Research NewsDespite the diverse nature of the status of indigenous peoples in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, their experiences during the Second World War have much in common. Why? What did fighting overseas signify? What were the repercussions for those who stayed on the home front?
Indigenous wartime experiences similar across borders
University of the Fraser Valley historian Dr. Scott Sheffield is currently conducting a comparative analysis of wartime and post-war experiences of the indigenous peoples of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. His research is funded, in part, by a $59,000 three-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
“When we look at a historical issue such as this one with regards to our own nation, it can seem quite unique. But by comparing Canada with other places we can see patterns in settler-indigenous relationships emerge: the similarities hint at structural issues arising out of the British colonial interaction with indigenous peoples globally, and the differences highlight those circumstances peculiar to each national experience,” Sheffield says.
Wars can be catalysts for change, Sheffield notes, and indigenous populations from all four countries had heightened expectations when their soldiers came home from war.
“Contributing to a war earns a group a sense of entitlement, and they all came home seeking to find a way to address that debt, although things weren’t always resolved in the way the indigenous peoples wanted. The negotiating power they earned by fighting for their country was applied to longstanding grievances about land, culture, and identity.”
In Canada, there was major parliamentary review that led to a new Indian Act in 1951, in part because of pressure from aboriginal organizations, veterans groups, and trade unions. Aboriginals eventually got the right to vote in 1960. In the U.S. some aboriginal communities were deemed ready for “equality”, which meant citizenship, but also termination of reservations and parceling out of land to individuals. In New Zealand, Maoris already had the right to vote and sit in parliament before the war, yet their desires for greater autonomy and self-government were not so different from those of the other indigenous populations.
In addition to the post-war ramifications of wartime efforts by indigenous populations, Sheffield, along with his collaborator, Dr. Whitney Lackenbauer from Waterloo, Ontario, and his team of student researchers, are looking at motivating factors that influenced why indigenous soldiers joined the war effort, the varying wartime experience of those soldiers, and the response of the dominant settler society to their presence in the armed forces.
“In New Zealand, the Maori requested their own separate battalion because they really wanted to win some recognition and respect. In Canada, there were no race-based battalions but there were some geographic concentrations that saw a large aboriginal presence, especially the prairie-based ones. Most Canadian aboriginal recruits served in the army because the navy and air force had race restrictions. In Australia, there were a lot of aborigines in the air force but mostly as ground crew. Part of our job will be to account for and explain these differences in service and any implications that arose from them.”
The three-year SSHRC grant is funding student researchers (including UFV student Kim Unruh), as well as travel to the other countries in the study, and important new technology. For instance, UFV has purchased a digital microfilm scanner that will allow old microfilmed documents to be turned into PDF files that can be easily shared through the internet.
“My research assistants [are] transferring old Indian Affairs files and newspapers into digital files so that they are available for more people to access,” Sheffield notes. “The new scanner will be housed in our new Centre for Social Research at UFV so that other researchers can use it.”
Sheffield left for Australia and New Zealand on May 3, 2009 to spend time in Canberra, Perth and Wellington conducting research.
Read more about Dr. Sheffield's research.�