The Life and Times of Francis Pegahmagabow

If there is an aboriginal Canadian who has overcome more adversity and accomplished as much as Francis Pegahmagabow, I don’t know who it would be.Adrian Hayes chronicles the often troubled life of Pegahmagabow, shedding light on the trials and tribulations that plagued this true Canadian icon in “Pegahmagabow: Life-Long Warrior”.Now employed by Transcontinental Publishing, Hayes, whose journey began with his hometown paper, the Parry Sound North Star, is no stranger to native history. His first book, “Murder and Mayhem at Waubamik: The Shooting of Thomas Jackson” afforded him the opportunity to speak first hand with First Nations people in the Parry Sound area. His inquiry into the most decorated First Peoples soldiers during the First World War lead to this second book and opened the door to the compelling story of Francis Pegahmagabow.Hayes’ extensive academic background, with degrees in both history and journalism, is evident in his meticulous attention to detail and facts. Not satisfied with official government documentation, which clearly was inadequate for the time period, Hayes’ pursuit of Pegahmagabow’s elusive biography led him to many sources, including members of academia and of Pegahmagabow’s own family. Any hope of doing this story justice hinged on Hayes’ ability to garner insights and first person accounts from the people who knew Pegahmagabow intimately. Ultimately, Hayes’ dedication to the quest pays off and leaves the reader with an unbiased and untainted account of a hero scorned.For all of Pegahmagabow’s achievements, his exploits as a Canadian soldier in The First World War is by far the most neglected chapter of this warrior’s story. It is here where Hayes’ research challenges emerge. Inexplicably absent from the war diary of the 1st Battalion, the unit Pegahmagabow served almost entirely with during the war, his legendary role as a scout and sniper almost goes unnoticed. If not for the tales told by comrades, stories of unmatched stealth and a lethal eye with his sniper rifle, Pegahmagabow’s legacy as one of Canada’s most artful soldiers nearly died in the trenches of France. Hayes writes, in regard to Pegahmagabow’s status as a battalion sniper, “It was a task for which men were hand-picked, not only for their sharp eye and marksmanship, but also for their incredible patience.” (p.39). By all accounts, Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow is credited with 378 enemy kills and was awarded the Military Medal and two bars for valor. The world was finally made aware of Pegahmagabow’s contribution when the Canadian War Museum was unveiled in 2005. Sadly, it took the Canadian Armed Forces until 2006 to finally recognize him as a soldier of distinction, officially naming a building at Canadian Forces Base Borden in Pegahmagabow’s honor.The absolute strength of Hayes’ thesis, the argument that not only was Pegahmagabow a forgotten and mistreated Canadian war hero, but that he was, more importantly, a leader and activist for aboriginal Canadians, is highlighted in his recount of Pegahmagabow’s return home from the front. This is embodied in the powerful image Hayes constructs, of Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, surging with pride as the Prince of Wales pinned several decorations on him. Hayes writes that this was a moment the soldier would never forget “because after wards he ceased being treated as an equal and went back to simply being an Indian.”The third chapter, entitled The Returned Hero, outlines the struggles Pegahmagabow faced upon his return home to Parry Island. With employment scarce and government programs for returning war veterans grossly inadequate, our decorated hero found “that the horrors of life in the trenches quickly submerged distinctions based on class, religion, politics, or race…” but that life back in postwar Canada resembled nothing remotely close to the equality he felt as soldier in the Canadian army. In an attempt to “better his lot”, Pegahmagabow petitioned the government several times for money to help finance his goal of becoming a farmer but was rejected on the grounds that “he would probably squander it”. Pegahmagabow undoubtedly felt entitled to more than was being offered to him, and definitely resented the Big Brother attitude that the Canadian government exhibited, especially after giving four years of his life in service to a country that now dismissed him. This proverbial last straw galvanized Pegahmegahbow’s perseverance to fight for the rights of all aboriginal Canadians.Hayes is articulate yet straight forward in his reporting of the facts and anecdotes that surrounded Pegahmegahbow’s eventual rise to political prominence and leadership within the aboriginal nation. “Pegahmagabow: Life-Long Warrior” is a resounding success on many fronts but none more so than Hayes’ ability to remain apolitical in the presentation of his findings. The reader is mercifully spared the moral lecture frequently associated with a book of this genre, instead being left to draw their own conclusions and judgements about a man worthy of many.

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