jurisdiction and it shall not be necessary for the Registrar to assign to a local tribunal any application made or transmitted by an Indian Agent on behalf of an Indian, but the Registrar shall forthwith issue to such Indian and transmit to the Indian Agent for delivery to him a certificate of exemption from combatant military service. In the event of any man thus exempted from combatant military service being hereinafter called upon to perform any military duty he may then put forward any claim for exemption even from non-combatant service which he may then have. (4)

The order did not give Indian enlistees the right to vote, but because of an earlier development, they already had it. On May 4, 1916, their franchise was officially confirmed when, during the parliamentary debates, the Hon. Charles Doherty, Minister of Justice, quoted a passage from the Active Military Service Act stating that "Canadian Soldiers on Active Military Service during the present war [have the right] to exercise their electoral franchise... makes no exception of Indians." (5) Moreover, when the Military Voters Bill was introduced in late 1917, it had a special provision for Indian veterans whereby if it was not feasible for them to vote at the polling station closest to their reserve, a polling station would be set up on the reserve. During this election, Indian soldiers could vote without the fear of losing their status. Therefore, military service became a way around the Indian Act and was a step towards getting the franchise for all Indian people

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