“…Until now, Japanese Canadians have not been treated well here. But this [enlistment] will put future provincial governments in a position where they cannot deny Japanese their rights. As we look to the future as Japanese are establishing their place in Canada, we have no choice but to rise and meet the challenge.”

Iku Kumagawa, soldier in the First World War, 1916

Minority Rights

Fighting for Recognition

Despite the racism they faced, members of Indigenous, Black, and Asian communities volunteered in large numbers to participate in the First World War. Sadly, these soldiers came back to a country largely unchanged on matters of discrimination.

Afro-Canadian Unit, No. 2 Construction Battalion, Windsor Museum

Hover to flip to the back

Captain William A. White

While the Canadian army was not officially segregated in World War One, Black Canadians seeking to enlist were commonly turned away by recruiters. Following two years of lobbying spearheaded by Reverend William A. White, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, an all-Black auxiliary unit, was created in 1916. White, the unit’s chaplain, was one of the only black officers in the British Army.

Hover to flip to the back

Before the war, members of the Japanese community -- even those born in Canada -- could not vote, run for public office or practice certain professions. Upon their return to the country, Japanese veterans fought to obtain these rights. In British Columbia, Masumi Mitsui, a decorated sergeant of the Canadian army, created B.C. Branch No. 9 of the Canadian Legion, to seek veterans' enfranchisement. Japanese ex-soldiers obtained the right to vote in federal elections in 1919, and, after many years of lobbying, the British Columbia legislature gave the same privilege to veterans in 1931. However, that right was stripped in 1942, when members of the Japanese-Canadian community, including Great War veterans, suffered through internment and dispossession during the Second World War.

Canadian Legion B.E.S.L. Japanese Branch No. 9 Flag. C. 1930

Japanese Canadian War Memorial Committee Collection, 2016.5.1.2.1, Nikkei National Museum

Frederick O. Loft and the League of Indians of Canada

Returned Indigenous soldiers were not treated like other veterans. Access to the benefits usually given to veterans (doctors, hospitals, pensions and lands) required the consent of a Department of Indian Affairs agent (DIA), which was rarely granted. Many veterans, like Lieutenant Frederick O. Loft fought back, seeking more rights in exchange for their communities’ sacrifices. Loft funded the League of Indians of Canada, which aimed to claim and protect the rights and lands of the First Nations. In 1927, under the pressure of the DIA, the Indian Act was amended to prohibit organizations from raising money for Indigenous legal claims, effectively cutting the organization’s funds. The League of Indians of Canada was dismantled, but its creation showed the Indigenous veterans’ willingness to fight for equality.

Lt. F.O. Loft, ca. 1914-1918,  Department of National Defense, Library and Archives Canada 1964-114 NPC 3629837