Wounded after Vimy, Kahnawake veteran found white privilege still ruled back home

Wounded after Vimy, Kahnawake veteran found white privilege still ruled back home

In 1918, Private Angus Paul Goodleaf returned home to the Mohawk reserve at Kahnawake, Que., to recover from gunshot wounds to his chest, abdomen and knee suffered in France.

Wounded as the Canadians Corps secured its hold on Vimy in June 1917, Goodleaf spent seven months in an English hospital before returning to Montreal, where a declaration of "medically unfit" brought his war service to an end.

Like all Canadian soldiers, Goodleaf was entitled to benefits for his wartime service. But like many First Nations people who served in the First World War, he was denied the same support that white veterans received.

A letter to Goodleaf's old commanding officer from the Department of Indian Affairs explained why this was the case in no uncertain terms.

"I regret that the funds at our disposal are so limited that we are not in a position to treat returned soldiers as generously as the whites are treated by the Allowance Committee of the Pension Board," reads the letter, which his grandson shared with CBC News.

While proud of his grandfather's wartime service, the letter leaves Mouchie Goodleaf wondering why he put his life on the line for a country that considered him a second-class citizen.

"I wouldn't have done it — fight for a country that doesn't want me," the grandson said.

Equality in battle disappears at home

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada estimates that one-third of First Nations men between the ages of 18 and 45 enlisted during the First World War.

Hundreds were wounded and more than 300 died in battle or from wounds, the department estimates.

Despite this record, any form of equality that they enjoyed with white soldiers at the battlefront "disappeared once they returned to Canada," according to the INAC website.

This was especially true for veterans living on reserves.

"Veterans' benefits and support from the Canadian government were put in place but the implementation of the programs on reserves was vastly different than elsewhere in Canada," it says.

Pensions board cuts on-reserve veterans out

This difference was detailed in the letter Col. Andrew Thompson received from the Department of Indian Affairs on Feb. 6, 1933.

As the Great Depression took hold, Goodleaf wrote Thompson to see if his old C.O. could help Kahnawake veterans make their case for additional support.

Thompson passed Goodleaf's letter along to the Department of Indian Affairs and received a personal reply from Harold McGill, the department's deputy superintendent general and a fellow veteran of the First World War.

While applauding the wartime service of the "Indian returned soldier," McGill explained that pensions for Indigenous veterans were no longer being provided through the government body responsible for veterans benefits, the Allowance Committee of the Pension Board.

"In 1931, objection was taken by the board to their being obliged to look after the interests of Indian pensioners, the claim being that, as the Indians are wards of the Department of Indian Affairs, this department should be responsible for any assistance that they might be in need of."

As a result, a deal was worked out between the pension board and Indian Affairs in which the board would look after veterans living off-reserve and Indian Affairs would be responsible for veterans residing on reserves.

Indian Affairs, however, determined that benefits paid to veterans on reserve should be limited to the same level of "assistance given other members of the same band who may be in needy circumstances," McGill writes.

"According to the letter of Private Goodleaf it would appear that the returned men of [Kahnawake] Reserve look for preferential treatment and it is impossible to give this for the reasons outlined herein."

'Proud' First Nations recruits

Goodleaf enlisted on March 1, 1916, with the 114th Battalion in Cayuga, Ont., a unit known as "Brock's Rangers," that was recruited partly from the nearby Six Nations Reserve.

A photo of Goodleaf taken in England shows he later transferred to the 107th "Timber Wolf" Battalion, a Winnipeg unit with a large number of First Nations recruits.

In his account of the battalion for the journal Canadian Military History, Steven Bell said more than 500 of the first 900 men to enlist with the unit were Indigenous recruits.

"Represented in the ranks were the Cree, Sioux, Mohawks, Onandagas, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Delawares and Ojibwas," Bell writes.

The unit's cap badge featured a timber wolf in tribute to these First Nations links.

The 107th "were proud men who thought well of themselves and their unit," Bell writes, a sentiment that Goodleaf's wartime photos suggest he shared.

Into the frontline

The 107th converted to a pioneer battalion and moved into the frontline near Vimy Ridge on Feb. 28, 1917. There, they undertook the strenuous work of digging trenches and laying communications cable and rail tracks in preparation for the Canadian attack on Easter Monday.

They remained at Vimy after the battle to consolidate the new Canadian positions. Goodleaf was shot and seriously wounded June 12.

According to his grandson, Angus Goodleaf was at the front long enough to take part in a risky night-time raid on a German trench to recover a Union Jack flag that the Germans had earlier taken as a trophy.

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The old flag was later passed down among the privates who recovered it as they died. Their names, written on the flag in ink, are still visible today — Taylor, Goodleaf, Jacobs, Morris, Day, Denny, Canoe, Simpson, Phillips.

Goodleaf was the last survivor of the group, and the flag is now kept at an "undisclosed location" in Kahnawake.

"The War Museum in Ottawa wanted it, but I don't think they deserve it," Mouchie Goodleaf said. "I think it belongs where it is right now."

Enlisting was 'all we had'

Goodleaf says his grandfather chose to enlist on March 1, 1916, for the adventure and because jobs were scarce.

"We had a high percentage of veterans per capita in Kahnawake because there weren't any jobs," he said. "It was a way out, a way to see the world."

Prior to his death in 1969, Mouchie Goodleaf asked his grandfather why he enlisted to fight for Canada, given the racism Indigenous Canadians faced then, and that Angus Goodleaf continued to face afterwards through the pension board.

"It was all we had," his grandfather replied.

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