This Week in History


A Racing Legend is Born

For the week of Monday June 2, 2014

On June 4, 1887, Tom Longboat was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve outside of Caledonia, Ontario. Described as an unbeatable long distance runner, this record-setting athlete skyrocketed to fame after he became a star on the international running circuit. He was one of Canada’s first athletic celebrities, and one of many professional athletes to participate overseas in the First World War.

Tom Longboat
©Charles Aylett/Library and Archives Canada/C-014095

In his early years, Longboat attended a local residential school, but ran away at the age of 12 because of the zealous religious instruction and the exclusive use of English. After working on a farm for several years, he entered his first race in 1905. He did not win, but he pursued running with a passion, winning local events and setting records internationally. He was quickly recognized as one of the greatest distance runners on the planet, with the 1907 Boston Marathon among his most notable victories.

In 1916, Longboat enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight in the First World War. He served in the 37th Regiment “Haldimand Rifles” and the 180th (Sportsmen) Battalion, where he continued running in exhibition races against other enlisted professionals and regular soldiers, as a source of entertainment for the troops. He eventually saw combat action in the 107th Pioneer Battalion of Aboriginal Soldiers. In this Battalion, Longboat was a dispatch runner. He delivered messages and orders between units on the front lines in France in some of the war’s bloodiest battles, including Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge. He was injured twice and even declared dead!

Tom Longboat purchasing a newspaper     

© National Defence/Library and Archives Canada

After the war Longboat retired from professional racing. He worked as a garbage collector for the City of Toronto for 20 years, living comfortably with his family. He died of pneumonia on his home reserve in 1949. His legacy, however, lives on. The Tom Longboat Award was created in 1951 to honour outstanding Aboriginal athletes.Tom Longboat was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955 and he was designated a person of national historic significance in 1976.

Longboat’s participation in the war is part of the larger Aboriginal Military Service in the First World War National Historic Event. The Battle of Passchendaele is also a national historic event, and Vimy Ridge in France is a national historic site.

To learn more about Longboat and the First World War battles he fought in please read Tom Longboat, Faster than a Speeding Bullet, United at Vimy Ridge, Canadian Victory at Vimy! and Canadians Join the Fight at Passchendaele in the This Week in History archives.

This month is Aboriginal History Month! To learn more, see Aboriginal History Month.

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