Francis Pegahmagabow

Francis Pegahmagabow is perhaps the best known Indigenous (Anishnaabe) soldier of the First World War. He is the most decorated Indigenous soldier in Canadian military history and holds the record of Canada’s top marksmen with 378 kills. Much is known of his military and post-war life, many having written of his accomplishments on the battlefield, his political activism, and most recently his enduring commitment to his people, culture and language. But his pension record reveals yet another dimension to his life as a veteran––one of hardship due to debilitating disabilities and the uncompromising paternalism of the Department of Indian Affairs.

                Overshadowed by his skills as a marksmen, he was hospitalized several times throughout the war due to injury. He was twice gassed, the second occurrence leading to a months-long stay at a hospital for what became double pneumonia. Undoubtedly these injuries to his lungs contributed to what eventually developed into chronic bronchitis in the immediate post-war years. His chest pain would become so severe that the simple act of lying down and rolling over in bed became unbearable. His son remembered him sleeping in a chair at night in the latter years of his post-war life.[1]

Because of his chronic bronchitis and a host of other injuries that plagued him for decades after the war, Pegahmagabow had difficulty finding work. In 1919, he briefly worked as a tour guide but soon found it too strenuous and retired. For most of the rest of his life, he chopped wood and planted a garden for his own family’s consumption. In 1932, he complained in a letter to the state that his inability to do assumedly physical labour was a source of shame: “I don’t feel comfortable at all,” he wrote. “[E]verybody seems to be [sic] despise me because I am not able to earn my own living.” Though he served as chief of what is now known as Wasauksing First Nation from 1921 to 1925, band councillor from 1933 to 1936, and again as chief from 1941 to 1945, his inability to do physical labour remained a sore spot for Pegahmagabow.

Despite his numerous physical disabilities, he did not apply for a pension until 1930 but when he did he was successful. When the Pension Act was passed in 1919, it was legislated that veterans would only have their pensions administered if they were found “expending the pension in a[n] [im]proper manner.” However, during the early 1920s, pension officials and Indian Affairs came to an agreement that all First Nations veterans would have their pensions administered unless they could prove they would make financially responsible decisions regarding their pension money. When his disability pension was finally awarded, Pegahmagabow’s pension was immediately transferred to the Department of Indian Affairs for administrative oversight. It was a double standard––and one that was based on the prejudicial assumption that First Nations peoples were incapable of handling their own affairs. In Pegahmagabow’s case––which was typical of most First Nations pensioners––the Indian Agent that oversaw his community at Parry Island became the administrator of his pension, visiting him “at least twice a month” to make sure he was spending his money appropriately.

Over the decades that followed the Great War, Francis Pegahmagabow did not only witness the painful legacies of combat––he physically felt them. Chronic bronchitis, several gunshot wounds and the mental trauma he sustained on the battlefield would haunt him for the rest of his life. On top of that, even having served with distinction, receiving a Military Medal with Two Bars, he was still assumed incapable of handling his own finances and assigned administrative oversight of his pension. But despite all these hardships, Pegahmagabow remained committed not only to his community but his family as well. His pension record indicates that even through everything he endured, he took out insurance and built a house so that his family could live as comfortably as he could provide.

[1] Brian McInnes, Sounding Thunder: The Stories of Francis Pegahmagabow (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015), 194.