Francis Pegahmagabow (1889–1952)

Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, MM. © Archives (photos and documents), CWM 20040035-006, George Metcalf Archival Collection Canadian War Museum
Francis Pegahmagabow in Ottawa, June 1945. © Canadian Museum of History, 95293

For the week of Monday August 10, 2020.

On August 13, 1914, Francis Pegahmagabow enlisted to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, ten days after the First World War began. He went on to gain distinction as a skilled sniper during the war and, later, as an activist for Indigenous rights.

Pegahmagabow was born on March 9, 1889, at what is now Shawanaga First Nation on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, Ontario. He was an Ojibwe Nishnaabe, member of the Caribou clan, and part of the Wasauksing First Nation. After his father died and his mother became gravely ill, he was raised by extended family at Shawanaga First Nation. He later moved to nearby Parry Sound Wasauksing First Nation, where he attended high school.

Enlisting just days after Canada entered the First World War in August 1914, he went to France with the 1st Canadian Battalion in early 1915 and served for the duration of the war, seeing action in France and Belgium. He carried a medicine pouch for spiritual protection as he worked alone with his sniper rifle in contested territory, reporting on enemy movements. He was also a messenger at Ypres in 1915–1916, for which he earned a Military Medal for bravery in the field. In September 1916, he was wounded in the leg and had to recover in England, but returned to the battlefield in 1917. Pegahmagabow was promoted to corporal and took part in the Battle of Passchendaele, where he earned a bar on his Military Medal for relaying information and directing reinforcements. He earned another bar in 1918 for delivering ammunition to his company while under heavy fire during the Battle of the Scarpe.

Pegahmagabow is credited with wounding 378 enemies with his rifle and capturing another 300, which would make him one of the most accomplished snipers of the First World War. He worked alone, leading some to question these figures. However, Dr. Brian McInnes, a member of Wasauksing First Nation and descendant of Pegahmagabow, explained: “The taking of life, even in war, was not something about which the Ojibwe should ever brag. It would be an even greater dishonour to lie about such action.”

After the war, Pegahmagabow returned to Wasauksing First Nation. He became chief in 1921 and brought the First Nation into the League of Indians of Ontario. He worked through this organization to oppose the policies of the Department of Indian Affairs, whose locally appointed Indian Agents had the power to override band decisions and control band funds. In 1945, Pegahmagabow helped form another Indigenous rights organization, the National Indian Government, which he led as supreme chief in 1949–1950. Facing pressure from such groups, the federal government reduced the authority of Indian Agents on the reserves in 1951. Pegahmagabow remained an activist until his death in Parry Sound in 1952.

Francis Pegahmagabow is a designated national historic person. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn

June is National Indigenous History Month. Learn more about the diverse histories and cultures of Indigenous Peoples by exploring articles in our online archives about Skmaqn-Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst, Francis Pegahmagabow (1889–1952), Wii Niisł Puuntk: A Matriarch of the Gitga’at of Hartley Bay, and Weaving Identity: Nlaka’pamux Basket-Making.