The Indigenous narrative of the First World War is explored through theatre

Redpatch was researched for seven years to give an authentic voice to an Indigenous combat service not often remembered in Canada

A scene during Redpatch depicting a mustard gas attack. Photo courtesy of Redpatch.ca
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Reported by Chelsea Liu

The battles Indigenous soldiers fought in the First World War are taking centre stage in a Vancouver play and shedding light on an under examined chapter of Canadian history.

Redpatch, a play created by Studio 58 alumni Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver, uses Indigenous dance, myth and narrative to tell the story of a Métis soldier from the Nuu-chah-nulth nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Over 4,000 Indigenous soldiers fought in WWI, but this is a story unfamiliar to most Canadians, Calvert said.

“I feel like people are ready to hear these stories now. People want to hear these stories now. People are searching for these stories now,” he said.

The struggle of the Indigenous soldier

Indigenous soldiers faced discrimination both on and off the battlefield in both world wars.

In order to enlist in the Canadian Forces, Indigenous peoples had to give up their status rights and when they returned home they were denied the pension benefits awarded to other Canadian veterans as they were not considered Canadian citizens.

A recent federal reconciliation effort announced last week has set aside $30 million for Métis soldiers who were denied veteran benefits after the Second World War.

Calvert said Indigenous contributions to Canadian history are not taught in school, the significance of the history is often overlooked.

“Indigenous soldiers in World War One made a huge contribution,” Calvert said. “I grew up in Richmond, I never learned any of this.”

Seven years of researching

Calvert and Oliver spent seven years researching this chapter of Indigenous history in preparation for where the play is today.

The show tells real historical events through fictional characters.

“The story is based off of real people, based on research, reading journals and letters soldiers have sent home,” Calvert said.

Calvert was inspired to research his own family his after seeing a play featuring an Indigenous soldier who fought in WWI.

His grandfather, Roy Dougherty, fought in the WWII, which inspired Calvert to tell the story Dougherty “would never really speak about.”

“Writing the show, I feel like I know him [the grandfather] better than while he was alive, because I’ve gotten all of these documents from the war, I’ve gotten his enlistment papers, where he was stationed and what he did.”

Calvert said he hopes the audience takes away more from Redpatch than just the performance.

“I have to put the story out there and see if it resonates with people.  It’s about the information through the creation of the story and sharing that historical information.”

The play seems to be having that effect, said to Genevieve Fleming, assistant director for Redpatch.

“I learned a lot about First Nation contributions to Canada in World War One and the experiences that they had to endure even just to be permitted to fight for Canada,” she said.

Calvert and Oliver learned there were more stories to be told as they continued their research.  When they first wrote the script in 2013, it was meant to be a one-man show. Now it has six actors. 

Representation is key

Calvert said it’s important to him to have an all-Indigenous cast. The play has Indigenous actors playing the non-Indigenous characters as well as women playing male characters.

“I want to showcase the Indigenous talent that is available in Vancouver,” he said.  “It was important for us to have representation of women playing equal cast, three women, three men.”

Audience member Gail Rudin said she would recommend the show, “I thought it was a very interesting play.”

Indigenous soldiers serve with distinction

Indigenous soldiers served with distinction during the First World War, with over 50 men awarded with medals for bravery and heroism.

Throughout the war, the Department of Indian Affairs received continuous of letters from the front commending these soldiers.

Their military roles were influenced by their perceived abilities in traditional skills of scouting, tracking and navigation.

As a result, recruitment officers stereotyped the Indigenous men into the hazardous positions of snipers and reconnaissance scouts.

Three hundred Indigenous soldiers lost their lives in the war.

Scouts would slip behind enemy lines prior to an enemy advance and report enemy coordinates. Snipers served to demoralize the opposing soldiers by picking them off from concealed “nests.”   

The most highly decorated Indigenous soldier was Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa man from the Wasauksing nation in Ontario. He was known as “Peggy” among his fellow soldiers.

Pegahmagabow enlisted in the 23rd Regiment immediately after the war was declared.

He was awarded the Military Medal along with two bars for bravery in both Belgium and France for his role as superb marksman and scout.

This level of decoration was only achieved by 39 soldiers in the entire Canadian Expeditionary Force.

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