Over the years, Dr. Maura Hanrahan has heard members of the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq community lament the fact that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers served in World War I, but were not recognized as Mi’kmaq soldiers. But how many Newfoundland Mi'kmaq participated in World War I? This basic question has never been investigated.
“I knew that First Nations people elsewhere in Canada enlisted in large numbers and I expected that to be the case here,” said Dr. Hanrahan. “But I was surprised at how high the numbers are: there were at least 150 Newfoundland Mi’kmaq soldiers. It seems like in some communities, like Flat Bay, every eligible person enlisted.”
As Newfoundland was part of the British Empire, most Newfoundlanders joined the British in the trenches or at sea. However, Mi’kmaq country extended from Newfoundland to Maine to the Gaspé Peninsula – provincial and national borders didn’t mean much to the Mi’kmaq. The Newfoundland Mi’kmaq had ties to the Maritimes and so Dr. Hanrahan expected that some of the soldiers might have served in Canadian units.
“Here again, I was surprised at the high numbers which demonstrated the endurance of those ties,” said Dr. Hanrahan.
At the time, the then-Dominion of Newfoundland had no process to register First Nations people. There was no master list to work from, so Dr. Hanrahan’s research had to start from a basic level. She has used materials in the public domain such as community histories, service records and other military documents. She has also photographed the headstones of many Mi’kmaq soldiers who are buried in western Newfoundland.
The goal is to build a database that will list their names and provide information about their lives before, during and after the war: their home communities, service units, next of kin, date and place of death, where they lived if they survived. Dr. Hanrahan hopes to put the database online and get the Mi’kmaq community involved to help fill in the gaps.
“The database, I hope, will be an educational tool for Mi’kmaq and other people,” said Dr. Hanrahan. I hope it will go some way toward making Newfoundland Mi’kmaq history more visible and better understood. I hope the project can enter a later phase during which I would like to flesh out individual stories more and gain a better understanding of the men’s wartime experiences as First Nations personnel. The research will also tell an untold story, one that might have been in danger of being forgotten or at least not widely known.”