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Review

For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War

By Timothy Winegard

November 4, 2013

Review By Sarah Nickel

Exploring the participation of Canadian First Nations in the First World War, Timothy Winegard takes aim at two historiographical problems: the tendency to simply insert Aboriginal military contributions where they have been otherwise ignored, and the limited national focus of existing narratives. For King and Kanata seeks to move past these weaknesses by rejecting what has been labeled the “Forgotten Warrior” genre, with its racial categorization and White guilt driven scholarship, and instead critically evaluating Aboriginal participation within a transnational perspective.

Emphasizing the basic, albeit oft-forgotten, reality that Canada’s foreign policy was tethered to Britain during the First World War, a crucial starting point for Winegard is the recognition that First Nations’ military involvement was negotiated through multiple national and transnational bureaucratic realities, as well as cross-cultural dialogue.

Winegard notes, for instance, that the policies of the British War Office, Canadian Ministry of Militia, and Department of Indian Affairs dictated Aboriginal military participation, and that prevailing racial attitudes about the unsuitability of Aboriginal men in a “white man’s war” were initially used to exclude their involvement. Later, the British Colonial and War Offices, citing thinning enlistment numbers, first relaxed and then flouted provisions barring First Nations service and began actively recruiting in Aboriginal communities. Potential enlistees were motivated to join the war effort by patriotism, as well as by a desire for equality, adventure, and steady employment, and Aboriginal communities on the home front responded with equal enthusiasm by sending cash donations and care packages. This dedication waned, however, as First Nations peoples discovered that military inclusion did not ensure equality and citizenship.

The book is organized into nine chronological and thematic chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect of Native-Newcomer interactions before, during, and after the war. While this structure effectively integrates the transnational component of Winegard’s argument into the narrative, it comes at the expense of the book’s broader organization. Because the first six chapters are outlined chronologically, while the final three are principally thematic, the same themes and topics often emerge more than once in different chapters, creating repetition.

Undoubtedly, the greatest strength of this book is its transnational focus. Using extensive materials from the Imperial and Canadian archives, and referencing Indigenous military involvement in other Imperial colonies, Winegard is able to situate Canadian First Nations’ activities within the complex narrative of Empire, adding depth and dimension to our understanding of the war effort.

However, Winegard is less successful in contesting the Forgotten Warrior genre. Because the author’s arguments both critique and re-inscribe this historiographical approach, the reader is left with a lingering sense of ambiguity. Winegard clearly complicates Aboriginal military participation, highlighting both the humble and prestigious roles taken on by soldiers to undermine a purely celebratory narrative, but aspects of the Forgotten Warrior idea remain. For example, Winegard’s discussion of wartime racial profiling, which cast First Nations soldiers as inherently talented snipers and scouts, addresses the challenge in balancing settler guilt and racial essentialism, yet Winegard ultimately acknowledges that archival evidence supports this same congratulatory categorization (113-17). In response, Winegard suggests that historians should attempt to move away from classifying achievements with reference to race, but his own struggles with this reveal the challenge of recognizing First Nations’ military triumphs and involvement without perpetuating the Forgotten Warrior trope.

Despite these limitations, this book makes an important contribution to the history of First Nations’ participation in the First World War, and will appeal to scholars interested in Canadian history, transnational narratives, Native-Newcomer relations, settler-colonialism, race, governance, and Empire.

For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War
By Timothy Winegard 
Winnipeg: UniversIty of Manitoba Press, 2012. 240 pp. $24.95 paper