A Pivotal Experience: Indigenous Participation in D-Day and the Second World War

By: Shawkay Ottmann

Indigenous veteran Clarence Silver once said, “When I served overseas I was a Canadian. When I came home I was an Indian.”[1] These two lines illustrate the Indigenous experience in the Second World War. Indigenous soldiers fought in all major battles Canada participated in, including D-Day, side by side with non-Indigenous soldiers. The difference was in the situation Indigenous soldiers came from and returned.

D-Day, 6 June 1944, was a pivotal day in the Second World War. When the Allied forces landed on five beaches in Normandy it signaled the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. Likewise, the war was pivotal for Indigenous peoples in the fight for Indigenous rights and equality. In both situations, these experiences became decisive influences in the course of history.

Reportedly there were 3,090 Canadian Indigenous participants in the Second World War. This number only reflects a portion of those who served. Métis, Inuit, and Non-Status First Nations people were excluded from the count, along with Indigenous people who served in American Forces.[2] Among those who served and were present on D-Day were Francis William Godon, a Métis man in the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, George Horse from Thunderchild First Nation who joined the Elite Sapper Battalion, and Tom Naphtahli “Little Chief” Settee with The Regina Rifle Regiment.

Francis Godon (on right) with two of his friends at Shilo, Manitoba, just before going overseas, 1943. Image from Francis Godon via The Memory Project.

The first barrier Indigenous peoples faced was at enlistment. Indigenous peoples primarily served in the infantry, both due to the amount of manpower the infantry required and the entrance restrictions many Indigenous people could not pass in other branches of the military. Both the air force and the navy initially required enlistees to be white.[3] Additionally, meeting the educational standard was a challenge for many Indigenous people. In Godon’s community, the white school would not admit Indigenous children, and so Godon was rejected from the army three times before he found a place in the army kitchens and eventually worked his way into the infantry.[4] It was only after making it into the infantry that the Indigenous experience was similar to the non-Indigenous experience. Indeed, joining the military offered new freedoms to Indigenous peoples, most noticeably from the rampant discrimination faced in Canadian society.

As such, Godon and Horse were like many Canadian soldiers who did not see action prior to D-Day. Godon trained on the Isle of Wight before boarding the ship taking him to Normandy, and Horse trained off the coast of Scotland. Both men knew that they were training for an invasion, but the details beyond that were minimal. Godon said, “we knew we were going to the invasion, but we didn’t know where.”[5] The secrecy that surrounded the attack was well guarded to maintain the element of surprise. Horse said, “The Germans thought we were going to cross at Dover to Calais but we landed… where they least expected us.”[6]

On D-Day over 155,000 British, American, and Canadian troops crossed the English Channel. On the ground, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade were tasked with taking Juno Beach. 14,000 Canadians landed on the beach that day.[7] When the time came, the men were loaded onto ships and taken across the English Channel. Godon recalled a commanding officer saying, “you boys now, I guess you know what you’re getting into. Well, we’ve been waiting for this, we trained for this… I’m going to tell you something that’s not very good… most of you guys won’t be coming home.”[8] The officer’s warning proved fair. During the Battle of Normandy, Canadians were to suffer the highest casualties in the British Army Group, 359 soldiers dying on D-Day alone, 33 of the 359 Indigenous.[9]

All three soldiers recall men falling on the beach. Godon described making the beach after jumping off the landing craft, running for his life, and crawling off the beach. He stated, “So you had to keep going. Which was a hard thing to do because the beach was something like ketchup…That’s how blood red the beach was.”[10] Likewise, Settee recalled, “I don’t know how I ever made it. Guys were dropping here and there; we kept running.”[11] In what was a truly common experience, the beach was a battlefield that required speed and resulted in the deaths of many. In this instance, the sacrifice paid off. D-Day was ultimately successful. Settee said, “Finally we got into town [Courseulles-sur-Mer] and started street fighting… We held that town there. We held it.”[12] By opening an additional front, D-Day gave the western Allies the foothold they needed to liberate France and end the war in Europe on 8 May 1945.

Tommy Prince (left), Canada’s most highly decorated First Nations soldier, and Tom Settee pose together during training. Image from Tom Settee via The Memory Project.

Like when enlisting, Indigenous veterans faced unique challenges upon returning to Canada. Indigenous peoples were not Canadian citizens but wards of the state until 1960. The Department of Indian Affairs was tasked with caring for Indigenous peoples with the ultimate goal to “do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the inhabitants of the Dominion…”[13] The goal was enfranchisement, which would allow for movement off reserves and the right to vote, but would also eliminate a person’s Indian Status and access to Treaty Rights. While it was not necessary to enfranchise to join the military, some Indian Agents suggested it was a requirement. Those who did enfranchise were evicted from their communities after the war as they were no longer Status Indians and were therefore not allowed to live on reserves. For those who did not enfranchise, Indigenous veterans received no or lesser benefits in comparison to non-Indigenous veterans. This was due to the fact that many Indigenous veterans’ only access to Veteran Affairs was through Indian Affairs, who were paternalistic and continued to see Indigenous people as incapable of running their own lives.[14] As such, it took 21 years of fighting for Godon to receive his pension after the war.[15] An additional battle based solely on Indigenousness.

On one hand, many Indigenous veterans fell into addictions after returning to Canada. For instance, Godon became an alcoholic until his son helped him get sober.[16]

On the other, the military also taught Euro-Canadian discipline and leadership skills that led to the knowledge and political organization required to improve communities and stand up to the Canadian government. This created a surge of organizations fighting for Indigenous rights and equality, led by Second World War veterans. Indigenous veterans’ leadership also grew on a community level. Settee taught morals and discipline through boxing in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, helping many young men off the streets through the sport. Indeed, the Tom Settee Boxing Club still exists in Prince Albert.[17]

Tom Settee standing next to the painting he prepared of Juno Beach in 2010. Historica Canada.

Additionally, due to Indigenous involvement in the war, non-Indigenous support increased. After fighting a war against racism, Canadians were discomforted by the treatment of Indigenous peoples in their own country. Therefore, with Indigenous leadership and non-Indigenous support, the government created the Special Joint Committee of 1946-48, which would lead to changes in the Indian Act in 1951.[18]

D-Day was a pivotal day in the Second World War and the fight against Nazi Germany. Likewise, Indigenous participation in the war was pivotal in the fight for equality and rights in Canada for Indigenous peoples. While D-Day was only the start of the Battle of Normandy, the war was only the start of a battle, continuing an older war with the Canadian government to treat Indigenous peoples as allies and sovereign nations instead of wards, as they had been prior to 1830.[19] Storming Juno Beach required speed and leaving the fallen behind but the fight for Indigenous rights is much slower. It is also a fight in which stopping for the fallen is a necessity. In the process of reconciliation, the sacrifices will pay off, just like the sacrifices of those who fell on Juno Beach.

Shawkay Ottmann has a Major in History and a Minor in Fashion Design from Ryerson University. She is of mixed heritage, her ancestors encapsulating the three I’s: Indigenous, Invader and Immigrant. She is Anishinaabe from Fishing Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, as well as British, German, Polish and Norwegian.


Further Reading:

Davison, Janet Frances. “We Shall Remember: Canadian Indians and the World War II” Dissertation. Trent University. 1993.

Godon, Francis William. “Veteran Stories: Francis William Godon” The Memory Project. Accessed 15 April 2019. http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/539:francis-william-godon/

Macdonald, John A. to L. Vankoughnet, January 3 1887, Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, Vol. 16, First Session of the Sixth Parliament, Session 1887 (No20B), p. 20B-37. Accessed February 2019. http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_08052_20_16/502?r=0&s=1

Miller, J.R., Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Prince Albert Daily Herald. “Thomas Naphthali Settee”, InMemoriam.ca, 2012. Accessed Accessed 20 April 2019. http://www.inmemoriam.ca/view-announcement-292672-thomas-naphthali-settee.html

Settee, Thomas Naphtahli. “Veteran Stories: Tom Naphtahli “Little Chief” Settee”, The Memory Project, Accessed 15 April 2019. http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/2525:tom-naphtahli-little-chief-settee/

Sexsmith, Pamela. “George Horse – a veteran tells his tale”, AMMSA.com, 2003. Accessed 15 April 2019. https://ammsa.com/publications/saskatchewan-sage/george-horse-veteran-tells-his-tale

Veterans Affairs Canada. “Canada Remembers – D-Day and the Battle of Normandy”, Veterans Affairs Canada, 6 March 2019, Accessed 20 April 2019. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/historical-sheets/d-day

Veterans Affairs Canada. “Outstanding Accomplishments – Branching Out”, Veterans Affairs Canada. Accessed 14 February 2019, Accessed 15 April 2019. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/indigenous-veterans/native-soldiers/branching

Veterans Affairs Canada. “Two Decades Later”, Veterans Affairs Canada, 14 February 2019. Accessed 15 April 2019. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/indigenous-veterans/native-soldiers/second_response

Xavier, Jules and Stag, Shilo. “Francis William Godon 1924-2019 Métis D-Day veteran passes 75 years after harrowing experience at Juno Beach”, Government of Canada, 26 February 2019. Accessed 25 April 2019. http://www.army-armee.forces.gc.ca/en/news-publications/national-news-details-no-menu.page?doc=francis-william-godon-1924-2019-metis-d-day-veteran-passes-75-years-after-harrowing-experience-at-juno-beach/jskwaa54


Notes

[1] Janet Frances Davison, “We Shall Remember: Canadian Indians and the World War II” Dissertation. Trent University. 1993: 88.

[2] Veterans Affairs Canada, “Two Decades Later”, Veterans Affairs Canada, 14 February 2019, Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/indigenous-veterans/native-soldiers/second_response

[3] Veterans Affairs Canada, “Outstanding Accomplishments – Branching Out”, Veterans Affairs Canada, Accessed 14 February 2019, Accessed 15 April 2019. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/indigenous-veterans/native-soldiers/branching

[4] Francis William Godon, “Veteran Stories: Francis William Godon”, The Memory Project, Accessed 15 April 2019. http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/539:francis-william-godon/

[5] Godon, “Veteran Stories: Francis William Godon”

[6] Pamela Sexsmith, “George Horse – a veteran tells his tale”, AMMSA.com, 2003, Accessed 15 April 2019. https://ammsa.com/publications/saskatchewan-sage/george-horse-veteran-tells-his-tale

[7]Veterans Affairs Canada, “Canada Remembers – D-Day and the Battle of Normandy”, Veterans Affairs Canada, 6 March 2019, Accessed 20 April 2019. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/historical-sheets/d-day

[8] Godon, “Veteran Stories: Francis William Godon”

[9] Veterans Affairs Canada, “Canada Remembers – D-Day and the Battle of Normandy”

[10] Godon, “Veteran Stories: Francis William Godon”

[11] Thomas Naphtahli Settee, “Veteran Stories: Tom Naphtahli “Little Chief” Settee”, The Memory Project, Accessed 15 April 2019. http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/2525:tom-naphtahli-little-chief-settee/

[12] Ibid.

[13] John A. Macdonald to L. Vankoughnet, January 3 1887, Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, Vol. 16, First Session of the Sixth Parliament, Session 1887 (No20B), p. 20B-37 http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_08052_20_16/502?r=0&s=1

[14] Davison, “We Shall Remember”, 85-6.

[15] Jules Xavier and Shilo Stag, “Francis William Godon 1924-2019 Métis D-Day veteran passes 75 years after harrowing experience at Juno Beach”, Government of Canada, 26 February 2019, Accessed 25 April 2019. http://www.army-armee.forces.gc.ca/en/news-publications/national-news-details-no-menu.page?doc=francis-william-godon-1924-2019-metis-d-day-veteran-passes-75-years-after-harrowing-experience-at-juno-beach/jskwaa54

[16] Ibid.

[17] Prince Albert Daily Herald, “Thomas Naphthali Settee”, InMemoriam.ca, 2012, Accessed Accessed 20 April 2019. http://www.inmemoriam.ca/view-announcement-292672-thomas-naphthali-settee.html

[18] Davison, “We Shall Remember”, 90-95, 110.

[19] J.R. Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 118-119.

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