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Unsung hero – WWI aboriginal sniper honoured

July 2016

On 21 June 2016, National Aboriginal Day, a long-overdue honour was bestowed on Canada’s most highly decorated aboriginal soldier.  A life-sized bronze monument statue of World War I hero Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, MM and 2 Bars, was unveiled in Parry Sound, Ontario, almost 100 years after he earned his first medal for courage in battle.

Pegahmagabow was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in combat 3 times, one of only 39 in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to receive this honour.  He was one of almost 4000 aboriginal Canadian soldiers who served in WWI, despite the overt discrimination they faced back home.

Pegahmagabow was born on 9 March 1889 on what is now the Shawanaga First Nation in Nobel, Ontario.  His Ojibwe name Binaaswi means “the wind that blows off.”

Pegahmagabow joined the army in August 1914, despite official Canadian government policy that initially excluded minorities.  He was posted to the 23rd Canadian Regiment (Northern Pioneers) and began training at Camp Valcartier in Quebec.

In February 1915, Pegahmagabow deployed overseas with the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion of the 1st Canadian Division, Canadian Expeditionary Force, the first contingent of Canadian troops sent to fight in the Europe theatre, where his fellow soldiers nicknamed him “Peggy.”

Pegahmagabow was first awarded the Military Medal while fighting at the Second Battle of Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy, for courage above fire in getting important messages through to the rear.  Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Albert Creighton, had nominated him from the Distinguished Conduct Medal, citing his disregard for danger and “faithfulness to duty”, but it was downgraded

He earned his first bar to the Military Medal at the Second Battle of Passchendaele on 6-7 November 1917 and his second bar to the Military Medal at the battle of The Scarpe, on 30 August 1918.

By the time Pegahmagabow was discharged in 1919, he had built a reputation as a skilled marksman and a deadly sniper. Using the much-maligned Ross rifle, he was credited with killing 378 Germans and capturing 300 more.

Upon his return to Canada, Pegahmagabow continued to serve in the Algonquin Regiment (non-permanent active militia), eventually rising to the rank of Company Sergeant-Major.  Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he was elected chief of the Parry Island Band in February 1921 and again in 1942, from which he engaged in a new fight for the rights of aboriginals across Canada.

Eventually Pegahmagabow helped to form some of the first national native rights movements in Canada, eventually becoming the Supreme Chief of the Native Independent Government, an early predecessor of the Assembly of First Nations.

During World War II, Pegahmagabow worked as a guard at a munitions plant near Nobel, Ontario.

By the 1950s, Pegahmagabow’s health was failing due to the gas exposure he suffered during WWI. The only way he could comfortably sleep was upright to prevent his damaged lungs from filling with fluid.

Pegahmagabow died on 5 August 1952 at the age of 63 of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and 6 children. He was buried in a small cemetery on the Parry Island Reserve, now known as the Wasauksing First Nation.

Attending the statue unveiling ceremony beside the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts in Parry Sound were Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Lieutenant-General Marquis Hainse, Commander of the Canadian Army, Parry Sound Mayor Jamie McGarvey and members of the Pegahmagabow family including his granddaughter Teresa McInnes, a Councillor with the Wasauksing First Nation.

Besides a life-sized bronze statue of Pegahmagabow in uniform with a Ross sniper rifle slung over his shoulder, the monument also features a caribou lying to his right,  representing the Caribou Clan that Pegahmagabow belonged to, and an eagle, his spirit animal, perched on his left arm.

Among the other honours bestowed on Pegahmagabow since his death are induction in the Indian Hall of Fame at the Woodland Centre in Brantford, a memorial plaque honouring him and his regiment on the Rotary and Algonquin Regiment Fitness Trail in Parry Sound and having the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group HQ Building at CFB Borden named after him.

While Pegahmagabow is now highly regarded and honoured, it wasn’t always this way during his life, especially when he came home from the war. He had to endure poverty and oppression, usually at the hands of Indian Agents, who even controlled his military pension.

Adrian Hayes, the author of the definitive biography of Pegahmagabow, sums up the post-war treatment Pegahmagabow and many other Aboriginal soldiers this way:

“When he was in uniform, he was considered an equal…by what he could do. When he came back, he just went back to being an Indian. Indians at that time were not even Canadian citizens. They were treated like children and the Indian agents wanted him to basically sit back and shut up and not say anything.”

Sources:  http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/people/in-uniform/first-nations-soldiers, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Pegahmagabow, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/francis-pegahmagabow/, t”The deadliest sniper of WWI was Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa soldier,” CBC documentary, http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/francis-pegahmagabow-aboriginal-day-1.3644513, http://indigenouswarhero.org.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/unsung-hero-wwi-aboriginal-sniper-honoured/

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