Time to Remember Once Again

Indigenous Veterans

by Veterans Affairs,
Government of Canada

The First World War raged from 1914 to 1918 and more than 4,000 Indigenous people served in uniform during the conflict. It was a remarkable response and in some areas, one in three able-bodied men would volunteer. Indeed, some communities (such as the Head of the Lake Band in British Columbia) saw every man between 20 and 35 years of age enlist. Indigenous recruits joined up for a variety of reasons, from seeking employment or adventure to wanting to uphold a tradition that had seen their ancestors fight alongside the British in earlier military efforts like the War of 1812 and the South African War.

Valuable skills

Many Indigenous men brought valuable skills with them when they joined the military. Patience, stealth and marksmanship were well-honed traits for those who had come from communities where hunting was a cornerstone of daily life. These attributes helped many of these soldiers become successful snipers (military sharpshooters) and reconnaissance scouts (men who stealthily gathered information on enemy positions). Indigenous soldiers earned at least 50 decorations for bravery during the war. Henry Louis Norwest, a Métis from Alberta and one of the most famous snipers of the entire Canadian Corps, held a divisional sniping record of 115 fatal shots and was awarded the Military Medal and bar for his courage under fire.

Francis Pegahmagabow

by David Shanahan

As Indigenous Veterans Week is marked during Remembrance Week, it is important to know more about how Indigenous veterans were treated after they had returned from serving their country. An example to remember this week is that of Francis Pegahmagabow. His story is perhaps the best example of the lessons we need to learn from our past, because it has a relevance to Canada today. 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.

Is this relevant? Well, we still have an Indian Act, not always as restrictive as in the past, but, nevertheless, the only piece of Canadian legislation specifically designed to deal with a single ethnic community. We still have people living on land without any economic development potential, without clean, safe water to drink, with nothing for their young or old to look forward to in life. Yes, this is relevant. There are so many myths surrounding Canada’s indigenous people and where they fit into our society. Most of them are untrue. They do not “get everything for nothing”, many do pay taxes like the rest of us, and whatever treaty rights they have are compensation for what was taken from them. Even these rights are not always honoured.

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, 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 First Nations 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.

Francis Pegahmagabow Monument. [Photo Credit: Tim Laye, Ontario War Memorials]
The National Aboriginal Veterans Monument in Confederation Park in Ottawa. Photo courtesy Veterans Affairs Canada

Remembering 1917

by David Shanahan

In November, 1917, Canada was at war, and had been for more than three long and tragic years. The First World War involved Canada in a conflict the likes of which had never been seen before. The new technologies of industrialised nations were brought to bear on the battlefield, and machine guns, poison gas, tanks and barbed wire took a heavy toll on all the warring nations.

In 1916, more than 24,000 Canadians had been killed on the Somme, and 1917 brought no relief from the mud and blood and death. If anything, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Lens, and Passchendaele brought the war more immediately into the daily lives of the people in this region. 

But there was so much more in 1917 that made it such a time of death and division, even within Canada. After fifty years, the nation was almost torn apart by the Conscription Crisis which dominated the second half of the year and pitted Ontario against the West, and, most especially, against Quebec. As the article on the Crisis in this issue shows, Canada barely survived its anniversary year, and if the war had not ended in1918, the strains on our national unity might have proved too great to survive. It really was that serious.

It was not just to Canada that the year brought traumatic and far-reaching changes. In 1917, the United States entered the war, and the Russian Empire departed it. The Bolshevik Revolution had brought an end to the ruling Czars and the new regime made its own peace with the Kaiser’s Germany, leaving the latter free to transfer its divisions to the Western Front. There were mutinies in the French army and the German navy.

After 105 years, we can look back in relative peace and gain some perspective on the past. Have we learned from it? Do we fully appreciate the country we have today, in spite of those days of bloodshed and the loss of more than 60,000 Canadians between 1914 and 1918?  The War to End War only led to a Second World War, an even more bloody conflict that helped to make the Twentieth Century one of the most savage in historic records.

This year, we should remember the bravery and the deeds of those who lived through those awful days of 1917, and promise to do everything we can to never repeat the horror and the destruction that all wars bring to all sides. That is why we remember them on November 11 each year: so that we are not among those who, by forgetting their history, are doomed to repeat it.

Kemptville and the Conscription Crisis

The fact that Canada was nearly torn apart through the Conscription Crisis in 1917 can, at least, partly, be traced back to Kemptville! Although Conscription was opposed in the West by Labour leaders, as well as by those who were against the war itself, most of the focus of opposition lay in Quebec. And while it was stated repeatedly at the time, and ever since, that this was an anti-war attitude on the part of French Canadians, the situation was not nearly as clear-cut as that.

Many French Canadians saw the war as a European Imperialist conflict, with which Canada should have nothing to do. But there was one issue in particular which had soured Francophones on joining in any British venture, particularly one that was heavily supported by Orange Ontario: Regulation 17. The regulation prohibited primary schools from using French as a language of instruction or communication beyond grade 2 and capped the amount of time primary school students could receive instruction in French as a subject to one hour per day. Schools that ignored the regulations would lose their funding, and teachers would lose their certification.

Regulation 17 owed a great deal of its force and controversy to G. Howard Ferguson, native of Kemptville and prime mover in the Conservative Government of measures to curtail French language services in education in Ontario. Ferguson served on the village council and was Reeve from 1900 to 1902. He constantly linked the dangers of bilingual education in Canada to threats to its British character.

“This is a British country and we must maintain it as such if we are to maintain the high destiny that Providence intended for Canada…If Ontario can demonstrate that the bilingual system is unnecessary, she has won a great victory for British citizenship”. 

The leader of Quebec Nationalists, Henri Bourassa, had explicitly linked Regulation 17 to the war in Europe when he declared:  “Why go and get killed by Prussians in Europe when we are being persecuted right here by the Prussians in Ontario?” When the leader of the Liberal Party, Wilfrid Laurier, was invited by the Prime Minister, Robert Borden, to join a Union Government to introduce conscription and prosecute the war in 1917, Laurier refused, knowing how strongly conscription would be resisted in Quebec. Borden had promised, at the start of the war, that conscription would never be used. Breaking this promise, it was felt, insulted the incredible sacrifices and achievements of the Royal 22e Régiment, known as the Van Doos, which suffered around 4,000 casualties during the war, earning two Victoria Crosses on the way. 

In addition, a special fundraising effort for the Patriotic Fund in February, 1917, had been very successful. People in Quebec donated one day’s pay to the Fund, and both Francophone newspapers provided free space for the initiative. Almost two-thirds of the donors were French Canadians. Conscription seemed like a betrayal, and emotions were to reach fever pitch in early 1918, when machine guns were used against protestors in Quebec City, killing four men. As can be seen in the local newspaper at the time, racist attitudes dominated in many Ontario communities, labelling Quebeckers as pro-German and a direct threat to Canada. Confederation was faced with a serious danger in its 50th year. Howard Ferguson’s rhetoric and legislation was reaping an unfortunate harvest.


Conscription crisis, 1917

After the Canadian Corps victory at Vimy in April, 1917, Prime Minister Robert Borden visited the front and met with military and political leaders in London and France. He noted at the time that there were fewer Canadian soldiers engaged in the war than those from other parts of the British Empire, such as Australia. He also noted the fact that recruitment in Canada was not keeping up with the number of casualties in France. In April, for example, only 5,500 men had volunteered to enlist, but at Vimy almost twice that number had been killed and wounded in the three days the battle lasted.

On his return to Canada, Borden announced that he would introduce conscription, meaning that every eligible male would be liable to be called up and sent to war. He formed a Union Government, including members of the Opposition Liberal Party, though most of the Quebec members, as well as their Party leader, Wilfrid Laurier, refused to be part of the administration.

The ensuing campaign to pass legislation in the Canadian Parliament, and the election rhetoric leading up to the vote in December, became so polarising that there was a genuine fear that the country would be irretrievably divided along ethnic and ideological lines.

In the end, conscription never met the goals set by Borden and all of the trauma and division was for nothing. Call-ups began in January of 1918, but out of the more than 400,000 that were eligible to be drafted, more than 380,000 appealed their call-up. A total of 124,588 were actually enlisted, and by the end of the war, only 24,000 extra soldiers made it to France. 

The 1917 Election propaganda

The election campaign of December revealed deep divisions in Canadian society. Quebec was portrayed in newspapers in Ontario, and very clearly in the local newspapers in this area, as a traitorous community, determined to rule all of Canada. The clipping here comes from the Weekly Advance of December 13, 1917. The headline says much: “Is a United Quebec to Rule All Canada?”

The issue of conscription is called: “the most tremendous question in Canada’s history”, and warns that “Canada is in real danger”. The article claims that Quebec wanted to withdraw Canada from the war, impose “bilingual schools everywhere”, and take political control of Canada. The issue at the heart of the election, it says, is simple:

“Canada must decide whether she will become a deserter and quit with Russia, or fight to the end for liberty with Belgium. This decision must not be dictated by the only Province which has shirked its obligations throughout the war. All Canada knows that Germany has been working through agents, spies and bribes in every country in the world…Do we Canadians think the Kaiser has overlooked Canada?”

The scars left by the 1917 Election are still visible today, as this kind of propaganda did not lose its effects after the votes were cast. The emphasis on Anglo-Saxon, British Canada in danger from what another article referred to as “Quebec and the Germans, and other enemies of Britain”, underlined how the war had been seen from the beginning: a British Imperial crusade of the righteous against evil. And all of Quebec was now labelled as being the latter. 

Major Horace Hutchins

Horace Hutchins was born on January 28, 1868 in Kemptville, Ontario. His grandfather had arrived in Oxford-on-Rideau Township from Ireland around 1820 and the family had farmed in the area since then. Horace attended the Kemptville Union Public and High School on Oxford Street, and then became a farmer and businessman, an agent for Frost and Wood farm implements company. He was Reeve of Kemptville in 1912. On August 3, 1915, he enlisted with the 109th Canadian Infantry Battalion, a unit of the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force (CEF). He had served eight years with the 56th Regiment in Kemptville and had been Captain in the local militia company, the 56th Lisgar Rifles.

To get to the front, Major Hutchins accepted a reduction to the rank of Lieutenant. However, he was promoted to Captain and then back to the rank of Major in early 1916. While serving with the 190th Battalion, Horace was struck and killed on April 9, 1917, as he led his men across No Man’s Land during an attack on Vimy Ridge.

His wife, Mary Jane, died in October, 1918 of the Spanish Flu, one of the earliest victims of the pandemic that swept the world in 1918-1919. They had no children of their own, but had adopted a nephew, Helman Duey Hutchins, who was 19 when Horace was killed. He seems to have left before that time, however, as it was Horace’s brother who was identified as next-of-kin after Mary’s death the following year.

This letter was sent to Horace’s widow after he died:

A Co., 124th Am. Corps.

France, April 18, 1917.

My Dear Mrs. Hutchins: On behalf of the boys who were in the company in the 109th battalion, which was commanded by your late husband, I beg to offer our sincere sympathy to you on account of his loss.

He was honoured by all who knew him, both officers and men, and I’m sure all will hear of his being killed in action with deep feeling.

I have been able to get some details as to his death and will give them to you as best I can. He led his company across No Man’s land and while near the centre was hit with a bullet in the left arm. He immediately had a bandage put on and continued going forward. His death came quickly and without pain, for on reaching the enemy’s frontline he was hit in both breasts with a machine gun and died instantly. When found by a former 109th boy he was taken for having gone to sleep, but the worst was soon discovered.

As our own position has since been moved I think I may state that he has very likely been buried in one of the too numerous cemeteries near Mt. St. Eloy, which is not far from Arras.

As company sergeant-major of your late husband’s former company, I beg you to accept the sincere sympathy of myself and all the others who were in the Company at any time.

I remain, yours sincerely,

Leslie G. Hathaway, Cpl.

“The sad and unexpected news that arrived here last Friday afternoon of the passing away of Mrs. Horace Hutchins while on a visit to her cousin, Mr. W. J. Corbett, Montréal, has caused nothing but profound sadness among her friends here. Mrs. Hutchins had been visiting Mr. and Mrs. Corbett for about a month and while preparing to return home was stricken with influenza which later developed into pneumonia and after about a week’s illness she passed away. Mrs. Hutchins maiden name was Minnie J. Martin. She was a daughter of the late Samuel Martin, photographer of Kemptville. She was born here and lived practically all her life in the village. She was married to the late Major Hutchins, who so gallantly gave his life in the service of his country at the assault on Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917.”

Weekly Advance, October 31st, 1918.

The Home Front

One of the major consequences of the war on the home front in North Grenville was a scarcity of fuel. On October 18, 1917, the following appeared in the Weekly Advance:

Fuel Scarce

The fuel situation in Kemptville and vicinity still remains acute, neither dealer having received any coal for a month. Anderson & Langstaff received a couple of cars this week, mostly for their own use, what they did cell brought eleven dollars a ton. At Oxford Mills no coal at all has arrived the season. Would it is scarce owing to the deep snow in the woods last winter but little was cut, and those who have it for sale won’t part with it yet for fear they may sell it for less than they could get should they hold it. Should the coming winter be a severe one the outlook for hardship and suffering is to be expected.

Canadian volunteers

Between the beginning of the war in 1914, and June 30, 1917 when conscription was being debated in the House of Commons, 42,456 Canadians had volunteered to enlist. Of that number, around 320,000 had actually gone overseas. The total of these that had been killed, were missing, died of other causes, and captured was 32,000. In July, 1917, casualties had totalled 3,637 and the number of new recruits enlisted that month was just 4,257.

Opening of the Kemptville Legion

Kemptville Legion No. 212 received its Charter from the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League, as it was called back in 1932. The branch had formed in late 1931, and gradually gathered members from the region. It was officially chartered on April 16, 1932, but it was some months later before the formal presentation of the Charter took place at a special banquet in the Armouries, now the Williamson Memorial Hall, on October 24, 1932, when the thirty members of the Branch were joined by representatives of the national and Ottawa branches of the Canadian Legion to mark the event.

The Charter was formally presented by Captain W. P. Grant to the President of the Branch, Walter Tuck. The newly-chartered Branch held the first Poppy Day that November. Between 1932 and 1957, the Legion had met primarily in the Armoury building. But on Kemptville’s 100th anniversary, a new building was opened on July 6, 1957. The date was itself an anniversary of D-Day, July 6, 1944.