Welcome back to our Letters from the Past series, in which we enliven the epigrams of Edmontonians!
This month we bring you our first letter from Alex Decoteau, a First Nations man who was born on the Red Pheasant reserve near North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and moved to Edmonton as an adult. In his thirty years on the planet, short compared to many, Mr. Decoteau lived an extremely accomplished life from any perspective.
In 1911, Decoteau joined the Edmonton Police Service as a constable; he was the first Aboriginal person in Canada to hold this position.
All the while, from 1900-1916, he was becoming more and more known for his impressive running career, winning many middle- and long-distance races across Alberta. In 1912, Decoteau was the only Albertan on the Canadian Olympics team at the games in Stockholm, Sweden, running in the 5,000 metre race. Unfortunately, due to severe leg cramps during the race he didn’t place as high as many expected him to, finishing in eighth place.
Upon his return to Edmonton, Decoteau was promoted to Sergeant with the E.P.S. and ran a police station. In this role, he also became Canada’s first motorcycle policeman.
In 1916, bound by what he felt was his civic duty, Decoteau enlisted with the Canadian Army to fight in the Great War. He fought first with the 202nd Infantry Battalion and later with the 49th Battalion. On October 17, 1917, Alex Decoteau was killed in action.
In addition to having so many accomplishments under his belt, Decoteau was known as a kind and generous man who always thought of his friends and family, as well as a dedicated civil servant who loved Edmonton and its people. In the letter below, sent to a friend, all of this is illuminated¦
Dear Dave: –
Like most friends, I write only when in trouble, or when looking for favors. But I couldn’t think of any one else with whom I could trust this little matter. I should have attended to this before I left Edmonton, but I didn’t have the money to do it with. Could you go to the Farney Truck Co. on 101st and see about shipping Mrs. Weltzels (Miss Rice) trunk for me? I don’t know anything about shipping, so I shall have to rely on you. I’ll tell you all the particulars I can. In the first place, the Farney Truck Co. have it in storage on 101st St. It is not a large trunk, and has “Lou A. Rice” marked on it with ink. It is very faint, so you may have some little trouble finding it. Another oversight on my part, I didn’t get a storage check for it. I understand that the trunk will have to be crated before the Railway Co. will take it. The Farney Truck Co. promised to have that done before it was shipped. Mrs. Weltzel wants it shipped by freight to Windsor, Ont. where she is going to call for it. So I suppose it will have to be marked “To be called for” eh? You know she is in Detroit, so it’s only a short trip to Windsor. If there are any papers or receipts to go to her, send them to me and I’ll pass them on.
In case you require her right address, I’ll give it to you, but I can’t trust the Truck Co. They may send her an empty one, or a wrong one.
I hope you are all well at home, and getting enough to eat. Tell the girls, I could eat almost as fast as they can cook. We get very few home-cooked meals down here.
Say Dave, could you give me a job on your farm, harvesting? I’m going to ask for a pass this Fall, and may go to the “Wheat Belt” in Sask. with some of the boys, unless I can find a good place nearer home.
We don’t know what we are going to do this Fall. One hears so many different rumours. Some claim that we are going from here as soon as our “Musketry Training” is over. I’m game for whatever comes. Anything to help finish this D_ War.
I am doing pretty fair in my class as a “Scout”. Of course I have to work & study hard, but it is so interesting that a fellow doesn’t mind.
Here’s hoping this letter finds you all in good health.
Regards to Minnie and all the children.
In his letter, Decoteau mentions “asking for a pass”. The pass to which he refers is a reserve pass, which was part of the Canadian government’s system of regulation of what First Nations people did when off of their reserves. Policies and legislation became much more restrictive after the events of the Northwest Resistance of 1885, after which the government focused much of its effort in breaking up tribal systems and assimilating First Nations people.
Under the pass system, First Nations people were not allowed to leave their reserves without a pass signed by their assigned Indian Agent. These passes held information about when they could leave their reserves, where they could go, and when they had to return. Although the system never passed into formal legislation, it was enforced into the 1940s. While Decoteau was considered an upstanding citizen, he was still forced to obey rules like the pass system.
Although most First Nations people were not legally considered voting Canadian citizens until 1960, many still felt the call to do their part and enlist in both the First and Second World Wars. In 1914, enlisted First Nations men were granted the vote while active, however the right was removed again upon the end of the war in 1918.
Let this letter, and indeed our examination of Decoteau’s life, act as a salute to all veterans, but especially to those who gave so much while receiving so little in return.
Stay tuned for more letters from the past from Alex Decoteau, and in the meantime stop by Fort Edmonton Park’s 1905 Street to speak with an interpreter representing Decoteau himself.
Photo: Alex Decoteau and Alex Latta, ca. 1908. – Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A17343