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Aboriginal Soldiers in the First World War

By James Dempsey


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Post-war Rise of Political Organizations

While Indian veterans were denied many of the benefits and supports given to non-Indian veterans, there were nonetheless some unanticipated positive results of Indian participation in the war. Increased contact between Indian Nations from across Canada and the establishment of closer bonds among them fostered a new feeling of self-worth. In being presented with decorations and commendations, and in having won the war alongside other Canadians, the Indians felt they had proven their right to speak for themselves. Therefore, in 1919, as a symbol of their new awareness of nationhood, many Indian veterans joined together in the formation of the League of Indians of Canada. The League, which was the first such organization in the country, hoped to improve conditions on reserves.

The principles of the League were drawn up by Frederick Loft, a Mohawk man who had been a lieutenant in the Forestry Corps. Having had the opportunity to talk with many Indians from all over Canada while in the service, he saw the need for some medium through which the different Indian Nations might be unified. A representative Indian opinion would provide clarity and unity of action. Loft became the League's first president.

The first meeting was held in September 1919 at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and the second in June 1920, at Elphinstone, Manitoba. A meeting for Saskatchewan Indian Nations was held the following year. After 1922, the organization held its annual meetings in the West, since the Indian Nations of that region provided the most active membership. Eventually, the organization became known as the League of Indians of Western Canada.

The League's constitution recognized the authority of the Crown and a need for "the perpetuation of the memory of those who died in the War, and proper provision for their dependents." (21) Also prominent was a hope for co-operation with the federal government. However, this was not to be.

D.C. Scott saw the League as an annoyance that impeded efficient administration. In fact, the League's proposals were often in direct opposition to established Departmental policy. Political unity and the fostering of a strong Indian identity were in direct contradiction with Scott's policy of assimilating the Indians into mainstream Canadian society. Scott initially felt that the League would dissolve if the Department refused to co-operate, and directed the agents to avoid all contact and support for it and to pressure their wards to refrain from any correspondence with Loft. Commissioner W.M. Graham was particularly disturbed at the growth of the League in western Canada. His concern centred not only on the political implications of the movement, but also on the large rallies which distracted the Indian residents from their farm work during the summer months.

While the League and its war veteran supporters did not accomplish much, they did lay the foundation for Indian political organization in Canada. Ultimately, both the Indian Association of Alberta and the Union of Saskatchewan Indians grew out of Loft's original league.

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