During the First World War over four thousand Aboriginal people served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. While the Canadian government originally tried to discourage Aboriginal men from serving overseas, the sheer number of enlistees coupled with a desperate need for more men soon prompted the government to change its mind. The decision definitely made the Canadian Corps stronger because an estimated 370 Aboriginal soldiers won military honours for their actions between 1914 and the end of the war.
Amongst them was Henry Norwest, a Métis rodeo-performer and ranch-hand from Alberta. Norwest originally enlisted in 1915 using his mother’s maiden name but was discharged for drunken misconduct before he was able to leave Canada for Europe with his comrades. He re-enlisted eight months later under the name of Norwest and was assigned to the 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion. In France he quickly earned a reputation as a skilled sniper and won the Military Medal in 1917 during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. His sniping was credited with saving a significant number of Canadian lives. Nicknamed “Ducky,” Norwest was well-liked by his fellow soldiers.
Regretfully, Norwest was killed on the morning of August 18, 1918, by an enemy sniper. In retaliation an artillery barrage was launched on Dead Wood where enemy snipers were known to be located.
Norwest’s legendary marksmanship and ability to slip behind enemy lines contributed to Aboriginal soldiers’ reputation as unparalleled snipers and reconnaissance scouts.
To learn more about Henry Norwest, see the Veterans Affairs entry.
Main photo: Henry Norwest “spinning a rope” (Credit: Canadiana.ca).