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.
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."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."
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.
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.
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.