Eagle Staff Travels to France, Recognizes Indigenous Soldiers in WW1

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Article / August 9, 2016

By: Captain Thomas Cameron Edelson, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

The First World War was a global war with global reach. What began as a European war eventually spread over three continents, and by 1915, the Allied and Central Powers were drawing in millions from their colonies to strengthen their depleted territorial armies. The British Empire drew on the Indian subcontinent and its Chinese colonies, the French on their North African and South-East Asian Colonies and Canada called  upon its comparatively smaller First Nations population. The Aboriginal response was quick and the effect impressive.

To honour the contribution of Aboriginal peoples from Canada and Newfoundland in the First World War, a contingent of five First Nations soldiers accompanied a contingent of 149 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel drawn from regiments and units across the CAF.  

Master Warrant Officer Stan Mercredi, of the Mikisew Cree First Nations in Fort Chipewyan Alberta, has the honour of being the Eagle Staff Carrier representing Aboriginal customs and traditions on behalf of the Defence Team community.  

I’d do anything for the Canadian Armed Forces. I’ve served it, just as it has served me, for 34 years,” said Master Warrant Officer Mercredi who serves with the 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery at CFB Petawawa. “I am extremely proud to be both a Canadian Armed Forces member and First Nations. To have our culture represented and commemorated in the larger CAF family is very important.

The Eagle Staff, which was prominently displayed during the parades at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1 and at Courcelette on July 2, represents an old Aboriginal tradition incorporated into military ceremony. Each staff is unique to the people who created it, to the people whom it represents and, from the time and place where it was made. The Canadian Armed Forces Eagle Staff is unique in that it was designed to represent Aboriginal warrior heritage and the military legacy of Canada’s First Peoples--to never forget the courage and sacrifices they have made over the centuries.

There are people from my reserve that served in World War One and Two,” said Leading Seaman Jessica Spence, a cook with the Royal Canadian Navy and a member on parade. “These people and their stories can be forgotten, so I felt it was important to come over to see and remember their contributions.”  Leading Seaman Spence, an “Oji-Cree” from Winnipeg (her mother is Ojibway and father is Cree) participated in the Raven Program in 2006 and also has the privilege of being the back-up Eagle Staff Carrier if Master Warrant Officer Mercredi was unable to carry out that duty.

Another member who participated in the Summer Training Program (Bold Eagle in 2005) and joined the CAF was Corporal Joseph Ogle, an Ojibway First Nations from Sioux Lookout, Ont. who works as an Avionics Systems Technician with 450 Squadron in Petawawa.

I thought it would be a great honour to come to France, just to have my feet on the ground and to have my own personal smudging ceremony over this ground where Canadians fought,” said Corporal Ogle. “It felt good to be on parade; it made me feel very proud.” At various cemeteries where Canadians are buried he could be seen walking alone, sprinkling tobacco over the hallowed ground.

From remote reserves and communities across Canada, thousands of First Nations volunteered for the trenches on the Western Front. Serving principally in the Army and recognized as valuable runners, scouts and snipers, more than 37 Aboriginal warriors were decorated for gallantry. At least 15 people of Inuit ancestry served in the Newfoundland Regiment including Lance Corporal John Shiwak from Rigolet Labrador, credited as being one of the best snipers in the British Forces during the war. Lance Corporal Shiwak was killed near Cambrai in late 1917 and is commemorated at the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial to the Missing. 

I am always super proud to be First Nations; I tell everyone right away,” said Sergeant Lance Ray who serves in a Recce Platoon with the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. A member of the Flying Post First Nations Reserve near Nipigon, Ontario,  he was raised by his grandfather who served with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders as a Bren Gunner in World War Two.  As a member of the flag party during the commemorations, Sergeant Ray had several moments for reflection. “I thought a lot about my own friends who served and were killed overseas, about their memories.

Aboriginal soldiers in the First World War were known to be highly adaptable and patient, with keen observation powers, stamina, and courage, all key qualities to being an effective sniper or marksman. Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, who served with the 23rd (Northern Pioneers) Regiment, was the most highly-decorated Canadian Native soldier in the First World War and unofficially credited with 378 kills. Another famous Native sniper was Lance Corporal Henry Norwest from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta who served with the 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion and is credited with 115 kills. Corporal Pegahmagabow survived the war and went on to become Chief of the Parry Island Band. Lance Corporal Norwest was shot and killed while searching for a troublesome nest of enemy snipers three months before the war ended. 

They were fighting for their identity as well as for Canada,” said MWO Mercredi. “They were reliable soldiers. At home they were able to live off the land and the skills of hunting, stalking, trapping and fishing would have increased their survivability by just knowing how to cope in all four seasons in the trenches.

The pride of every deployed CAF member who took part in the commemorations was evident as was the interest from civilians attending the parades. Numerous people who attended, including His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, took a specific interest in the Eagle Staff and had the opportunity to ask questions about the CAF Aboriginal representation.  

I am very thankful to come here for the 100th. My great-grandfather served in World War One and fought at the Somme and my grandfather served in World War Two,” said Corporal Frederick O’Soup, Soto-Ojibway from Muskowekwan, Sask who serves with the 10th Field Artillery in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. “It feels like a lot of pressure to be on parade. There are a lot of people watching. I wanted to represent my family, my unit and the Forces to the best of my ability.

More than 4,000 Aboriginal people served with various Canadian units in World War I.
More than 300 died in uniform and hundreds more were wounded both in body and in mind.

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