F.O. Loft

First Nations were as dramatically transformed by their participation in the First World War as were the larger societies in Canada and the United States. Although it was determined that Registered Indians, as wards of the state, could not be conscripted, young Native people volunteered to fight with the Canadian armed forces at a rate well above that of the general population. When these men returned home after fighting for a better world, they found themselves confronted with the same inequities that had shaped their lives before they had left. Many resolved to play a role in changing that situation.

Photo of File Hills Natives Prepare to Go to War, n.d.

File Hills Natives Prepare to Go to War, n.d.

Almost the entire male population of the File Hills Indian Colony volunteered for military service during the First World War (1914-1918). These Native members of the 68th Battalion are shown with their parents and Mr. W.M. Graham, Commissioner for the Department of Indian Affairs.
Canada in the Great World War..., vol. 3 (Toronto: United Publishers of Canada, 1918-1921).
Photo of Lieutenant F.O. Loft, 1914-1918.

Lieutenant F.O. Loft, 1914-1918.

Loft, a Mohawk veteran of the First World War, attributed many Native problems to the policies of the Department of Indian Affairs. He also started a new pan-Indian political organization, the League of Indians of Canada, whose major goal was to lobby the government to improve educational standards for Native peoples.
NAC (Department of National Defence Collection, PA-007439).

One of the most prominent of these activists was Lieutenant Frederick Ogilvie Loft, founder of the League of Indians of Canada. Lieutenant Loft was a member of the Six Nations who had served in the First World War. While in London, he attempted to gain an audience with the King and the sovereign's Privy Council to relate his view of the sorry socio-economic conditions then prevailing on his home reserve and in most Indian communities in Canada. Loft was told that it would not be appropriate for him to make such a representation without a genuine organization behind him. The veteran took this advice to heart. At the mature age of 60, he set himself the task of creating forums where Indian people from many regions could meet, identify common grievances, and share strategies aimed at ameliorating the position of all Native peoples in Canada.

While Loft's initiatives lie largely within an old Aboriginal tradition, he was also influenced by the idea of trade unionism as a mechanism to protect and enhance the collective strength of working people through the medium of collective bargaining. In explaining the role of trade unionism in his determination to organize the peoples of Indian Country, Loft wrote, "union is the outstanding impulse of men today, because it is the only way by which the individual and collective elements of society can wield a force and power to be heard and their demands recognized. Look at the force and power of all kinds of labor organizations, because of their union."11 Loft's recognition of the importance of trade unionism as a model for Aboriginal collective action would mirror the concerns of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Beginning in the mid-1920s, the ILO began to identify Indigenous peoples as a specific category of worker with very specific kinds of problems and needs.

Loft's organizational efforts were perceived as a threat in some circles, especially in the federal Indian Department. One Indian agent from the Fort Frances, Ontario, area observed that the organizational work taking place among local Native people "looked like the "communist] International Workers of the World or the One Big Union or the Bolsheviks."

1927 - Prohibition on Fundraising by Natives and Native Organizations

The growth of organizations devoted to political activism among Native peoples spurred a 1927 Indian Act amendment that required a permit for the solicitation of funds for any legal claim pressed by Natives. The superintendent general gained the power to issue such licences. The official rationalization for the practice emphasized its protective aspects-such as guarding Natives from unscrupulous lawyers and outside agitators-but other motives were also present. It was, in fact, aimed more directly at people like Frederick Loft and organizations like the League of Indians, the Six Nations Council, and the Allied Tribes of B.C. that had launched legal action against the government. The legislation impeded the pursuit of these claims, undermined efforts to gain nationwide support by restricting the collection of funds that made travel and gatherings possible, and permitted harassment of and charges against the individuals involved in these organizations. These provisions, which were repealed only in the 1951 revisions of the Indian Act, inhibited the growth of a national Native organization.

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1919 - Frederick Loft and the League of Indians

Prompted by alarming amendments to the Indian Act, especially the 1911 "Oliver Act," which threatened the integrity of reserve lands, members of the Six Nations came to the conclusion that a national political organization was a necessity. Frederick Loft, a Mohawk war veteran, founded and was elected first president of the new League of Indians. Under Loft's inspired leadership, the league gained a following in Ontario, but was particularly successful in the West. The league fought for the preservation of reserve lands and their protection from the arbitrary hand of the government. The league also sought to protect Native rights, leading the battle against the involuntary enfranchisement provisions of the Indian Act passed in 1920. For Loft, this was a personal as well as political battle: Deputy Superintendent D.C. Scott attempted to use the enfranchisement provisions to remove Loft's Indian status and thus to derail the league. In the struggle to safeguard Native rights, the league initiated legal challenges to validate Native claims to hunting, fishing, and trapping rights, among others. The League of Indians was the first attempt by Canadian Natives to form a national organization, but the difficulties of uniting an array of Native voices, coupled with communication problems over great distances, the problem of finding leadership across the country, and active opposition from Indian Affairs, led to its demise as a national body and its evolution into the League of Indians of Western Canada.

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The founding meeting of the League of Indians took place at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in 1919. However, Lieutenant Loft, who was given the Plains Cree name of Natowew-Kimaw, found the warmest reception for his organizational work among Cree, Saulteaux, Blackfoot, and Assiniboine peoples on the Canadian Prairies. At meetings in the 1920s and 1930s on a number of Prairie reserves, including Thunderchild, Samson, Poundmaker's and Enoch, many hundreds of Native activists met to exchange information and to develop positions on a variety of issues. These areas of concern included education, health care, economic development, parliamentary representation, and religious freedom. Among those who played important roles in these proceedings were the Blackfoot war veteran Mike Mountain Horse and the Anglican ministers Edward Ahenakew, Stan Cuthand, and Ahab Spence. Other Prairie Indian activists included James Wutunee, Augustine Steinhauer, John Callihoo, John Tootoosis, Joe Samson, Isaac Twoyoungmen, Joe Dreaver, Ed Thompson, and Joe Taylor. In 1929, they created the League of Indians of Western Canada, the forerunner of what became the Indian Association of Alberta.

Six Nations

A rather different approach to improving the position of Aboriginal peoples came from the Cayuga leader Levi General, a man who carried the title of Deskaheh in the Council of the Six Nations. Insisting that his people and others were not, and never had been, subjects of Great Britain but were independent sovereign nations, he took the cause to the international stage where the League of Nations was being organized.12 Deskaheh argued that many of the principles upon which the League was founded applied just as convincingly to Indigenous peoples.

Cartoon,

"A Home from Home," 5 Mar. 1919.

"PRESIDENT WILSON (QUITTING AMERICA IN HIS FOURTEEN-LEAGUE-OF-NATIONS-BOOTS). 'ITS TIME I WAS GETTING BACK TO A HEMISPHERE WHERE I REALLY AM APPRECIATED.'"
The American president took his Fourteen Points to the Paris peace conferences that followed the First World War. One of the most significant proposals was the right to national self-determination for minorities in Europe. Sadly, the same rights were not extended to the First Nations in America.
Punch, 5 Mar. 1919 (cartoon by L. Raven-Hill).
American president Woodrow Wilson had brought the United States into the war to oppose imperialism and uphold the rights of nations, large and small, to govern themselves. As Alpheus Henry Snow shows in his pioneering work, The Question of Aborigines in the Law and Practice of Nations, preliminary investigation as to how these principles might be applied to Indigenous peoples in the Americas were already being pressed in the process that gave rise to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.}

Behind Wilson's pronouncements was the vision of a new era in human history governed by an international regime based on the rule of law rather than on the coercive force of militarism. This rule of law, he said, was to be founded on the principle of "the self-determination of peoples" and worked out in a global parliament where conflicts would be settled through negotiation and adherence to legal principles. The idea was to eliminate aggressions such as those that had led to the First World War. Deskaheh phrased his own ideas in similar terms and called on the League of Nations to recognize the applicability of League principles to the Six Nations. He produced a manifesto, entitled The Red Man's Appeal for Justice, which was given widened currency through the help of Rene Claparede, the driving force of an organization known as the Bureau internationale pour la defense des Indigenes.14 Deskaheh took the position that the Dominion of Canada was illegally ignoring and violating the treaty traditions that confirmed the sovereign status of Longhouse people as allies of the Crown rather than as subjects of Canadian law.

The government of Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, whose objective was to use the League of Nations to affirm a more independent position for Canada as a sovereign country, experienced intense embarrassment as a result of Deskaheh's interventions in Geneva. Rather than address his arguments, however, the King government took coercive measures to try to silence Deskaheh. It sent the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the Six Nations reserve to oversee the creation of an elected band council operating under the limitations of the Indian Act. In attacking the authority of the Longhouse, which Crown officials had recognized as the legitimate government of that community from its founding in 1784 until 1923, the Prime Minister seemed to be attacking not only the traditions of Indian peoples but also one of the symbols that supported the constitutional imagery of Canada as a British North America nation.

1923 - Deskeheh and the League of Nations

During the colonial wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Six Nations of the Iroquois had come to view themselves as allies of the British government rather than as subjects of the Crown. They were, therefore, considerably distressed by the Canadian government's attempts to change their status to virtual wards of the state at the end of the nineteenth century. After the First World War, the Iroquois launched a campaign to regain their sovereignty, an action led by Chef Deskeheh (Levi General). They petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada and attempted to have the case referred to the Privy Council in London, but their efforts were rebuffed. The new League of Nations, however, provided a forum for the grievances of the Six Nations and at least some Europeans were sympathetic to their appeal for justice and independence. Canada responded by stating that the transfer of power to the Canadian Parliament through the British North America Act and other British legislation did not include mention of any Aboriginal group. Although several smaller nations, including Holland and Persia, expressed support for the Iroquois, Britain would brook no interference in internal matters of the Empire, and the case was dropped.

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The outlawed system of representation was inherited from the very inception of the Longhouse Confederacy, when its founders had symbolically buried their weapons of war under the Great White Pine of Peace. In doing so, they created the continent's most famous Aboriginal confederation, a polity integral to the genesis of the British Empire in North America. Deskaheh claimed that the coercive replacement of this indigenous council without a referendum was "an act of war," but the King government responded by telling the League members that the dominion police force had entered the Deskaheh's home reserve as "a civil force acting under civil authority." The police presence in the community was said to have been "for the purpose of suppressing illicit distilling and maintaining law and order for the protection of the law-abiding Indian populace."15 But, for Deskaheh and those of his ilk, the Longhouse regime remained his peoples' only legitimate government under the Confederacy's Great Law.

Diverse Ideals I

This generation of activists faced many obstacles. Their effort to express democratically the will of their peoples often ran into resistance from the Indian Department, from the police, and also, sometimes, from the Christian churches or even from their own family members. Cree activist Harold Cardinal recalled that, in some instances, Indian agents "openly threatened to punish people who persisted in organizational effort." Or the agents might delay relief payments or rations in order to demonstrate "what way the wind was blowing."

1927 - Prohibition on Fundraising by Natives and Native Organizations

The growth of organizations devoted to political activism among Native peoples spurred a 1927 Indian Act amendment that required a permit for the solicitation of funds for any legal claim pressed by Natives. The superintendent general gained the power to issue such licences. The official rationalization for the practice emphasized its protective aspects-such as guarding Natives from unscrupulous lawyers and outside agitators-but other motives were also present. It was, in fact, aimed more directly at people like Frederick Loft and organizations like the League of Indians, the Six Nations Council, and the Allied Tribes of B.C. that had launched legal action against the government. The legislation impeded the pursuit of these claims, undermined efforts to gain nationwide support by restricting the collection of funds that made travel and gatherings possible, and permitted harassment of and charges against the individuals involved in these organizations. These provisions, which were repealed only in the 1951 revisions of the Indian Act, inhibited the growth of a national Native organization.

Read more

When this kind of pressure failed to stop the organizers and activists, the Canadian government turned to the power of the law. In 1927, the Indian Act was amended to make it illegal to raise any money or hire any lawyers in pursuit of an Indian grievance or claim. Travel, research, and even postage stamps could not be purchased without the approval of the Indian Department. As Harold Cardinal later put it, "These first leaders were genuine heroes. They had guts and they needed them. They had no money, they had no access to skilled and trusted advisers; they were harassed by the white government officials and the police and they were doubted by their own people. Yet they fought on."16

Of course, this generation of activists had different ideas about the issues and potential solutions. One of the central points of contention was whether the emphasis should be on Aboriginal and treaty rights or on citizenship and equality of opportunity in relations with non-Aboriginal peoples and governments. Those who sought enfranchised citizenship for Registered Indians included F.O. Loft and John Callihoo of the Michel band near Edmonton. Loft and Callihoo believed that full citizenship would open the doors to opportunity for Aboriginal peoples and end racial discrimination. The Reverend Peter Kelly in British Columbia also promoted these ideas. Kelly, a United Church minister, descended from an important line of Haida aristocrats. He combined lobbying efforts to bring about equal citizenship for Indian people in Canada with a passionate advocacy of some sort of resolution to the Indian land question in British Columbia.

Photo of Indian Association of Alberta representatives in front of Parliament.

Indian Association of Alberta representatives in front of Parliament.

Left to right: Mark E. Steinhauer, Saddle Lake; Ed Hunter, Morley; Albert Lightning, Hobbema; John Callihoo, Villeneuve; Frank Cardinal, Driftpile. The Indian Association of Alberta was founded in 1939.
GA (NA-4212-41).

Others, like John Tootoosis of Saskatchewan and Andy Paull of B.C., saw enfranchisement as a trap. Tootoosis could point to John Callihoo's reserve near Edmonton, which disappeared in the 1950s when all its remaining members became enfranchised. Instead, Tootoosis and Paull sought protection for Native communities and identity in special status under the law. Tootoosis drew on the organizational strength of the Queen Victoria's Treaty Protection Association, a group with its political centre of gravity at Battleford, Saskatchewan. Between 1927 and 1951, when section 141 of the Indian Act criminalized the raising of money for political activity among Registered Indians, Paull still managed to maintain and expand his network of connections through his work as a coach of Indian hockey and lacrosse teams. While political activism had been made illegal, sport provided one of the main vehicles for the continuing activism of Aboriginal politicians during the Indian Department's most dictatorial era.

If John Tootoosis and Andy Paull staked out the middle ground in the internal debate among Aboriginal activists in the years between the wars, Jules Sioui of the Huron reserve in Loretteville, Quebec, wrote and talked in terms of full independence for Indian nations in North America. The expansiveness of his vision is suggested in the contents of a pamphlet Sioui issued while on a hunger strike over conscription during the Second World War. Sioui wrote, "We must obtain our national independence and the right to make use of our own currency. We must obtain vast territories, in order to administer our own natural, political and economic resources. Barring that we will count for nothing and we will go to nothing."

Jules Sioui on Native Issues, Nov. 1946

Native activist Jules Sioui made an eloquent statement before the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs concerning the injustices that the government had directed towards the First Nations. Among other things, he claimed that the federal government had not lived up to its treaty promises, dating back to the Royal Proclamation (1763).

...

MR. JULES SIOUI: Honourable Senators and deputies, ladies and gentlemen [sic], brothers and sisters: I know that we are now at the corner of the road, the four corners of the road and we have to know how to make our decision in which direction we are going to go and what will be happening.

In early life before the white man came to this continent the Indian nations were the only people on this continent. They were governed by themselves and had freedom as they pleased. They have been created by God and understand how life gives a chance to them. You will excuse me if I am not very perfect in English.

THE CHAIRMAN: There is just one thing if I may say so. We would like you to tell us what the complaints are. We have had complaints about the schooling and other things. Suppose we give you another ten minutes. Would that be in order? You see, we are a fact finding body. We are here to find the facts.

MR. JULES SIOUI: I want to know if you are really honourably coming here in your inquiry or if you are not.

THE CHAIRMAN: If you have any facts tell us.

MR. JULES SIOUI: It is a fact about the historical rights of the nation. Further you do remember this continent has been invaded and we are still the slave of the invader since they have come in our country. ...

...

With the administration of the Indians the way it is for very many years now we are only the slaves of a law and we have no chance to show that we are a nation, that we were a nation to sign the peace treaty with His Majesty the King in 1763 and we had great big treaties in 1873 when they promised exemption from military service, exemption of tax and lots of promises, but now today nothing is carried out. We try to tell this to the Canadian government before that the Indians have such rights and they have to carry out their promises and they laugh at us. ...

...

My brothers, I want to recommend this. I am glad and I am thanking you that you allow me to speak a few words in this meeting because it is creating a light to give you a chance to understand what is t he [sic] question of the Indians and their situation. The Indians are very willing to work, to make their living by themselves. They are able to work and they want to work but as long as we have a chance to do our work as the Indian does. The Indian wants to go hunting, trapping and fishing. They have to respect the provincial law and they cannot have their rights. That thing has got to be respected. I am asking you, I am telling you to take our recommendation that the Royal Proclamation covers all the rights of the Indian nation in this country.

...

More than that today the federal government are taking a great step and saying they want to revise this Indian Act. They don't mean anything good to the Indian people. They wouldn't do anything good. It is just like the same thing done before.

...

The Indians have been controlled by the federal government since so many years, and they want to revise the Indian Act, but they want to be boss over them again as long as they want. The Royal Proclamation gives the privilege to the Indian nations to conduct their own affairs by their will; they wish to have their own national Indian government with their own constitutional law and to have Indian people at the head of their nation to conduct their own affairs, but to be friends, with you white people.

...

I have some French blood and some Scotch blood in me, but my name is a pure Indian name, and I am feeling for my brothers and all my people in North America here. I am saying for the Indian people what all Indians feel for themselves.

...

Honourable ministers and deputies: what I want to make you understand is this. In your Commission, as a request I want to ask you to give your best attention to the Royal Proclamations and these treaties and I am sure that you will not be able to refuse the Indians their full rights and privileges as long as the sun shines and the water runs.

...

NAC, Indian Department Records, RG 10, vol. 11209, file 3, Royal Commission on Indian Affairs, Rivière-du-Loup, 4 Nov. 1946, 916-923.

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Jules Sioui and his colleague William Commanda from the Maniwake reserve in Quebec had many Native followers in Central Canada. Sioui also recognized the wisdom of establishing political connections with John Tootoosis in Saskatchewan and Andy Paull in British Columbia. Both Sioui and Paull were devout Roman Catholics who received some help and encouragement in their political work from their friends and colleagues in the clergy. In 1944, the Paull-Sioui-Tootoosis axis of co-operation shaped a meeting in Ottawa where the North American Indian Brotherhood was founded. This organization received tacit federal recognition when the Minister of Indian Affairs visited the proceedings. Not since the Department's co-operation with the Grand General Indian Council of Ontario in the 1870s and 1880s had the Indian Department afforded any kind of formal recognition to Indian political organizations beyond the band level. In return for this recognition, however, the Indian Department demanded that Jules Sioui not be included in the organization. Sioui reluctantly agreed to withdraw, leaving the more moderate Andy Paull to lead the organization.

Christian religion played a significant role in this phase of organizational formation in Indian Country. Like the English and French languages taught in Canada's Indian residential schools, the growing influence of Christian religion created an important medium for widening networks of pan-Indian communication and network building. And, for some groups, and in particular those communities represented by the Grand Council of Mi'kmaqs in the Maritimes, Roman Catholicism provided a kind of shield to help withstand the powerful assimilative pressures centred in Canadian Protestantism.

The different denominations, however, also created new barriers between Native people. In British Columbia especially, Native political organizations tended to run along denominational lines, including the important organizations of Indian fishermen and cannery workers. And, of course, Christianity also provided a range of new issues for Indian peoples to engage, including, in particular, the growing influence of church-run schools.

Photo of Indian Association of Alberta representatives in front of Parliament.

Indian Association of Alberta representatives in front of Parliament.

Left to right: Mark E. Steinhauer, Saddle Lake; Ed Hunter, Morley; Albert Lightning, Hobbema; John Callihoo, Villeneuve; Frank Cardinal, Driftpile. The Indian Association of Alberta was founded in 1939.
GA (NA-73-1).

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge

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