Francis Pegahmagabow: the forgotten hero
by David Shanahan
When most of the Canadian soldiers who had served overseas during the First World War returned home in 1919, they might have expected to find “a land fit for heroes”, as they had been promised. They had fought the “War to end War”, and for this they had suffered so much.
But, instead, many returned to unemployment, death by influenza, or a life of pain and struggle as they dealt with the effects, physical and psychological, of what they had been through. Some were not even to enjoy home, as they were sent away again, to Vladivostok, to fight against the Bolsheviks. For many others, coming home would mean the loss of everything they had fought for: the fight to protect the rights of small nations didn’t extend to the nations to which they belonged. The thousands of indigenous people who had volunteered for service in WWI are the forgotten heroes. And pride of place in that sad band goes to Francis Pegahmagabow.
Francis signed up at the very start of World War I, in August, 1914. He is the most highly decorated indigenous soldier in Canadian history. He was awarded the Military Medal, not once, but three times and was seriously wounded during his time serving in the First World War. As a scout and sniper, he was credited with 378 kills, and he single-handedly captured 300 prisoners.
Along with every other man in uniform, he was granted the vote in federal elections in 1917, and returned to his home community of Wasauksing on Parry Island celebrated as a hero and a credit to his people. Then the reality of life in Canada for native people hit home. This hero had his right to vote stripped from him because he was an Indian. Indigenous people did not regain that right until the 1950’s. Although he was Chief of his community for many years, every attempt to improve the lives of his people was thwarted by Indian Agents who dictated every aspect of life on the Wasauksing Reserve. He, along with every other indigenous person in the country, was not allowed to send a letter of protest to the Government, they all had to go through the Agent.
Residents of Reserves were under the Indian Act, a piece of legislation that controlled their lives, refused them the right to hire a lawyer to represent them, refused the right even to leave the Reserve without written permission from the Agent. This was how Canada treated its decorated heroes.
The First World War was fought, it was said, to protect the rights of small nations, like Belgium. Britain (and therefore Canada) entered the war to protect the neutrality of that country. It is ironic, then, that the rights of small nations, First Nations, were so blatantly ignored and degraded, in spite of legal treaties with Britain and Canada. What was fought for then, what we remember every November 11, is that millions of people died to safeguard basic human and civil rights from being infringed upon by bigger and stronger nations.
Canada has been doing that very thing to many smaller nations within its own borders for generations. In spite of which, around 4,000 men like Francis Pegahmagabow, that’s around one-third of all indigenous men between the ages of 18 and 45, went to war and distinguished themselves in defending this country. This is something that we, as Canadians must honour, acknowledge, and do what we can to show our gratitude. We must educate ourselves and our children about the indigenous people of this country and their history. We must sort out truth from myth, and recognise the rights and status of the people who also died and served, and who were later reduced to children in the eyes of the law of Canada. Lest we forget.