Francis Pegahmagabow was an Indigenous Chief of the Anishinaabe First Nation. Born on March 9, 1891, on the Parry Island Reserve in Ontario, he is known as an Indigenous rights activist and war hero. In fact, he became one of Canada’s most highly decorated Indigenous people during World War I. He died on August 5, 1952, and his legacy will remain etched in Canadian history.
Francis lost his parents at a young age and was raised in Shawanaga by a man named Noah Nebimanyquod. He grew up in a traditional environment where he learned to hunt, fish and use healing methods. When he was 12, he began working in lumber camps and fishing stations.
World War I
When the war broke out in 1914, Indigenous people were barred from enlisting in military service. However, by 1916, mounting casualties meant that the Canadian Expeditionary Force was desperate for volunteers to fight overseas. This is when Indigenous people were allowed to join the ranks of Canadian troops.
However, Pegahmagabow’s experience joining the army was a bit different. Determined to enlist as soon as the conflict erupted, he went to the recruitment office. After being found to be in good physical condition, he was able to enlist in the overseas contingent of the 23rd Regiment (Northern Pioneers) in August 1914. He was one of the first Indigenous people to volunteer for overseas service.
In February 1915, he landed in France with the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion. He quickly gained a reputation for his precision sniper skills and nerves of steel. He also became a first-class scout.
What is a Scout?
A scout’s job is to observe the terrain and collect as much information as possible that will be useful to the rest of the group.
Not just anyone can become a scout!
Generally, you need an excellent ability to move and a keen sense of observation. Today, the term is also used for soldiers who perform reconnaissance missions from aircraft or ships.
Image: Canadian War Museum
From 1915 to 1916, Pegahmagabow took part in several important battles with the 1st Battalion. One reason he stood out was for his ongoing service to dispatch messages. His coolness under pressure and great sense of duty earned him a Canadian Military Medal, and he was one of the first Canadians to earn this honour.
He went on to earn two additional bars to his medal for his acts of valour during the Passchendaele campaign and at the Battle of the Scarpe.
His life post-war
In 1919, Francis returned from the battlefield to his community on Parry Island. He quickly found that the living conditions there hadn’t changed and that the Indigenous people were subject to the same poverty and persecution as before he went off to war.
Angered by this situation and the government’s treatment of Indigenous communities and veterans, he got involved in local and federal politics with the goal of diminishing the authority of the Indian Agents and giving the Band Council greater powers to overrule these Agents’ decisions. Unfortunately, he was not able to achieve these goals in his lifetime.
From 1830 to 1960, these representatives of the Canadian government were sent to isolated communities to implement government policies and enforce the provisions of the Indian Act on reserves.
Photo: Dr. Bourget, an Indian Agent examining a child. – Source: Canadian Encyclopedia.
His journey was fraught with difficulties, and despite the conflicts he experienced that led to controversy, he devoted much of his life advocating for Indigenous rights.
Francis Pegahmagabow died on August 5, 1952, from heart complications.
He received many honours
- Military decorations:
- Military medal and two bars
- 1914-1915 Star
- British War Medal
- Victory Medal
His family left everything to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
- In 1967, he was inducted into the Indian Hall of Fame in Brantford, Ontario.
- A monument in his honour was erected at the Canadian Forces Base Borden.
- The 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group building has borne his name since 2006.
- His story has also inspired two novels.
Francis Pegahmagabow is remembered as a man of courage who fiercely believed in the causes that mattered to him and who left a memorable legacy in Canadian history.