Bleeding Him White: How Canada Stole an Indigenous Veteran’s Identity

By Lynn Gehl

In the Anishinaabeg tradition dibaajimowinan, which translates to personal storytelling, is valued as a valid and legitimate method of both gaining and conveying knowledge. The dibaajimowinan method is holistic in that it values knowledge that is more than what is rational: it is emotional and spiritual too. As most know, the oral tradition was recognized in the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court of Canada decision. Remaining within my ancestral knowledge tradition, it is in these ways of knowing that I offer this Algonquin Anishinaabeg history.

CFWW Gehl Figure 1 - Joseph Gagnon (Gagne) in uniform

Figure 1 – Joseph Gagnon (Gagne) in uniform.  All images are of items in the author’s possession.

Most days, and especially Remembrance Day, are a bundle of contradictions as my lived experience is laden with the genocide by colonial Canada both historical and in a contemporary sense. Through family oral history I know that my great grandfather, Joseph Gagne (also spelled Gagnon), served in the First World War (1914-1918). I was told that his mother, who is my great great grandmother, Angeline Jocko (also spelled Jacco), once resided at a mission settlement in the Lake of Two Mountains which was first established in 1721.

CFWW Gehl Figure 2 - Lynn Gehl holding wampum belt. Photo credit Nikolaus Gehl

Figure 2 – Lynn Gehl holding wampum belt. Photo credit Nikolaus Gehl.

The Lake of Two Mountains mission settlement was a place where the Algonquin, Nippissing, and Mohawk people lived together, each nation retaining their own council houses (Day and Trigger 1994). Through the oral tradition I know there is a wampum belt that represents this relationship. This belt has three human icons encoded, as well as a cross representing the three Indigenous nations and the community as a Christian settlement.[i]

Actually, I am fairly certain there were once three incarnations of this wampum belt. This makes both rational sense and traditional sense. In my learning process I have encountered a hint that a second incarnation of this belt is in the hands of the Haudenosaunee as a photograph of it appears in an Indigenous publication (see Tehanetorens 1972, page 71). While I have this hint as to where the second belt is, I do ponder what became of the third.

CFWW Gehl Figure 3 - Viola Gagne, Lynn Gehl's grandmother

Figure 3 – Viola Gagne, Lynn Gehl’s grandmother.

Through family oral history, as told to me by my kokomis (grandmother in Anishinaabemowin), Viola Gagne, I learned that Angeline spoke Mohawk, the subsequent assumption being that she was a Mohawk woman. Angeline’s national origins, though, are not essentially crucial to me because I know that Indigenous nations and community memberships were fluid entities in that we adopted, kidnapped, and assimilated new members as a governance practice. Like all nations, members of Indigenous communities were defined socially by members’ allegiances and practices rather than through genetic codes, blood quantum, or phenotype physiology such as hair, eye, and skin colour. Actually, I would stress further that genetic diversity was the rule as it assured that our blood remained clean and healthy. While Joseph Gagne’s mother was Indigenous, his father, also named Joseph, I was told, was a French man.

It was on September 12, 1910 in Eganville, Ontario when Joseph married Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe Annie Jane Menesse, the daughter of Mary Ann Bannerman and the adopted daughter of Frank Menesse. Joseph and Annie Jane settled at the Golden Lake Indian Reserve raising their five children: Viola, Celia, Gordon, Kenneth, and Steve. While it may be correct that the Golden Lake Indian Reserve once consisted of a diverse group of Indigenous people, today many people, such as myself, who are the descendants of the Golden Lake Indian Reserve, now called Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, identify as Algonquin Anishinaabeg. As stated, identity is foremost a social process.

CFWW Gehl Figure 4 - Annie Jane Gagnon (nee Menesse) and three of her five children

Figure 4 – Annie Jane Gagnon (nee Menesse) and three of her five children.

Through my archival research I gained a copy of Joseph’s Attestation Papers dated May 12th, 1916. His last name in these papers is spelled “Gagnon”, and his birthdate is recorded as April 7th, 1890, thus he was 26 years old. They record that he was 5 feet and 7.25 inches tall, had brown eyes and brown hair with a medium complexion, and was a Roman Catholic. These records also state that both his mother and father were alive living in Calabogie, Ontario at the time of his enlistment, his next of kin being the obvious, his wife Annie Jane Gagnon.

From these records I also learned that Joseph was first enlisted in the 207th battalion, then transferred to the 2nd battalion, and that he served in Canada, England, and France. In addition, I learned his port of embarkation out of Canada was Halifax, on my grandmother’s sixth birthday, May 28, 1917. His port of disembarkation was Liverpool, England on June 10th, 1917 and he was demobilized on January 24th, 1919. He remained a private, service number 246266, for the duration of the war. Lastly, these records state that he received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Family oral history also informs me that he received two other medals: the Military Medal, and the Star Medal. I have never seen these medals and I am unsure where they ended up. The physical existence of these medals is not important to me. The feeling that the oral tradition evokes about them, which is of a dutiful, decorated soldier is real enough for me. Alternatively stated, I can feel my relationship to them and this relationship is real.

After the war ended Joseph returned to his home community, the Golden Lake Indian reserve, where shortly after, in the 1920s, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police escorted his family out of their community because Joseph’s Indigenous identity was borne by his mother’s ancestral line rather than his father’s. Annie Jane’s indigeneity was irrelevant because women, according to British law, were considered appendages of their fathers and husbands. This was a common practice imposed on Indigenous veterans and their families. When they came home from serving as the British Crown’s loyal allies, they lost all their treaty rights as Indigenous people. I know this through family oral history as well as my family’s impoverished lived experience. Indeed, Canada’s racist history is terrible and terribly felt.

Figure 5 - The letter sent by Indian Affairs, denying Mrs. Gagnon's status as an Indian in 1945.

Figure 5 – The letter sent by Indian Affairs, denying Mrs. Gagnon’s status as an Indian in 1945.

Many people know that I have been involved in a lifelong effort to gain Indian status registration. While I have been working on this effort for almost 30 years, this has really been a collective intergenerational effort. It was in 1945 when Annie sent a letter to Indian Affairs asking if she was considered to be an Indian where shortly after she was told that due to her marriage to a man who was a white man – the same “white man” who had enlisted from his Golden Lake home as an Indigenous man – she “became a white woman.” I hold a copy of this letter today.

While the Algonquin Anishinaabeg are the traditional land holders of the Ottawa River Valley, through colonial policies and laws many of us were denied the right to pass on to our families our national identity and our rights as Indigenous people, such as the right to own land and resources and as such the right to live a good life (pimadiziwin). Rather, many were stripped of their national identity, and many others were relegated to living in reserve communities until we could prove we met the British criteria of what it meant to be civilized (see Miller 2004; and Milloy 1991). The reason for this was that British Canada did not view the Algonquin as real people, but rather as pre-human savages without legitimate identity, culture, and as such governance traditions, where consequently we also lacked a valid holding on the land (see Williams 2012). In concrete terms the legacy of these colonial policies and laws also manifest in the intergenerational transfer of settler land holdings in the form of what is willed to the children and grandchildren of settler families. The short story is that many settler families continue to benefit from Indigenous land and rights denial. Settler Canadians, it is in these ways that my great-grandfather went to war for your rights, not mine.

When I reflect on this reality I am saddened that Joseph Gagnon fought for a country that took so much away from his family: his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. As Indigenous people of this land my ancestors deserved the right and responsibility to care for their children and provide for them pimadiziwin.

This is my story. Remembering should not be this hard.

Lynn Gehl, Ph.D, is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process. She has three books: Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts, The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin of the Algonquin Land Claims Process, and Mkadengwe: Sharing Canada’s Colonial Process through Black Face Methodology. You can reach her at lynngehl@gmail.com and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.  See our Call for Blog Posts for information about submitting to the series. 


 

[i] The late Algonquin Anishinaabeg Spiritual Grandfather William Commanda was a holder of one of these belts which is currently in the possession of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg at Kitigan Zibi in what is now called the province of Quebec. He inscribed his own interpretation. See Gehl 2014.


 

References

Gehl, L. (2014). The Truth That Wampum Tells: My Debwewin on the Algonquin Land Claims Process. Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Miller, J.R. (2004). Lethal Legacy: Current Native Controversies in Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Milloy, J.S. (1991). The Early Indian Acts: Development Strategy and Constitutional Change. In J.R. Miller (Ed.), Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian-White Relations in Canada (pp. 145-154). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Tehanetorens. (2003). Wampum Belts. Oshweken, Ontario: Iroqrafts.

Trigger, B.G., & Day, G.M.  (1994).  Southern Algonquian Middlemen: Algonquin, Nipissing, and Ottawa. 1550–1780.  In E.S. Rogers & D.B. Smith (Eds.), Aboriginal Ontario: Historical Perspectives on the First Nations (pp. 64-77).  Toronto: Dundurn Press.

Williams, R. A.  (2012).  Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

 

25 thoughts on “Bleeding Him White: How Canada Stole an Indigenous Veteran’s Identity

  1. I find myself reading this in tears, lost for words… The negative impact and History just doesn’t stop…I don’t know what to say…. This, your grandfathers Land he sacrificed for in every way ! Sorry just isn’t enough ! The only power I have is to share this so others can understand the pain your family knows today… Much love to you, your family and community.. <3

  2. So important that Canadian military history be (re)written in a way that allows us to remember and show respect for Indigenous veterans without erasing colonialism and celebrating Canada as a peaceable nation. Thank you, Dr. Gehl, for bringing your IK to military history and for sharing your story <3 This was very powerful.

  3. A good read, thought provoking. How many of us are there i wonder are marginalized because our aboriginal heritage comes down from our mothers?

  4. This is literally your physical evidence, and an amazing story, of the cultural genocidal practises at work with the underlying intent of removing the Indian question. Today we (especially as women) also struggle with the internal genocidal practices adopted by Bands with the introduction of blood quantum controls on Band lists. Thank you for sharing your story, it will become part of the collective knowledge that is creating a new understanding in the general population and even our own people. thank you!

    Linda ManyGuns

  5. Like others, I am at a loss for words. Reading about your great grandfather confirms my resolve that the struggle to claim Indian status registration through the maternal line should be better known globally, and supported and publicized on this side of the Atlantic, where people are unaware of the persistence of colonial attitudes and policies in Canada.

  6. You document the actions of Canada to commit genocide against Indigenous Peoples in a most direct way. The paternalism and systemic racism in entrenched in the institutions of Canada even today. The ground words are as you capture in this blog. Thanks for this important work.

  7. Joseph Gagne/Gagnon’s story reminds us of the sacrifice made by Canada’s aboriginal occupants who fought for their homeland and were, in turn, denied the right to their home. Canadians should question each and every contemporary instance of similar injustice.

    Joyce M. Clements, Ph.D.

  8. If you intended the parallel between the ” Bleeding Him White ” title and the WW1 idea that attrition ,Bleeding the Enemy Dry also sometimes said as Bleeding them White , the act of eliminating so many men that the opponent can no longer fight as a tactic, is amazing. It is the same thing to without bullets and bombs use instead laws and bias rules , to eliminate, a people. Shine light on this ugly thing, it helps us all to see what is real.

  9. A great title for this heartrending remembrance. The cruelty of canada shines through again- and you have spoken for so, so many people today. I believe you should be hired as a consultant for the present government. Let’s make that happen.

  10. A great perspective from a great warrior for human and indigenous rights in Canada. Thanks for all you do Lynn.

  11. Thank you for the work that you do. People are learning because of you, and I really appreciate all I have learned from you. I’m sorry that your grandfather had to sacrifice so much and then be forced from his land due to his mother’s status- let’s make your valuable work known to the world, so people know this occurred.

  12. Thanks Lynn! Thanks for sharing this personal story. This makes it so real for those of us that did not go through this kind of craziness.
    As I read your post, I understood the importance of the personal story in the context of my Systems & Structures ideas. Basically, we need to move from power and control being in systems to the power and control being in the individuals. And if we think that valid academic information cannot contain the personal, it’s because we’ve been conditioned by the dominant hierarchical systems that are destroying the planet……….

  13. Thank you for sharing your story Lynn. I think it’s these things that most of the settler population is missing. They only see what the government wants them to see and can’t make sense of the politics. It’s work like this that helps to change that. We need to know and understand these kinds of policies in order to understand what Indigenous people have been and are still up against

  14. This happened within our family as well to an extent. Most of our immediate family were able to regain our Status through Bill C-31 in 1983. There are however too numerous a number of people who were not afforded that opportunity. There is so much that needs to be addressed in the reconciliation process with regards to the country’s abysmal treatment of the disenfranchised First Nations Peoples..

  15. An excellent and eloquent description of yet another way the Canadian colonial powers have tried to annhilate and/or assimilate Indigenous peoples.

  16. I think this is how I lost my cultural link to my own native heritage. My great grandmother was Blackfoot. I only found out as an adult, however, as my family lost it’s oral history and link to this aspect of our past. The subtleties of this sexist (and racist) culture are still rippling through our society causing not-so-subtle and devastating effects to real people and families.

    I hope enlightenment comes to those who run the Canadian Government so that your rightful claim to your culture and ancestry is formally acknowledged and restored. I assume that on the surface, a large part of the problem is the propaganda-driven view by some settlers that indigenous people just want to receive hand-outs and that you are trying to rip-off “the system”. It’s bullshit and hypocrisy, however, since it’s obvious that aboriginal people in Canada do not benefit from the government in any way, financially, culturally, or socially.

    I think settlers do not know how much beauty and enlightenment we have lost by the cultural genocide that occurred/is occuring to aboriginal nations (all over the world). Humanity needs aboriginal people and aboriginal knowledge; to save our environment and to restore equality. Please know that I stand with you, disconnected and confused about my own mixed settler/aboriginal heritage, and also as a female who thinks the world deserves positive change which will come from voices like yours.

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