Chief Francis Pegahmagabow, 1889-1952

On June 20, 2015, the Ontario Heritage Trust and Wasauksing First Nation unveiled provincial plaques to commemorate First World War hero and First Nations leader Chief Francis Pegahmagabow. The unveiling took place at Wasauksing Aboriginal Community Centre in Parry Island, Ontario.

The plaques, in Anishinaabemowin, English and French, read as follows:


    Francis Pegahmagabow-ban, gii-Ojibwe-Nishnaabewi Adik gii-doodeman, gaa-ondaadzid maa Shawanaga. Gii-zhaa gaa-maajii-miigaading miinwaa wedi gaaming gaa-yaad ji-ndawaabnjiged miinwaa ji-giimoodzid gaa-ntaa-waakwiid maa Canadian Expeditionary Force netamsing Battalion. Ogii-wiiji-gaabwitawaan 39 Canada-zhimaagnishan eko-nising gaa-miin’goowaad Military Medal gaa-nji-zoong'dehewaad. Aapiji dash gii-gchi-miin’gowzid gaa-nishnaabe-zhimaagnishiiwid maanpii Canada. Gii-bi-dnizi maa Wasauksing gii-shkwaa-miigaading gaa-wiidged miinwaa gaa-ntaawgi’naawaad oniijaan’siwaan. Gii-gimaawi 1921-1925 miinwaa 1942-1945; gii-giigdo-niniiwi 1933-1936. Weweni gaa-dzhindang Nishnaabewiziwin maa Ottawa 1943. Pii dash Pegahmagabow miinwaa giw gaa-niigaanziwaad Nishnaabeg gaa-zhitoowaad Brotherhood of Canadian Indians, ntam gaa-wiidookdaadwaad gii-gchi-maawnjidwaad Nishnaabeg. Gii-naabnjigaazo Gaa-gichi-gimaawid maa National Indian Government 1949 miinwaa 1950. Gii-niigaanzi gaa-baa-dzhindang Nishnaabewiziwin, aapji gwa gii-gchi-nakiitwaad Francis Pegahmagabow owiiji-nishnaabeman maanpii Kiing.


    Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwe of the Caribou clan, was born in Shawanaga First Nation. He volunteered at the onset of the First World War and served overseas as a scout and sniper with the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 1st Battalion. He was one of 39 Canadian soldiers awarded the Military Medal and two bars for bravery. He is Canada’s most decorated Indigenous soldier. After the war, Pegahmagabow settled on Wasauksing First Nation, where he married and raised his family. He was elected Chief and served from 1921 to 1925 and from 1942 to 1945, and as a Councillor from 1933 to 1936. In 1943, he demonstrated peacefully in Ottawa for Aboriginal rights and self-government. That same year, Pegahmagabow and other Native leaders founded the Brotherhood of Canadian Indians, the first national Aboriginal organization. In 1949 and 1950 he was elected the supreme Chief of the National Indian Government. A leading advocate for First Nations rights, Francis Pegahmagabow provided distinguished service to his homeland and honour to the Nishnaabe Nation.


    Francis Pegahmagabow, un Ojibwe du clan du caribou, est né au sein de la Première Nation de Shawanaga. Au début de la Première Guerre mondiale, il se porte volontaire pour servir outre-mer comme éclaireur et tireur d'élite auprès du 1er bataillon du Corps expéditionnaire canadien. Il est l'un des 39 soldats canadiens à recevoir la Médaille militaire et deux agrafes en reconnaissance de ses actes de bravoure. Il est le soldat autochtone canadien ayant reçu le plus grand nombre de décorations. Après la guerre, Francis Pegahmagabow s'installe parmi la Première Nation Wasauksing, où il se marie et fonde une famille. Il est élu chef de bande de 1921 à 1925 et de 1942 à 1945, et conseiller de 1933 à 1936. En 1943, il manifeste pacifiquement à Ottawa en faveur des droits des Autochtones et de l'autonomie gouvernementale. La même année, il fonde avec d'autres dirigeants autochtones la Brotherhood of Canadian Indians, la première organisation autochtone nationale. En 1949 et 1950, il est élu chef suprême du gouvernement national indien. Ardent défenseur des droits des Premières Nations, Francis Pegahmagabow a rendu d'éminents services à sa patrie et honoré les Nishnaabeg.

Historical background

Early life

Francis Pegahmagabow, Canada’s most decorated First Nations soldier, was an Ojibwa born into the Caribou clan on March 9, 1889 at what is now Shawanaga First Nation on Georgian Bay, although he told military authorities in 1914 that he was born two years later.1 He was the only child of Michael Pegahmagabow of the Parry Island band and Mary Contin of the Henvey Inlet band.

Pegahmagabow was raised by relatives and others at Shawanaga First Nation after the death of his father in 1891. He sought employment in the local lumber camps at age 12 and later worked for fishing operations centred on the Mink Islands and Pointe au Baril. By the summer of 1912, Pegahmagahbow’s desire to know more about the Great Lakes and the world around him led him to sign up as a seaman on the Lambton, a 323-ton Department of Marine and Fisheries ship that sailed Lake Huron and Georgian Bay from the Parry Sound base, tending buoys and delivering supplies to isolated lighthouse keepers.2 Although his mother returned to Shawanaga and remarried in 1892, it is significant that Pegahmagabow always referred to himself as an orphan and even told the military that he had no family.3

First World War

One can only speculate what was going through the young Ojibwa’s mind when he rushed to the Parry Sound fairgrounds and enlisted in the 23rd Northern Pioneers regiment on August 13, 1914, just 10 days after Canada entered the First World War. For Pegahmagabow, the hostilities may have presented an opportunity to leave a painful childhood behind and distinguish himself as a warrior in the tradition of his forefathers. So strong was this determination that he wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs after being wounded in the left leg in the fall of 1916, pleading to get back into combat so that he could earn more medals.4

At Valcartier, outside Quebec City, the Parry Sound contingent was amalgamated with several hundred other volunteers from Windsor, London, Sarnia, Stratford and Galt to form the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 1st Battalion, otherwise known as the Western Ontario Regiment. While hundreds of officers and recruits were sent home from Valcartier as surplus and not required for the first contingent, Pegahmagabow was judged physically fit for overseas service and swore an oath to King George V on September 15.5 The 1st Battalion arrived in England later that month and sailed for France in February 1915 after months of training.

Pegahmagabow served as a messenger early in the war, running through heavy gunfire and bombardment to deliver orders and dispatches, as there were no radios. He was also a scout – going out alone, mostly at night, to detect and report back on the enemy’s position and movements. The son of a soldier who served with Pegahmagabow wrote that he often infiltrated the enemy trenches to stand among the occupants just for the fun of it.6 After the war, Pegahmagabow told anthropologist Diamond Jenness that an Elder had given him a tiny medicine pouch for protection before he want overseas.7

He became widely known as a sniper, a job that required staying camouflaged and motionless for long periods of time waiting for a fleeting opportunity to take aim at careless enemy soldiers hundreds of yards away, behind the relative safety of their own lines. It was a task for which men were handpicked not only for their sharp eyes and marksmanship, but also for their incredible patience. Boasting, or perhaps being truthful, Pegahmagabow told reporters on two occasions in 1919 that he had done in 378 of the enemy with his rifle.8

He was awarded the Military Medal in June 1916 for his courage under fire in getting messages through during the fighting at Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy. During the November 1917 assault on Passchendaele, he won a bar to the decoration and then a second bar in August 1918 at the Battle of the Scarpe, where he climbed out of a trench and ran through heavy enemy machine-gun fire to fetch ammunition when his company’s supply had nearly run out and it was in danger of being surrounded.9 He was one of only 39 Canadian soldiers to be awarded the Military Medal and two bars during the First World War.

On the afternoon of August 27, 1919 he received his Military Medal and two bars from Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, at a ceremony at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.10 He was one of 200 returned soldiers who received their decorations that day before a crowd estimated by Toronto newspapers at more than 50,000 people.

The postwar years

After the war, Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow settled at what is now Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, where he married Eva Tronche in 1919 and raised a family of four boys and two girls. Life on the reserve, however, would prove to be far from peaceful for the veteran of four years of brutal combat.

The postwar years were generally not good ones for Pegahmagabow, as he started to suffer a decline in health almost from the time of his discharge. As a result of his apparent physical limitations, his primary employment came from guiding vacationing anglers during the summer months and hunters in the autumn, although he did sail for a time on the 497-ton Department of Marine and Fisheries ship Grenville.

Shortly after his discharge in May 1919, Pegahmagabow was admitted to the hospital in Parry Sound complaining of chest pains. He was finally released after a month of bed rest and the problem was diagnosed as an enlarged heart, likely caused by a bout with pneumonia while overseas. While a doctor advised the Board of Pension Commissioners that he suffered from a 30 per cent disability, Pegahmagabow was initially denied a pension because there didn’t appear to have been anything wrong with him at the time of discharge.11 Finally, in April 1930, the Board of Pension Commissioners awarded Pegahmagabow a 10 per cent disability pension for bronchitis and emphysema. This was increased to 20 per cent a decade later.12

While First World War physicians could adequately repair simple bullet wounds, psychiatry was still in its infancy and they knew little about the manifestations that could result from shell shock and head injuries. Pegahmagabow’s medical records make several references to him being buried by shellfire and being rescued by his fellow soldiers, bleeding from his ears on at least one occasion.

Despite his battlefield heroics, when Pegahmagabow applied repeatedly for a loan under the Soldier Settlement Act of 1919, he was denied because the local Indian agent advised: “I am sure he will never make a farmer and to encourage him to take out a loan for that purpose is only making trouble for himself and the Department in the future.”13

On several different occasions – October 1920, April 1921, August 1922 and March 1939 – the Parry Island band council passed resolutions granting loans to Pegahmagabow to purchase a team of horses to use in clearing his land, and in each case Indian Affairs vetoed the decision, based on advice from its local agent. “I do not feel like taking responsibility for the unfortunate animals that might be put in his care if this loan is granted,” agent Alexander Logan wrote in August 1922, even though by this point Pegahmagabow had cleared 10 acres by hand and built a stable.14

During the 1920s, Pegahmagabow sought the equality and respect he had enjoyed while in the trenches by joining Alpha Company of the 23rd Northern Pioneers militia regiment in Parry Sound, serving as a sergeant and later as the sergeant-major.15 He remained active in the regiment until it amalgamated with the Algonquin Regiment in December 1936 and ceased having a local presence.

It is ironic that while it was war that first brought Pegahmagabow to prominence as a Canadian hero, it took another world conflict to bring him financial relief. After Canada declared war on Germany in 1939, the relatively small Canadian Industries Ltd. Plant at Nobel, north of Parry Sound, converted to the wartime production of military explosives, as it had done during the First World War. At the request of the Canadian government, it also set up a subsidiary company in the same area as Defence Industries Ltd. (DIL). The Company, which was built, operated and managed by CIL, employed some 4,100 workers between 1940 and the spring of 1944. Pegahmagabow became a guard at the DIL plant in 1941.

Chief and Councillor

During the four years spent wallowing in the mud at places like Ypres, Givenchy, Cambrai and Passchendaele, Pegahmagabow had been respected by his fellow soldiers who depended on him for his abilities as a scout and sniper. Race and colour mattered little in the trenches where men relied on each other to stay alive from one horrifying battle to the next. Pegahmagabow returned to Canada unwilling to accept the status quo of reserve life and the overbearing authority of the local Indian agent. When elected chief of the Parry Island band in January 1921, he took an intense interest in trying to correct numerous treaty transgressions and infringements on the land set aside for the band in the Robinson Huron Treaty.

In her study of the relationships between the First Nations communities of Parry Island and Wikwemikong with their respective Indian agents between the world wars, Robin Jarvis Brownlie wrote that the writings of Parry Sound agent John McLean Daly, “depict the leaders as irrational, petty, foolish, and self-serving – a prime technique of DIA officials to dismiss Aboriginal spokespersons. Daly portrayed the grievances they raised as mere pretexts for posturing and self-aggrandizement.”16 In the case of Pegahmahabow, Daly was also able to exploit the veteran’s alleged dementia to undermine legitimate complaints. In a letter informing headquarters about Pegahmagabow’s efforts to get various bands to co-operate on a petition of grievances that would bypass Indian Affairs and go directly to King George V, Daly advised: “I should state that the general belief of whites as well as Indians in this district is that Pegahmagabow is not quite right in the head.”17

Early in his first term as chief, Pegahmagabow alienated part of the Parry Island community by writing to Indian Affairs suggesting that certain individuals be removed from the reserve. He also claimed that, in addition to discrediting council, Daly took sides among the band and discouraged people from associating with him.18 Pegahmagabow survived three petitions to have him removed from office and was then re-elected in January 1924.

Clearly unhappy that Pegahmagabow had been re-elected chief and not looking forward to dealing with him for the next three years, the agent recommended to Indian Affairs that Pegahmagabow be removed as chief, and he probably had a hand in circulating yet another petition. “The general conversation is that Francis Pegahmagabow, the whole time he was chief was causing trouble and going to lawyers and defying the Department and causing the band to be dissatisfied with their lot and the Indian Department’s method of running the reserves,” Daly wrote about a council meeting at which the latest petition was discussed at length. “The band doesn’t want their chief to be going to other bands trying to cause trouble about treaties, which they think the Department is capable of looking after.”19

On advice from Indian Affairs, Daly set out to convince Pegahmagabow that he had become “unpopular” and secure his resignation. Pegahmagabow finally quit in August 1925, although he was returned to office for a three-year term as a councillor in February 1933 and re-elected as chief in January 1942.

Towards a national Aboriginal leadership

During the 1920s, many Native veterans were inspired by the principles espoused by the League of Nations, such as Lt. Frederick Ogilvie Loft, a Six Nations Mohawk, who, in September 1919, founded and became president of the League of Indians of Canada.20 Shortly after being elected chief of the Parry Island band in 1921, Pegahmagabow met Loft at a gathering in Parry Sound and became enamoured of his ideas.21 The Parry Island band council passed a resolution to join the League of Indians and it wasn’t long after their meeting that Pegahmagabow began his own crusade to unite his band and several neighbouring bands in voicing their common grievances against the Department of Indian Affairs.

He remained outspoken on Aboriginal rights and self-government throughout his postwar life. In October 1943, Pegahmagabow was a member of a national delegation that demonstrated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for the exemption of First Peoples from income tax and conscription. The delegates subsequently founded the Brotherhood of Canadian Indians, the first truly national Aboriginal organization. He became a member of the National Indian Government when it was formed in Ottawa in June 1945 and was elected supreme chief of the organization in 1949 and 1950.

Corporal Pegahmagabow died at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Parry Sound on August 5, 1952.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Adrian Hayes in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2015

1 Franz Koennecke gave March 9, 1889 as Pegahmagabow’s birth date in his biographical entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia and this was confirmed by Pegahmagabow’s daughter Marie Anderson in a personal interview on Feb. 2, 2005. Pegahmagabow’s original headstone erected by Veterans Affairs Canada gave his age at death as 64, making the year of his birth 1888. His Canadian Expeditionary Force attestation form states his birth date as March 9, 1891.

2 Archives of Ontario, MS 137 (vol. 1), Parry Island Reserve Records. This microfilm includes an account of Pegahmagabow’s life, in his own handwriting. Access to these records is restricted by the Wasauksing First Nation band council. The author consulted copies of the original records at the home of Franz Koennecke on Jan. 30, 1999. Mr. Koennecke, who passed away suddenly on Nov. 16, 1999, was employed by the Georgian Bay/ French River Treaty Unit.

3 Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG 150, Acc. 199-93/16, box 7701-23, Personnel record of Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow; NAC, RG 10, vol. 2572, file 116,331-pt. 0, (Reel C-12,787), “Parry Sound Indian Superintendent is Reporting the Death of Michael Pegahmagabow (sic) and he is asking for authority to enter the names of his Widow and Son on the Parry Island Band Paylist, 1891,” Dr. Thomas S. Walton to Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs L. Vankoughnet, May 26, 1891; LAC, RG 10, vol. 9505, (reel C-7168), “Parry Island Robinson Treaty Payments, 1871-1893.”

4 LAC, RG 10, vol. 3181, file 124-1A (Reel C-11,335), Pegahmagabow to Indian Affairs, March 8, 1917.

5 Personnel record.

6 John Macfie, “A Fighting Man Called ‘Peggy” Was a War Hero,” Georgian Bay Beacon, Nov. 11, 1982, p. A-3. Reprinted in Now and Then: Footnotes to Parry Sound History, (Parry Sound: Becaon Publishing Company, 1983,) p.107-109.

7 Diamond Jenness, The Ojibwa Indians of Parry Island, Their Social and Religious Life, (Ottawa, King’s Printer, 1935), p.53.

8 Parry Sound North Star, May, 15, 1919, p.5 and “Prince and Pegahmagabow,” Toronto Evening Telegram, Aug. 28, 1919, p.13.

9 The elusive Military Medal and second bar citations were provided to the author by John Beaucage, who at the time was chief of Wasauksing First Nation. Beaucage purchased a number of official Canadian Expeditionary Force documents auctioned through the eBay website in March 2003. At the time, he said the seller was evasive about how he came to have possession of the documents. The Canadian War Museum could not provide a logical explanation for the documents being in private hands rather than an archival repository such as Library and Archives Canada.

10 “Pegahmagabow is Decorated by Prince Edward,” Parry Sound North Star, Sept. 4, 1919, p.1.

11 Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), Pension file #126927, Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow, Stanley B. Coristine, Board of Pension Commissioners to Dr. Wood, Nov. 28, 1919.

12 VAC pension file, Recommendation for award of pension, April 9, 1930; Dr. G.C. Anglin to Dr. A.C. Rowswell at the Department of National Health, Feb. 19, 1940. Dr. Anglin noted: “I would judge his bronchitis is rather more than when he was last here, but even so it is not in itself grossly disabling. He should be able to carry out many light types of work. Guard duty under reasonably favourable circumstances should not be beyond his capacity.”

13 LAC, RG 10, vol. 7502, file 25022, (Reel C-14,790). “Parry Sound Agency, Soldier Settlement, Francis Pegahmagabow,” Alexander Logan to Indian Affairs, Jan. 5, 1920.

14 NAC, RG 10, Series B-3, vol. 7376, file 16022-17, “Perry (sic) Sound – Band Loan – F. Pegahmagabow,” Alexander Logan to Indian Affairs, Aug. 17, 1922.

15 “Military Notes,” Parry Sound North Star, Sept. 3, 1926, p.1.

16 Robin Jarvis Brownlie, A Fatherly Eye: Indian Agents, Government Power, and Aboriginal Resistance in Ontario, 1918-1939, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.57.

17 LAC, RG 10, vol. 8021, file 475/37-7-8-9, “Parry Sound Agency – Correspondence Regarding the affairs of Chief Francis Pegahmagabow of the Parry Island Band,” John McLean Daly to Secretary of Indian Affairs J.D. McLean, May 25, 1924.

18 Brownlie, p.33. Pegahmagabow once wrote: “Too many non-members, half-breeds and white people on this reserve to contend with.” See LAC, RG 10, vol. 3161, file 363644, (Reel C-11,332), Pegahmagabow to Indian agent John McLean Daly, March 9, 1939.

19 LAC, RG 10, vol. 7927, file 32-22, Indian agent John McLean Daly to Secretary of Indian Affairs J.D. McLean, April 3, 1925.

20 LAC, RG 10, vol. 3211, file 527787, pt. 1, (Reel C-11,340, “Formation of a Canadian League of Indians by F.O. Loft of the Six Nations Band, 1919-1935.” See also Peter Kulchyski, “A Considerable Unrest: F.O. Loft and the League of Indians,” Native Studies Review, 4.1-2 (1988).

21 Parry Sound North Star, June 9, 1921, p.4.