Edward Ahenakew, Indigenous fighters, First World War, 1920

Edward Ahenakew, an Anglican clergyman of Cree ancestry, spoke about Indigenous fighters in the First World War
Rev. Edward Ahenakew

Edward Ahenakew was Anglican clergyman of Cree ancestry, born in 1885 on the Ahtahkakoop First Nation in central Saskatchewan. He spent his life doing missionary work on reserves, promoting the Cree language, working to improve education on reserves, and attempting to organize a national organization to represent Indigenous people. On June 16, 1920 he gave this speech about the First World War to a Women’s Auxiliary conference in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He talked about the sacrifices made by Indigenous warriors and how that  led to the expectation that life in Canada would thereafter improve for their people.

“The awakening has come; the war has done its work”

Now that peace has been declared, the Indians of Canada may look with just pride upon the part played by them in the Great War, both at home and on the field of battle. They have well and nobly upheld the loyal tradition of their gallant ancestors who rendered invaluable service to the British cause in 1775 and 1812 and have added thereto a heritage of deathless honour which is an example and an inspiration for their descendants . . .

Old men say no

Our old men who had been fighting in the old days were very much against our nation joining in it. They did all they could possibly do to discourage enlistment of our young men, not because they were disloyal, but because they shrank from seeing a thing happen which never happened before, or that an Indian should go and lay his bones to mingle with a soil that is not Canadian. Furthermore, it did not seem to them as if it were altogether England’s quarrel, and much less did they think it was Canada’s quarrel.

England was only helping other nations and not fighting for her own life. “If our own land were attacked,” they said, “it would then be up to every man of us to go, but not to this one.”

Young men say yes

Their gospel of discretion went to the winds. Youth is youth the world around. . . . The fine record of the Indians in the Great War appears in a peculiarly favourable light when it is remembered that their services were absolutely voluntary, as they were specially exempted from the operation of the Military Service Act, and that they were prepared to give their lives for their country without being compelled to do so or even the fear of compulsion. Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that a large part of the Indian population is located in remote and inaccessible locations, are unacquainted with the English language, and were therefore not in a position to understand the character of the war, its cause and effect. It is therefore a remarkable fact that the percentage of enlistments among them is fully equal to that among other sections of the community and indeed far above the average in a number of instances. As an inevitable result of the large enlistments among them, and of their share in the thick of the fighting, the casualties among them were very heavy, and the Indians, in common with their fellow countrymen of the white race, must mourn the loss of their most promising young men.

Expert marksmen

The one section of warfare in which in the Indians distinguished themselves most was sniping. Naturally taking to the use of the gun, they proved expert and deadly marksmen. It is said that they were unexcelled in this branch of fighting. It is claimed that they did much towards demoralizing the entire enemy system of sniping. They displayed their old-time patience and self-control when engaged in this work, and would sit hour by hour at a vantage point, waiting the appearance of the enemy at his sniping post . . .

A spirit of unrest

The Indian feels that he has done a man’s work and he will never again be content to stand aside, giving no voice to matters that affect him. The spirit of unrest has taken hold of him; it has stirred up in him desires he never felt before. He chafes under the circumstances which render him dumb before the public; from the Atlantic to the Pacific a feeling of brotherhood and the need of union has arisen among all the scattered Indian people. Tribes far removed from each other, unknown to each other, and uninterested in each other now correspond and exchange opinions . . .

Sleeping nation wakens

A sleeping nation is a hard nation to help. The awakening has come; the war has done its work. Not in vain did our young men die in a strange land; not in vain are our Indian bones mingled with the soil of a foreign land for the first time since the world began; not in vain did the Indian fathers and mothers see their sons march away to face what to them were un-understandable dangers; the unseen tears of Indian mothers in many isolated Indian reserves have watered the seeds from which may spring those desires and efforts and aspirations which will enable us to reach sooner the stage when we will take our place side by side with the white people, doing our share of productive work and gladly shouldering the responsibilities of citizens in this, our country.

Penny Petrone, First People, First Voices (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983),
pp: 182-84. The Edward Ahenakew speech in the book is drawn from: Saskatchewan Archives Board, Regina, Ruth Matheson Buck papers.

More information: The Canadian Encyclopedia, Edward Ahenakew.


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