For the last year and a half, Grenfell Campus' Dr. Maura Hanrahan has been digging through service records, genealogies, community histories, material from Library and Archives Canada and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. She's been trying to determine which Newfoundland World War One soldiers and sailors were Mi'kmaq in order to create a publicly available registry.
Unlike in Canada, service records in Newfoundland didn’t note if recruits were First Nations members.
“So in the rest of Canada you would have veterans honoured as First Nations veterans specifically, but not here,” says Dr. Hanrahan, who is of Mi’kmaq ancestry.
“People in the Mi’kmaq community have been saying for years that they wish their grandfathers or great-grandfathers were recognized as Mi’kmaq soldiers - in World War One and World War Two as well - so I was responding to that community need,” she says.
But there’s also a much broader reason for her research.
“A lot of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq history has been buried. We don’t know much about it. We didn’t learn much about it in school, and historically there’s such a stigma to being Mi’kmaq,” says Dr. Hanrahan. “This project is one small step in trying to change those things.”
Dr. Hanrahan believes Mi’kmaq peoples joined the war effort, at least in part, in an attempt to be treated as valued members of society.
“Mi’kmaq were a very marginalized community. So it was very hard to get a job if you were Mi’kmaq in Western Newfoundland or in Central Newfoundland…And I think they were trying to prove their mettle, to a degree, so they would be more respected as Mi’kmaq,” she says.
Dr. Hanrahan’s research has identified almost 160 Mi’kmaq soldiers (19 of whom never returned from the battlefield), and she says their level of involvement in the Great War has surprised her.
“It’s higher than I expected. In some communities, like Flat Bay, you had virtually every single eligible person enlist in the war effort in World War One,” she says.
Of course, dealing with century-old documents hasn’t been without its challenges, with many records incomplete, or listing various name spellings - meaning extra work to confirm soldiers’ identities.
The publication of Dr. Hanrahan’s research online (hosted on Memorial University’s Queen Elizabeth II Library website) starting this summer represents a step taken towards recognizing the many contributions of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq in the First World War. It will note where the soldiers and sailors lived, their ages, families and, if available, occupations.
While Dr. Hanrahan’s focus so far has been on cataloguing the soldiers, she says she can see the project expanding in the future to reveal a more in-depth story of the men.
“It might be part of a book,” says Dr. Hanrahan. “My hope is to write a history of the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq and this would be part of it.” - By Elizabeth Whitten