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December 12, 2003

Legendary Soldier - Native Leader 

In my Remembrance Day article on soldier Tom Anderson I mentioned Tom's friend and fellow soldier Francis "Peg" Pegahmagabow, Canada's most decorated native veteran. In a letter from Francis to Tom Francis explained that his name in English means "approaching tornado", an entirely appropriate name. One source noted that few of the First Contingent returned. Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa from the Parry Island Reserve near Parry Sound survived the whole war and won the prestigious Military Medal for gallantry three times. His achievements as a soldier have been widely acclaimed and included in two publications Forgotten Soldiers (Canadian War Museum) and Native Soldiers Foreign Wars (Dept. of Veterans Affairs). Neither of these books tells the sad story of his problems when he returned home and his remarkable leadership in the early movement for native rights and self-determination. A new book Pegahmagabow: Legendary Warrior, Forgotten Hero (2003) by Adrian Hayes corrects this oversight.

The new book about Francis Pegahmagabow the legendary soldier and native activist.



Hayes' beautifully designed 96-page gem has 47 photographs and is of interest as military history and native history. Francis Pegahmagabow's life as a soldier who killed and captured many of the enemy is remarkable. After recuperation on at least 2 occasions he could not wait to get back for more. He was not only a good soldier but a good leader. As the photo on the front of the book shows the trenches of WWI were not pleasant. Towards the end of the war he became difficult and did not suffer fools gladly.

The new book, 5 years in the writing, provides scholarly detail from archival research, interviews, etc. on Pegahmagabow's war experience and his return to Parry Island to a "life of severe hardship and near poverty in the 1920's and 1930's" and his emergence as an outstanding native leader.

Life on the Reserve

He married and had 6 children and got few veterans benefits. He later got an increase in his benefits because of war related ill health. He was refused financial help from Indian Affairs for a farm he was developing and was turned down several times for a team of horses. Many Indian Agents under the Indian Act treated aboriginals like children assuming they were not responsible. Any monies were controlled by the agent, often in a most patronizing and arbitrary way. Pegahmagabow the tough old soldier, who was easy to anger, fought the system going to lawyers and becoming Chief of the reserve. He got to know F.O. Loft, a Six Nations Mowhawk and a Lieutenant in WWI who founded the early League of Indians of Canada.

"Peg" found some work as a guide and during WWII worked as a guard at a munitions plant at nearby Nobel. He also served as a Sergeant-Major in the militia where he did an excellent job.

Native Leader and Activist

As a native leader Peg did not hesitate to write letters to the Prime Minister and others with the grievances of his people and he challenged authority regularly. He learned how to use sympathetic lawyers to help his cause. The last third of the book details this activity and shows how he became a leader in the movement for self-determination. 

Many people think the native movement for justice began in the 1960's but Hayes dispels this. Pegahmagabow died in 1952 at age 63. A delegation went to the League of Nations in 1923 seeking sovereignty for the Six Nations Confederacy but were ignored. Natives later sought membership in the United Nations and were ignored. A League of Indians was formed in the 1920's, to bring a more cohesive approach to recognition.

In 1943 the Brotherhood of Canadian Indians was established and called a convention. The Dept. of Indian Affairs strongly objected and would not support it financially. They called the leaders troublemakers. Pegahmagabow had been elected Chief of the Parry Island Band again after a lengthy hiatus and attended the Conference adding his prestigious name to the event.

The Native Independent Government (NIG) was another group established to pursue their cause. In 1943 Peg became the Supreme Chief of the NIG. The Union of Ontario Indians was formed in 1943 and remains active today. Space does not allow for a full review of the evolution of native rights. Over the next 50 years the government began to show change with a push from events like Oka and Ipperwash.

Plaque unveiling on the Rotary/Algonquin Fitness Trail in Parry Sound in July 2003 honouring Algonquin veterans, and in particular Francis Pegahmagabow whose family including daughter Marie and son Duncan (on right) are shown.

Today there have been several land claims settled and more in the works and native self-government is growing. The Metis First Nation recently received significant recognition. Pegahmagabow now 50 years after his death would have been pleased that native veterans or their spouses have now received compensation for past wrongs.

The new book will go a long way to solidify Francis Pegahmagabow's place as a remarkable Canadian and an outstanding aboriginal. Haynes states in his book that Peg was "In many ways a man ahead of his time (who) helped set out the course followed by Canada's native leaders". He is enshrined in the Indian Hall of Fame at the Woodland Centre in Brantford. On July 26, 2003 the Rotary-Algonquin Regiment Fitness Trail opened in Parry Sound recognizing the Algonquin Regiment and in particular Francis Pegahmagabow (see photo).

The book is published by Fox Meadow Books, Bracebridge, (www.foxmeadowbooks.com) The company has produced several other quality history books including the Gilded Cage - the German P.O.W. book I have written about.

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