This Week in History


Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau: Athlete and Soldier

For the Week of Monday, October 23, 2017

On October 26, 1917, the Canadian Corps under the command of Sir Arthur Currie began its assault across a muddy battlefield, towards the German-held Passchendaele Ridge in Belgium. They achieved victory where other allied forces had failed, but the cost was great: there were roughly 15,600 Canadian casualties. Pte. Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau was among the dead.

The start of the 5000m final at the 1912 Olympics. Alex Decoteau can be seen fourth from right
©Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Decoteau was born on the Red Pheasant Reserve near Battleford, Saskatchewan in 1887, where he attended Battleford Indian Industrial School. Moving to Edmonton, Alberta, in 1909, he joined the police force, eventually becoming one of the city’s first motorcycle officers and taking command of No. 4 Police Station in 1914.

He was also an accomplished athlete, running his first one-mile race at Fort Saskatchewan in May 1909, where he came in second place. Over the next three years, Decoteau won competitions across Alberta and even represented Canada at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. He placed second in qualifying heats, but finished eighth overall, after suffering leg cramps during the final event. Undeterred, he ran some of his best races in the years that followed. In 1913, he placed second at the Dominion track and field championships in Vancouver.

Mud became synonymous with many First World War battles and Passchendaele was no exception. Here a Canadian soldier navigates the difficult terrain
©William Rider-Rider, Canada. Dept. of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada

Decoteau left the police force in April 1916 to serve overseas with the 49th Edmonton Battalion during the First World War. While briefly stationed in England, he won a bicycle sprint and a five-mile run. King George V, a spectator at the five-mile race, gave him his gold pocket watch as a trophy. Decoteau spent two months on the front lines in France and Belgium, before he was fatally wounded by a sniper on the fourth day of the Battle of Passchendaele. Buried in Belgium, a special ceremony was held in 1985 on the Red Pheasant Reserve to bring his spirit home.

The Battle of Passchendaele and Aboriginal Military Service in the First World War are designated national historic events. To learn more, read Canadians Join the Fight at Passchendaele, A Racing Legend is Born, and An Olympian in the PPCLI, in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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