Aboriginal Hero

aboriginal Hero

Whether fighting in the trenches of the First World War or fighting in the political arena for full rights for his people, First Nations soldier Sergeant Francis Pegahmagabow is a Canadian hero.

The Ojibwe soldier from Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario, was not only one of the most effective snipers and scouts in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), but of the Aboriginal peoples who participated in the First World War, he is the most decorated.

Recognized three times for bravery and devotion under fire in Belgium and France, he is one of only 38 Canadians to earn the Military Medal with two bars, each bar referring to a recognized act of bravery.

The modern equivalent to the Military Medal is the Medal of Military Valour, the third highest award for military valour in the Canadian honours system.

Sgt Pegahmagabow was (most likely) born on March 9, 1889, in what is now Shawanaga First Nation, near Parry Sound.

His father, a member of Wasauksing First Nation on Parry Island, died when Sgt Pegahmagabow was a baby.

His mother also fell ill, so he was raised by his Shawanaga relatives, only returning to Wasauksing First Nation as an adult.

As a young man, he turned his hand to several trades, including working as a seaman on boats in Georgian Bay.

At 21, he learned to read and write English, a rare skill for a First Nations person of that generation.

“We have great admiration for him for that,” said the veteran’s great-grandson, Dr. Brian McInnes.

When Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, Canada too was at war as a member of the British Empire.

Sgt Pegahamagabow was among the first recruits, signing up on Aug. 13, 1914, despite an early prohibition against the enlistment of Aboriginal Peoples.

Sgt Pegahmagabow served with the 23rd Northern Pioneers Regiment, based in Parry Sound, which amalgamated into the 1st Battalion of the CEF. 

He would go on to fight on the Western Front during all four years of the Great War, attaining the rank of Corporal.

The young Ojibwe man soon proved his courage and abilities were second to none. In 1916, he was one of the first Canadians to be awarded the Military Medal.

He received the first of his three commendations for facing enemy fire repeatedly while carrying vital messages along the lines during the battles at Ypres, Festubert, and Givenchy.

Aspiritual man, he carried an Ojibwe medicine pouch that he believed would keep him safe.

This belief may have been a comfort to a man who faced constant danger, including being present at the Second Battle of Ypres, where the German Army used chlorine gas as a weapon.

Dr. McInnes said after the war, his great-grandfather developed breathing issues that became so severe he eventually had to sit up to sleep.

Following a wound in the leg while fighting in France in September 1916, Sgt Pegahamagabow returned to action in time to take part in the bloody assault on Passchendaele.

During a battle so intense the Allies lost some 16,000 men, he earned his first bar to his Military Medal. His commendation reads:

“At Passchendaele Nov. 6th/7th, 1917, this NCO [non-commissioned officer] did excellent work. Before and after the attack he kept in touch with the flanks, advising the units he had seen, this information proving the success of the attack and saving valuable time in consolidating.

He also guided the relief to its proper place after it had become mixed up.”

Following his valorous actions during The Battle of Scarpe in August 1918, Sgt Pegahmagabow received his second bar.

This commendation reveals again his courage under fire:

“During the operations of August 30, 1918, at Orix Trench, near Upton Wood, when his company were almost out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded, this NCO went over the top under heavy MG [machine gun] and rifle fire and brought back sufficient ammunition to enable the post to carry on and assist in repulsing heavy enemy counter-attacks.”

His record as a sniper is equally impressive.

Although difficult to substantiate as he worked alone, the expert marksman is credited with 378 kills.

Dr. McInnes said Sgt Pegahmagabow hoped his willingness to serve would help change perceptions about Aboriginal peoples.

“I think that was a powerful motivator for him to go to war because it was this opportunity that equalized men and women. In war, nobody was above anyone else by virtue of their birth status in this country,” said Dr. McInnes.

Sgt Pegahmagabow made the point himself in a 1919 interview with the Toronto Evening Telegram, saying, “I went to war voluntarily just as quick as the white man.”

Ending the war at the rank of corporal, the weary veteran returned home in 1919 to a political landscape that was as restrictive for Aboriginal peoples as it had been before the war.

“Returning from the war where he had done what he believed to be a great act of service to Canada, I think he believed he should have earned equality from that experience,” said Dr. McInnes.

“It was a source of frustration that would bother him the rest of his life.”

Sgt Pegahamagabow, who married Eva Nanibush Tronche and fathered eight children, became a political activist, serving as councilor and band chief for Wasauksing First Nation.

He was elected the Supreme Chief of the National Indian Government and was also a member of the National Indian Brotherhood, which was an early precurser to the current Assembly of First Nations.

The decorated veteran died in the community of Wasauksing on Aug. 5, 1952, of a heart attack.

He has been entered into the Indian Hall of Fame, as well as having the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group’s headquarters at Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario renamed in his honour in 2006.

Dr. McInnes feels his great-grandfather offers this country an authentic story of a Canadian hero whose soul was defined by his distinct linguistic and cultural identity.

“He valued above all else his identity as a First Nations person in this country and the unique contributions he could make as a First Nations person.”

Gerry Weaver
Army Public Affairs

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