Indigenous Olympian killed at Passchendaele remains an inspiration to Canadians
Alexander Decoteau, 29 when he died in WWI’s Battle of Passchendaele 100 years ago, was the first Indigenous cop in Canada.
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By the time Alexander Decoteau enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in 1916 and shipped out for Europe, he was already a local hero in Edmonton and a man of many firsts.
The young Cree had become the first Indigenous police officer in Canada when he joined the Edmonton Police Service in 1911, and he soon became one of the country’s first motorcycle policemen.
He was a world-class athlete and had won most major middle-distance or long-distance races there were to enter in Western Canada. In 1912, he’d represented Canada in the Olympics in Stockholm, running the 5,000 metres. In Edmonton, they celebrated his return from the Games with a parade down Jasper Ave.
In October 1917, after landing in Europe, Decoteau was part of the Canadian Corps sent to Belgium to join the final push to Passchendaele, a battle that would become an archetypal image of the trench warfare, muck-soaked misery and human carnage of the First World War.
On Oct. 30, 100 years ago, he was shot and killed by a German sniper.
In Decoteau’s story there is both the horror and appalling cost of Passchendaele, and the sometimes forgotten heroism of Canada’s Indigenous soldiers during the First World War.
When that battle was over and won, more than 4,000 Canadian soldiers had been killed and almost 12,000 wounded. With 275,000 British and 220,000 German casualties, it was among the costliest battles of attrition.
Aboriginal soldiers served there and in every major battle in which Canadian troops fought. It’s estimated that more than 4,000 First Nations men enlisted. Hundreds were killed or wounded and at least 50 Indigenous soldiers were awarded medals for bravery and heroism.
A century on, the story of Alex Decoteau — buried in Passchendaele’s New British Cemetery along with hundreds of his compatriots — continues to inspire.
And it turns out his story was in the process of being forgotten until the most unlikely of events 50 years ago.
As 86-year-old Izola Mottershead of Edmonton tells it, she hadn’t heard a great deal about her grand-uncle growing up. She just remembers all the trophies and medals she used to see in her grandma’s china cupboard, memorabilia her father later inherited.
“You know how it is, when you grow up things are just always there,” Mottershead said in an interview. “But somehow or other, with Alex Decoteau, to me he always felt like he was alive.”
In relating his story, Mottershead said Decoteau’s fame had faded in the half-century after his death. Then, in 1967, a man named Sam Donaghey, an Edmonton police sergeant, had just been promoted and was settling into his new office.
“He was cleaning out a filing cabinet and he found a little piece of newspaper clipping. It was a little story about Alex Decoteau winning a race and how he was part of the police force.
“So Sam started digging,” Mottershead said. “And once Sam Donaghey got digging, so did I.
“One thing just led to another. I thought, Ah, I’ve got to do something about this. This man is too important to just let it go.”
Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau was born Nov. 19, 1887, one of five siblings, on what is now the Red Pheasant Cree Nation near North Battleford, Sask.
His father, Peter, a Métis, was one of Chief Poundmaker’s warriors at the Battle of Cut Knife Hill. His mother, born Marie Wuttunee, was Cree.
When Alex was still a young boy, his father was murdered. His mother couldn’t support the children. So she asked that three of the boys be placed in a residential school nearby called the Battleford Industrial School for Indians.
At school, Alex was a good student who excelled at boxing, cricket, soccer and, of course, running. After leaving, he worked as a farmhand before moving to Edmonton. There, he took a job in a machine shop owned by his brother-in-law, a former Mountie who had married his sister, Emily.
For a time, Alex lived with his sister’s family before moving to his own apartment in town. In 1911, he was hired as an Edmonton police constable. He became a motorcycle cop and was promoted in 1914 to sergeant.
In April 1916, with the slaughter of the First World War raging on, Decoteau decided to enlist and joined the 202nd Infantry Battalion (Edmonton Sportsmen’s Battalion) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
By then, the war had already turned into a stalemate along the Western Front, a 1,000-kilometre network of trenches stretching across Belgium and northern France.
Low-lying and flat, the region was a difficult battleground to begin with. When the autumn rains came early in 1917, it turned into a vast sea of muck, the enemies facing each other across a no man’s land of barbed wire, bombed-out bog and artillery fire.
The Canadians — more than 100,000 of whom would take part in the assault on Passchendaele, sometimes called the Third Battle of Ypres — were shocked at the conditions when they arrived in Flanders in mid-October to relieve troops from Australia and New Zealand.
Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, soon ordered the fresh arrivals to drive the German forces from Passchendaele ridge. Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, objected, fearing an unwinnable slaughter.
Having no choice but to attack, Currie prepared carefully for a phased series of battles. On Nov. 10, the ridge was captured. But much as he feared, 15,654 Canadians were dead or wounded.
When the war began, there had been no official policy in Canada on the recruitment of Aboriginal people, but they were initially discouraged from enlisting, and sometimes turned away.
High casualty rates and the need for troops soon led to new attitudes. By 1915, restrictions were relaxed and Indigenous men recruited. They enlisted at roughly the same percentage as non-Indigenous men, and in some areas in higher numbers.
“They emptied the reserves,” said former Red Pheasant chief Gerald Wuttunee.
Members of Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ont., provided more soldiers than any other Canadian First Nation, with about 300 soldiers fighting on the front. Every man between 20 and 35 from the Head of the Lake Band in British Columbia signed up.
If anything the number of Indigenous volunteers was likely underestimated as Canadian records seldom took into account Inuit and Métis.
Indigenous men brought valuable skills, including the well-honed patience, stealth and marksmanship acquired in hunting. Many became successful snipers and reconnaissance scouts.
For all that, they were treated on their return — as Indigenous people were — as if they “weren’t even human beings” in Canadian society, said Wuttunee.
When Decoteau enlisted, according to his military records, he was five foot 10, 160 pounds, with brown hair, brown eyes and a tattoo of unspecified design on his left arm. (His descendants suspect it was eagle feathers.)
An Edmonton Journal sports editor of the day wrote that Decoteau was still improving as a runner when he “answered his country’s call.” On Nov. 24, 1916, he sailed from Halifax for England aboard the SS Mauritania.
While stationed in England, Decoteau won several sports competitions and once — when a trophy was misplaced — was presented by King George V with his own gold pocket watch as a prize.
Decoteau reached France in May 1917 to serve with the 49th Battalion of the Canadian infantry.
He was killed in action by a sniper at Passchendaele on Oct. 30, while running a message.
The sniper who killed Decoteau reportedly looted his body and took that prized gold watch. But the dead soldier’s friends located the sniper, shot him, and retrieved the prize, ensuring it was mailed back to Decoteau’s mother in Edmonton.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the story of Alex Decoteau “shatters, absolutely shatters, so many stereotypes” derogatory to Canada’s Indigenous people.
The community has taken up the story with pride and it’s “become an important part of our reconciliation dialogue,” Iveson said. “It’s very empowering for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike.”
Now, generations after his death, Decoteau continues to be honoured.
In 1967, thanks to Donaghey, Alex he was inducted into the Edmonton Sports Hall of Fame. He entered the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame a year later.
In 1985, Mottershead, the Edmonton police and Red Pheasant Cree organized a powwow and ceremony at Red Pheasant to “bring his spirit back,” said former chief Wuttunee. “It was one of the biggest powwows ever.”
In 2004, Mottershead published a book on her great-uncle’s life. Ten years later, Charlotte Cameron, an Edmonton native, wrote a one-act play titled Running: The Alex Decoteau Storyfor young readers.
The most recent contribution to Decoteau literature is perhaps its most popular among young people: a comic book created by the police service titled Alexander Decoteau Legacy of Heroes.
On the cover, that famous gold watch Decoteau was given by a king is held in his left fist, brandished like a glittering symbol of what’s possible, even against long odds.
In September, an Edmonton park was dedicated in Decoteau’s honour.
Chris Buyze, president of the Downtown Edmonton Community League, said the organization had been working to get a park in the area. When it was suggested it be named after Decoteau “it made perfect sense given his contributions to Edmonton and to Canada,” he said.
“Where the park is located is where his downtown beat would have been.”
The park is highlighted by a sculpture by Toronto artist Pierre Poussin titled Esprit, a work whose ethereal flow captures the sense of an accomplished runner’s movement and whose title speaks to the ethos of Decoteau’s military background.
Poussin told the Star he hadn’t heard of Decoteau until he answered an open call from the Edmonton Arts Council for design proposals in 2016.
“I started researching pretty intensely,” he said. “His love of sport really spoke to me, and his love of community.”
For its part, the police service saw an opportunity to tell his story as a way of honouring one of its own and building trust with Indigenous and other diverse communities.
Const. Lisa Wolfe, a Métis, former member of the Canadian armed forces and one-time aboriginal recruitment officer for the Edmonton Police Service, hosts an annual “Alex Decoteau Run” for local schoolchildren.
At the run, she and other officers continue “to teach them about who Alex Decoteau is as a role model, a mentor, a war hero.”
The police museum and archive hold a number of his personal and military trophies and awards, on loan from Decoteau’s heirs, including his participant medal from the 1912 Olympics.
In fact, Charlotte Cameron said it was on a visit to the museum about 20 years ago, when she was a teacher in Edmonton, that she first learned of Decoteau and began the study of his life that would eventually lead her to write her play.
“I was just swept away,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe that we didn’t know more about him.’’
For the mayor, the life and death of Alex Decoteau helps Canadians understand the scale of loss to the country at Passchendaele “when so many people perished, among them really extraordinary people.”
A century on, the mayor said, “we can only imagine what else might he have done.”