Published: November 8, 2017
SUBMIITED BY JOYCE APPEL
A little-known aspect of the history of Northwestern Ontario comes to mind with the observance of another Remembrance Day.
During the First Great War of 1914-18 there were close to 3,500 First Nations men enlisted, of which more than 300 paid the supreme sacrifice in defence of freedom.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs records show during World War II (1939-45), as many as 3,090 First Nations men enlisted, with around 200 being killed in action.
In both wars, these men proved to be exceptional warriors and suffered heavy losses. Many were awarded Distinguished Service Medals.
Along with the drastic changes seen in Canada after both wars, the social impact also affected our Indigenous people.
Further opening up of remote areas due to industrialization, brought many changes, both in family life, and on reserves.
Cultural assimilation was escalated. There was, for a time, a guard-of-honor, of First Nations infantry, for the opening of the Legislature, a fact seldom mentioned in Canadian history.
In both wars, native recruits were familiar with the outdoors and with firearms. They served in a variety of roles, in the army, navy and air force, filling such roles as scouts, snipers, troopers, bombardiers, pilots, mechanics and almost every other aspect of the military.
During World War I, the 52nd Battalion, better known as the “Bull Moose Battalion,” was made up mostly of First Nations from Northwestern Ontario.
Two of the members, recorded in the annals of history were James Redsky and David Keesick, of the Shoal Lake band, near Kenora.
At Cambrai, France, “B Company” had been decimated by the Germans. Canadian trenches were raked by machine gun fire until only a handful of men were left.
At dawn one morning, fewer than 50 Canadians went to attack the German position. This advance was led by Keesick, a tall (six-foot-four) trooper, carrying a heavy Lewis machine gun.
The Germans surrendered and Keesick captured 367 Germans single-handed and was awarded the coveted Distinguished Conduct Medal, an award rarely won by anyone with rank of a private.
Various accounts filtered back from the front lines, of how some of the First Nation soldiers used their first language, in radio dispatches, to foul up enemy attempts to intercept messages.
Another story relates how one individual taught his company a code password in Ojibwa, thus thwarting enemy attempts to infiltrate ally lines.
Aside from this unique contribution, the First Nations soldiers were recognized for their fighting spirit and stubborn refusal to give up even against heavy odds.