Near the end of January 1917, a 24-year-old soldier from Cape Croker[i] wrote a letter to his parish priest. He was not an exceptional soldier, in that he earned military recognition through medals[ii], but he was exceptional as he represented a community in the minority and with minimal rights and representation in Canada – he was Indigenous.
Private Bernard Rueben Keeshig[iii] came to the 18th Battalion by way of his enlistment with the 135th Battalion on December 28, 1915, at Wiarton, Ontario. He was transferred to the 160th Overseas Battalion on January 27, 1916, where he served with as it moved to Witley Camp in England. During this time, he wrote a letter to Father Joseph Clovis Cadot. At the time of the letter, he had earned the appointment of Lance Corporal, and his military skills would later be recognized with a promotion to Acting Corporal in April 17, 1917.
As he waited for a posting to active duty at Witley Camp he took a moment to write Father Cadot. His letter reflects several common themes relating to a soldier’s conception of their motivation to enlist and potentially put their bodies and lives at risk for concepts and values relating to nationalism, patriotism, and imperialism.
Letters to Father Cadot
Dear Rev. Father Cadot-
From L. Corp. B.R. Keesig [Keeshig]
Again this writing craze has got my pen and arm going to scribble these few lines to you. I expect these miserable words will find you just in the pink of health when they reach you sitting close by that nice warm stove where you usually sit on [dull] days. It is quite impossible to keep our thoughts from the dear sweet village of Cape Croker.
We certainly would like to be among your good company these evenings, but our duty is here.
Our deepest sympathy goes back every moment to you all for having to undergo the trial of missing your most beloved ones, who are enduring feelings of lonesomeness for you all so dear to us. Love for liberty and for you is all that keeps our pluck. You know that we are here fighting for an ideal. We are not here for glory. There is no glory in our thoughts in slaying our fellowman, [a] human creature in God’s image.
We are not here for amusement. There is no fun in this bloody warfare. We are here fighting for peace for the fellowship in the fullest meaning, for the equal rights of the weak, both for men and for each nation.
It is our duty to defend and to fight for our rights, and it is our share of duty, each and every one of us to do it too.
We’ve all tried to carry out our duty as good Christians and as gentlemen to try and do what we could. What I want it impress on your minds is that if it is our lot to fall on the battlefield and die, we are all satisfied.-It is a great privilege to us to help in this great cause.
For what better cause could a man die than for this noble cause. No matter how long we might live, there is no other way of spending our lives better than sacrificing them for the principles involved in this present war.
None of us will grudge dying, if we accomplish what we set out to do. Our time will have been worth while, for we have done our full duty for King and Country.
I would like to see all my friends coming home again. If we should come through safely we pledge ourselves before God to be better men.-Pray for us dear Father and for a speedy victory. With best wishes,
Your friend,Canadian/Wiarton Echo. February 14, 1917
L. Cpl. B.R. Keesig [Keeshig]
Ironically, this letter expresses these sentiments in an apparent isolation to the differential of political, social, and economic freedom that was contrasted by those of the Indigenous community and that of European derived institutions that ruled itself, with its separate set of rules, norms, and expectations, to that of the Indigenous community.
Private Keeshig was one of many soldiers of Indigenous heritage to volunteer to serve. It has been estimated that one-third of all Indigenous men, aged 18 to 45 years-old enlisted for service. In some cases, they were integrated into their battalions as fellow soldiers, and in some cases specific platoon or companies were formed constituting these men together.
The 160th Battalion being formed in the Wiarton/Owen Sound area of Ontario was no stranger of the enlistment of Indigenous volunteers. 40 men alone, of the 135th Battalion were transferred to the 160th Battalion and there were Indigenous soldiers already enlisted with the 160th.
Keeshig’s letter to his priest is direct in its theme. It many ways it is unremarkable, save for the fact that if one were to strip the author’s heritage from the letter, a reader would think that it had been written by a British subject (Canadian or non-Canadian born). It expresses ideas that are congruent with the common expression of God and Country and the role and necessity of sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice to the State and that values from which it derives it ethos.
Keeshig has a wonderfully disarming line in the letter that speaks to a sensitivity to others that is touching and self-deprecating, “Our deepest sympathy goes back every moment to you all for having to undergo the trial of missing your most beloved ones, who are enduring feelings of lonesomeness for you all so dear to us.” This line is a reversal of the common sentiment sent to soldiers in letters. Keeshig’s recognition of the people at home’s feelings of loss is expressed in a valiant manner. His act of service does not make him immune to missing his loved ones, but as he is involved in a higher cause, that is a “great privilege” to participate in offsets the feelings of lonesomeness and missing. The soldiers’ motivations usurp feelings of melancholy for those at home, and it is those at home that are truly suffering from the separation of their loved ones.
One also gets the sense that Keeshig really likes Father Cadot. He appears to have corresponded with him at other times and Father Cadot sounds like a real personality and a bit unconventional at the time. News articles from the Wiarton Echo from 1914 to 1919 relate this man’s activity – travelling to Midland, Christian Island on many occasions; writing letters to the editor expressing shock at Orangemen activities; and gathering clothes and other items for charity. The St. Mary’s and the Missions web site relates the following about him:
‘He was succeeded in 1904 by Fr Joseph Clovis Cadot, son of a wealthy Montreal Family, who served the mission until 1937. His successful work was noted by all, though not always approvingly. In January 1910, John Ashcroft, reeve of Albermarle Township, wrote to A Southerland, Methodist Superintendent of Missions, “Father Cadot is a man of middle age who smokes, drinks, and drives fast horses, encourages card playing, has fitted up an amusement hall and makes himself generally agreeable to the Indians as well as the whites. He attends all of the sessions of the Indian council meetings and has a prominent say in all their affairs… Some years ago the Protestants outnumbered the Catholics on the reserve; now the Catholics are largely in the majority.”’[iv]
Why then, what Private Keeshig and other eager to participate in a conflict for a country, an Empire, that did not offer them citizenship and the protections, right, and privileges of citizenship when the Indigenous men felt that they had an equal responsibility to exercise the duties of a citizen?
An article from the Owen Sound Sun Times gives some insight:
“He [Lavalley] suspects the predominant reason why so many Ojibway enlisted was pressure from the Jesuit parish priest, Father Cadot, who “impressed upon his parishioners to enlist,” Lavalley said.
He was the priest at Cape from 1904 to 1931, when he went to Saugeen First Nation for about six years.
“Father Cadot even went so far as to shame the people of Wiarton and said ‘If these Indians can enlist, you know, why can’t you? You’re cowards if you don’t enlist.”
In Peter Smaltz’s “History of the Saugeen Indians,” he wrote “When the First World War broke out Father Cadot felt that it was his duty to encourage as many Roman Catholics as possible to go into battle. He was extremely successful.
“The vast majority of able-bodied men in his congregation joined the army.”[v]
One can see the inter-connection between the beliefs of these two men. One expounding the value of duty and one acting on it.
One wonders if the then Lance-Corporal Keeshig had any sense of his transfer to active service was imminent. It was not. It would not be March 29, 1918 he would arrive at No. 2 Canadian Infantry Base Depot at Etaples, France. He then transferred to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp on April 3, 1918. He trained and hardened up there until August 8, 1918, when he arrived at the 18th Battalion. 21-days later he was dead.
“KILLED IN ACTION. While taking part with his Company in Operations in front of Arras, he was killed by shrapnel from an enemy shell.”
He was one of 10-men killed in action that day. 70 where wounded.
He is buried at Wancourt British Cemetery, along with 21 of his 18th Battalion comrades.
Private R.B. Keeshig’s letter illuminates a specific set of values expressed clearly in his letter and reinforced by his parish priest. One suspects that each man respected each other and the priest would mourn deeply to loss of one of his flock.
[i] Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.
[ii] He did earn a Good Conduct Badge.
[iii] Private Keeshig reverted to the rank of Private before he embarked for service on the Continent with the 18th Battalion.