STONEY NAKODA – Second World War soldier Joe Poucette stood 5’3”, but to the Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation he is remembered as a warrior who was larger than life.
Poucette was the only Îyârhe Nakoda man to serve in the war. His body remains buried in France, where he fought and died bravely as a rifleman in the Normandy campaign with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade.
“To us, he’s a big man although he might have been even shorter than me,” said his niece, elder Tina Fox. “To us, he stands six feet tall.”
In 1943, Fox was two years old when her uncle, then 19, decided to enlist in the Canadian Army along with his best friend, Frank Kaquitts. Although she was too young to remember him well, Fox strives to keep Poucette’s memory alive from stories passed through generations.
“My grandmother [Poucette’s mother] always said he was a young man who was not afraid to take chances, and he was adventurous. But he was also industrious, and he always made sure my grandmother had piles of firewood to keep her warm in the winter,” said Fox.
“Until my uncle and Frank Kaquitts voluntarily enlisted in the war.”
Poucette did so without first consulting his family, but was met with pride and acceptance by the community after he had secured his position in the Canadian military. A powwow was hosted in his honour and he was given a Stoney name before being shipped off to war.
Unfortunately, Kaquitts suffered an axe injury to his leg after the two men finished 48 days of basic training and two-and-a-half weeks of specialized rifleman training, preventing him from making the trip overseas, and so Poucette embarked on the journey alone.
On June 23, 1944, nearly two months after his 20th birthday, Poucette was deployed to northern France. His unit arrived in the weeks following the invasion of German-occupied Normandy.
The Royal Winnipeg Rifles first landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, where they fought extensively and suffered heavy casualties while driving forces further south to capture the city of Caen.
On the outskirts of Caen, Poucette’s battalion attempted to seize the airport of Carpiquet from German hands in early July and was defended by elements of the 1st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, according to Valour Canada, a nationally recognized non-profit organization which aims to educate Canadians about the country’s military heritage.
Enemy fire claimed the lives of 264 soldiers as they ran across exposed runways before they eventually withdrew.
Allied forces took Caen on Aug. 6, and the mission objective was changed to close the Falaise Pocket, where more than 100,000 German soldiers were escaping France back to German strongholds to the east. Poucette was killed in action during this battle on Aug. 15, 1944. The fighting would lead to 10,000 Germans killed in action and a further 50,000 captured, effectively pushing the Germans out of the majority of France.
Scott Sheffield, associate professor of history at the University of Fraser Valley, has been researching the subject of Indigenous people and the Second World War for nearly two decades. He said Poucette was involved in some of the critical fighting that led to the breakdown of German defences.
“After they closed the Falaise Gap, this allowed the allies to race toward Belgian and Netherlands territory, and the German border in September, where the Germans ended up kind of running out of gas,” he said.
As a rifleman, Poucette would have been on the front lines or “right at the pointy end” of the Canadian Army in Normandy, according to Sheffield.
“Those men, for the most part, weren’t fighting for kingdom and country, or even their families back home – they fought for their buddies, their small unit in an infantry battalion,” he said.
“They were the people you became close with and formed a bond with. That small unit dynamic was really important in terms of motivating men to fight in the heat of combat.”
Sheffield said an overwhelming amount of the status Indian veterans he has spoken to in his research, and read about through written accounts, have said they felt as though the prejudices they experienced back home melted away once they entered the armed forces.
“So many veterans will mention how they were treated like one of the boys – respected based on their abilities, their character and their courage,” said Sheffield. “For a lot of them, that was the only time in their life they felt that way – and that was clearly important for them because veterans will speak about that as a remarkable part of the experience.”
While veterans were equal on the battlefield, it was not the case when they returned home.
The War Veterans Allowance Act of 1932, which lasted until 1936, did not provide the same assistance to returning Indigenous veterans as to other returned soldiers.
When First Nation veterans returned home after serving overseas for Canada during the Second World War, many learned that they were no longer considered status Indians under the Indian Act because they had been absent from the reserve for four years.
“They really didn’t get the same value returning to civilian life as compared to the veteran benefits provided for hundreds of thousands of other Canadian veterans,” said Sheffield.
First Nations were exempt from conscription during the First World War as they were not yet considered citizens of Canada and did not have the right to vote, and yet many still volunteered to fight. It is estimated that of the 4,000 Indigenous soldiers that fought in the war, 300 of them died.
Of the 3,000 First Nations soldiers that enlisted during the Second World War, more than 200 died.
“In the inter-war period, Indigenous peoples were pretty oppressed in Canadian society, by the Canadian government and the Indian Act, so think it always surprises non-Indigenous people that they would have chosen to serve at that time,” said Sheffield.
“There were a lot of people that made that choice, and I think it’s something Canadians largely forgot about until maybe the 1990s – along with other non-Indigenous veterans which really weren’t remembered very well until about that time.”
Some Îyârhe Nakoda men went on to follow in Poucette’s footsteps, enlisting in the Second World War and completing basic training, according to Fox. But none of them were deployed before the war ended in September 1945.
In 1944, Frank Powderface, John Stephens, Sam Powderface, Paul Dixon Jr., George Smalleyes and Dillon Rider all served under the Canadian Army Reserves Wetaskiwin Barracks before they were released from service.
John Mark and Macdonald Chiniquay served under the Calgary Currie Barracks in 1945, but also were not deployed.
From 1950 to 1960, Charles Rabbit was enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy, during the Korean War, which lasted from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953. He was not deployed.
The only Stoney veteran to have seen action and returned is sniper Thomas Labelle, who enlisted in the First World War in 1918. Labelle died in 2018, his final resting place at the Chiniki First Nation Cemetery, about 30 kilometres from Mînî Thnî.
A headstone for Poucette lies in the Wesley Cemetery, between the graves of his brother, Noah, and his mother, Jennie. His body remains buried along with 2,793 other Canadian soldiers at the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery.
Fox said some of the soil from his gravesite in France was collected by a family member who visited the cemetery, returning Poucette’s spirit home to his traditional territory.
“We have and always will revere our warriors,” said Fox.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.