Tuesday 7 Feb, 2017

Postcards from the Edge: Canada’s Minorities in the First World War

EF’s National History Advisor, Dave Robinson, is back with his monthly update of all things Vimy. Get to know more as we explore a new monthly theme and meet more group leaders!

Welcome to our penultimate issue of “Postcards From the Edge”.  In just over two months, you will be on your way to an educational event a lifetime – Vimy 100!  February brings lots more travel as members of team V100 continue our journey across Canada to meet with as many of you as possible at your pre-departure meetings.

February: Canada’s Minorities in the First World War

As February is “Black History” month, this month’s theme will not only cover the contribution of Black Canadians in the First World War, but also other Canadian minorities’ contributions.  Today, Canada is one of the most diverse countries in the world with people from every cultural background working together with equal rights. This was not the case back in the early 1900’s.  During the First World War, minority groups such as Canada’s First Nations, black and Asian Canadians, and even some Europeans faced discrimination and had limited rights. Before the war, minorities already experienced discrimination, but during the war things became worse. Although most minorities groups were restricted from joining the army, there were many significant contributions that impacted Canada.

Some quick points:


  • During the war, Native Canadians weren’t allowed to enlist until 1915.
  • Recruiters hid their discrimination by claiming it was a concern for their welfare.
  • The recruiters believed that enemies would see Natives as savages and mistreat them.
  • During the time, the government also wanted to assimilate them into Mainstream Society by putting the children in to Residential Schools.
  • The rest of their family lived in Indian Reservations where they were able to follow their traditional ways.
  • 35% of Native Canadians in Ontario by the end of the war had enlisted, which matched the national average – 35% of men across Canada enlisted.
  • Long Distance Runner, Tom Longboat, abandoned an athletic career to enlist in 1916. He was wounded twice and pronounced dead but survived.
  • Henry Louis Norwest, a young Cree ranch hand from the Fort Saskatchewan area, became one of the most famous snipers of the First World War, with 115 confirmed kills and a medal for bravery. Despite the impressive record, it was not until 90 years later that Norwest was finally recognized in Fort Saskatchewan, where his memory now has central place of pride, thanks to local Legion officials.  During the 1917 battle at Vimy Ridge, Norwest earned the Military Medal for bravery. He showed great bravery, skill and initiative. Later, he was also awarded a bar, making him one of the roughly 830 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to be awarded this double honour, according to Veterans Affairs records.
  • Modern sniping was born amid the muck of the battlefields of the First World War and some of its deadliest practitioners were soldiers from Canada’s First Nations communities. Foremost among them was Francis Pegahmagabow, credited with 378 kills during his four years on the shell-shattered front lines of Europe. Historical records indicate that Canada could claim eight of the top dozen snipers from all countries involved in the fighting.  “Of those eight, at least five and probably six are First Nation — Metis, First Nations or Inuit,” said Maj. Jim McKillip, a historian with the Canadian Forces department of history and heritage.








  • Many officers believed black Canadians would make inefficient soldiers and they wouldn’t be able to join the army unless their skin was very light.
  • Faced discrimination from racist groups such as the KKK (Ku Klux Klan).
  • Interracial marriage was also not accepted.
  • Most black Canadian applicants were denied, but some did manage to enlist in white battalions.
  • 25th Battalion from Nova Scotia, 106th Battalion the Nova Scotia Rifles May 1916, government created a non-combatant Black Battalion (No. 2 Construction Battalion).
  • Over 10% of black Canadians served in the war. These soldiers assisted in logging, milling, shipping, repairing roads, providing water, and digging trenches. The units became so efficient that they were sent to the Front Lines.
  • Jerry Jones was a black soldier who signed up in 1916 as a 35 year old male but was really 58. He fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge where he allowed his group to advance by killing several German Soldiers with a grenade and capturing a stationed machine gun.  He was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but never received it, many have suggested this was because of discrimination.






  • During the First World War the German and Ukrainian Canadians experienced a lot of discrimination.
  • Over 1 million people of German or Ukrainian descent lived in Canada in 1914.
  • Canadians feared that some of them would be spies so they were labeled as enemy aliens.
  • They had to carry ID documents and report their movements to police.
  • The government even forced them into internment camps, which were similar to prisons.
  • They lost the right to vote and most of them lost their jobs as well.
  • During the war, German and Ukrainian Canadians were treated very harshly. Regardless, 10,000 German and Ukrainian Canadians enlisted to fight for Canada and lied about their backgrounds to be accepted by the military.  Some believed that they wanted to sign up to fight rather than be locked up in internment camps, while others believe that it was to support their new country.




  • Asian Canadians faced a lot of prejudice before and coming into the war.
  • They weren’t allowed to enlist but some were still accepted.
  • Didn’t have the right to vote and government tried to get rid of them.
  • Lived in Asian communities (E.g. China Town) where they brought their traditions with them. Their way of living was perceived as very dirty and disgusting to Mainstream Society.
  • They also suffered from discrimination and were denied to enlist.
  • 196 Japanese Canadians were still able to enlist.
  • 35 of Japanese Canadians were killed at Vimy Ridge.



Featured Vimy Regiments

Check out these links to learn about these three storied Canadian regiments that fought at the battle of Vimy Ridge: Algonquin Regiment; Lake Superior Scottish Regiment; Princess of Wales Own Regiment. From these three sites you will be able to connect with the Regiments’ home web pages.




Featured Group Leaders

This month, from the provinces of our featured Battle of Vimy Ridge Regiments, we would like to briefly introduce you to two of your fellow group leaders from Ontario.

Rick L., Parry Sound, ON

Every student who went on my last two trips said they were completely life-changing. I consider these trips the most important things I have done in my teaching career because of the huge impact they have had on students. That’s why we are going to Vimy. Students will come back really understanding that everything we have in Canada today is a result of the sacrifices others made for us in the past and, equally important, that we have a duty to make sure the world we live in today, is worthy of those past sacrifices. I also find that students come back from these trips more confident and mature; they seem to have a broader outlook than before.

Students will come back really understanding that everything we have today in Canada is a result of the sacrifices others made for us in the past. Click To Tweet

Each time we travel on historical tours, our students research a local soldier who died in either world war, with the ultimate intention of visiting that soldier’s grave. It is has always been a powerful experience watching these students visit those graves after months of research as they were all very moved by the experience. In our trips, we have also focused on spreading the message of Remembrance to our local community and making connections with community groups. We have received outstanding support from our community for all of this: the local Rotary Club, Masonic Lodge and Royal Canadian Legion have all supported us financially and in other ways.

The Jack Patterson Memorial Case, Parry Sound High School, Parry Sound, ON

For example, we had three flags made that list all the Parry Sounders killed in WWI and WWII, which we take with us and read the names at key battle sites on our trips. We also had cabinets made for the flags in our school, to have them permanently on display, with the line of Flanders Fields, “To You from Failing hands we Throw the Torch….” Finally, EF and Parry Sound are co-hosting a Vimy Authors event on March 9th, 2017: Tim Cook, Hugh Brewster and Mary Swan will give talks at several places that day at Parry Sound Public School, Parry Sound High School, and the Stockey Centre for the public in the evening.

Jacqueline F., Campbellford, ON

We decided to customize the “Spies, Planes and Vimy” tour and are traveling to Germany, France and England over 13 days. In the past, we participated in the 95th Anniversary of Vimy as well as the 70th D-Day commemoration.  The 100th Anniversary of Vimy is a very important event, especially with 2017 marking Canada’s 150th year as a nation. Participating in the ceremonies is a moving, once-in-a-lifetime experience that will certainly impact each individual students’ life forever.

My degree is in History with an emphasis on the Wars. I love to travel and see first-hand the places, people and events I have studied and read about throughout my academic career. I love to share this passion and interest with my students.  It is important to understand the contributions and sacrifices that Canadian men and women made to ensure we have the freedoms we enjoy today (not just on Remembrance Day). Often times we take this freedom for granted. It is absolutely crucial for students (and all Canadians) to learn about their nation’s history in a real life context and to experience hands-on, practical education. Learning this way helps foster a life-long understanding, rather than short-term memorization, and will stay with a student forever.

Furthermore, making memories with friends (and making new friends) is an important part of this experience.  I find it interesting to take students to these major events for this exact reason.  Whatever reason they had for registering for the trip – whether it is because they are into the history or the military, or they just want to travel and experience a different culture – once they walk in the footsteps of the soldiers, or visit a cemetery and leave a poppy or wreath on the grave site of a soldier they have taken the time to research – they get it. It just clicks. They change: they become more reflective; more engaged and generally interested. The trip becomes a defining moment for most of them and they are forever changed.  This is what makes all the work and preparations for the trip worth it.

Featured Heroes of Vimy

This month, a Canadian that led our men at the battle of Vimy Ridge: General Sir Arthur Currie.   Here are two links that tell his story:



Featured Partnership

This month, we would like to feature the background and links to one of our V100 partners that we are most excited to be working with: Hamilton Signals Association.

Can you be a Code Breaker? The Hamilton Signals association thinks you can, and they’ll even teach you how! You won’t want to miss this amazingly in-depth experience to learn coding techniques to try and decipher a secret message from the First World War. Hear how coding evolved from the First World War, from inside trenches to Enigma to present day encryption. You’ll also have the opportunity to make your own Morse code key! Send and receive secret messages in a language no one speaks.

The Signal Station is destroyed but a telegraph line still works. Build a Morse code key to ask for help, quickly!


  • March 20 2017; the Vimy Foundation Centennial Celebration dinner Arcadian Court, 401 Bay Street Toronto
  • April 1 2017 100th Anniversary inner , by Vimy Branch 145, Royal Canadian Legion, London Convention Centre
  • April 9: Dedication of new Vimy Ridge Education Centre, Vimy Ridge , france
  • April 9 : Vimy Ridge 100th Anniversary National Ceremony, Vimy Ridge, France

If you have an upcoming V100 event please pass it along so that we can enter it in our calendar of events to share with everyone.   And afterwards please send pictures and media coverage.


Are you inspired to share your love of travel with your class? Browse tours now