ARCHIVED - Courage under Fire: First Nations war hero a fighter on two fronts

This page has been archived on the Web

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

Article / May 20, 2015 / Project number: 15-0091

Ottawa, Ontario — 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 true 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 subsequently 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. The war hero’s father, a member of Wasauksing First Nation on Parry Island, died of an illness when Sgt Pegahmagabow was just a baby. As his mother also fell ill, 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 Sgt Pegahmagabow’s generation.

 “We have great admiration for him for that,” said the veteran’s great-grandson, Dr. Brian McInnes. An Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Dr. McInnes was very close to two of Sgt Pegahmagabow’s children, Duncan and Marie, who passed on many stories about his great-grandfather.

Sgt Pegahmagabow’s world was soon to change dramatically. When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th, 1914, Canada too was at war as a member of the British Empire. He was among the first recruits, signing up on August 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 on November 1st, 1917.

Nicknamed “Peggy” by his Army buddies, the young Ojibwe man soon proved that 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.

A spiritual man, Sgt Pegahmagabow carried an Ojibwe medicine pouch which he believed would help 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 first used chlorine gas as a weapon. Dr. McInnes said after the war, his great-grandfather developed breathing issues which became so severe he eventually had to sit up to sleep.

Wounded in the leg while fighting in France in September, 1916, the war hero 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. However, Dr. McInnes pointed out his great-grandfather never spoke of his record as a sniper to his family. “He valued that he had won the Military Medal three times, and the fact that each time he had so done it was for an act of valour that saved life,” said his great-grandson.

According to Dr. McInnes, his great-grandfather was known as an insightful man. “He was an exceptionally kind, gentle, light-spirited and humorous individual, who also was thoughtful and reflective on the world.

Sgt Pegahmagabow’s early response to Canada’s call for soldiers may well have been an example of that reflective nature. With a great-grandfather who fought for the British in the War of 1812, the war hero’s family had a history of military service. Dr. McInnes said Sgt Pegahmagabow also 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 bluntly, “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 Pegahmagabow, 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.

After the war, the veteran appeared to miss the camaraderie he had enjoyed with his Army colleagues. In the mid-1920s, he re-enlisted in the Militia. Historian Adrian Hayes in his book, Pegahmagabow: Life-Long Warrior, presents convincing media and anecdotal evidence that the war hero served in “A” Company of the 23rd Northern Pioneers Non-Permanent Active Militia (NPAM). The unit was later amalgamated into the Algonquin Regiment. The Reserve Force is the modern equivalent to the NPAM.

Unfortunately, as many Militia soldiers’ personnel records between the First and the Second World Wars were not archived, there is no formal record of Sgt Pegahmagabow’s rank during his Militia service. However, during his research, Mr. Hayes noted and made photocopies of correspondence from the Company Commander of “A” Company to the war hero. One letter addressed the war hero as Sergeant, while another addressed him as Sergeant-Major.

As well, Mr. Hayes observed that in his interview with Roy Lloyd O’Halloran, Second World War veteran and former Mayor of Parry Sound, he described Sgt Pegahmagabow as a sergeant-major. Dr. McInnes also documented Francis’s son Duncan referring to his father as Sergeant.

The decorated veteran died in the community of Wasauksing on August 5, 1952 of a heart attack. He has been honoured by being 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.

By Gerry Weaver, Army Public Affairs

Date modified: