Welcome back! We continue our series following one of Edmonton’s more famous sons, Cree running champion and policeman Alex Decoteau. It has been 3 months since his last letter. The warm relationship with his sibling makes for a letter that is a distinct pleasure to read!
In the early years of the First World War, the Sarcee Camp, located in Calgary, was the only training area in Alberta for the Canadian Militia. The land was leased from the Sarcee Indian reserve by the Canadian Militia in the summer of 1914 and was used throughout the First World War to train over 45,000 men from 30 units throughout Alberta. It was one of the largest training camps of its time.
Gerome Garcia, who this past season interpreted Decoteau during his time as an Edmonton Police Officer (pictured), is honoured to bring you Decoteau’s latest letter from the past.
Oct. 4th, 1916
My Dear Sister,
Received your welcome letter yesterday and must hasten to apologize for having neglected you. I have been too busy to write for the past 4 weeks. You know I intended going up to Edmonton the latter part of August but stayed here waiting for my money for over a week and finally had to go without it. I didn’t have enough to take me to Saskatoon as I first intended. You know the Government only paid our fares for 300 miles. So I went to Red Deer, I worked there till the last of September and came back here last Sunday. I struck a poor district as I wasn’t able to get more that $2.00 a day, and believe me I had to work. I was so tired nights that I didn’t even wash myself, but went straight to bed. I suffered quite a bit from rheumatism in my left shoulder too, being out in the rain so much. I had to help in all the chores and it was generally 9:30 or 10 before we got through. Then farmers are generally very early risers during harvest. Sundays I usually was only to glad of a chance to lay down and rest my weary bones. I tell you Sis, it was no picnic.
When I got back to camp last Sunday everything was covered with snow and it snowed all Monday and Tuesday. Today is the first time we’ve seen the sun since coming back, and it hasn’t been any too warm either. I don’t know what they are going to do with us yet. Nobody knows for that matter. I wish I could find out. I was wondering if Mother could come up to Edmonton for a few days if I send her the money to pay her expenses. It would require almost a week’s leave for me to go to Battleford and I’m almost certain that I can’t get a weeks leave. I may be able to get three days, I could easily come up & see you both in that time. If I was sure we were going to stay in Canada for the winter, I wouldn’t worry because I could get longer leave. I wish you would write me as soon as you get this letter and say whether it would be advisable or not to send for her. I could spare about $25.00 if you think that would be enough. I think I’d sooner go without leave and take the consequences as go away without seeing her. I’d have gone to see her before I came back from harvesting only that everyone was so sure that we were not going to England this winter. But since coming back here, all the talk is about getting ready to go across. We heard that the camp was to be broken up about the middle of this month, and now they say that we are to stay here till the first of November and then go across. One hears so many different tales, that it is next to impossible to place on anything. So to be on the safe side I thought of sending for her if you thought it advisable. I have not heard from Alfred since that time, just before he left to go to Sewell Camp. Our Colonel told me that he had received a letter from Alfred’s Colonel and that he was giving the matter his consideration. If I don’t hear something soon, I’m going to make some more noise, maybe they have forgotten the matter.
I don’t think Ben could have enlisted without us knowing about it, because he would have to come through Edmonton, I hope he has not. I think two DeCoteaus are enough for the Army.
We all had to make out our wills the other day, so that looks as if we must be going pretty soon, doesn’t it? I made out my will to you. I have not assigned my money to any one yet. You know when we get to England they give us only half our pay. The other half is kept in trust for us in some Bank, unless we assign it to some person who will keep it for us. So I am going to make over half my pay to you before we leave Canada. You can leave it in the Bank till I come back or (go where I won’t need it). Of course if you should need any of it before I do, I’ve no objection to your using some of it. I suppose the proper thing to do would be to leave it to mother, but then she can’t read or write and I’m afraid they would take advantage of her if they wanted to be crooked. And by the stories going around some poor fellows have a hard time getting what’s coming to them. Of course, Sis, if anything happens to me and I fail to come back, don’t forget poor mother. I haven’t much to divide but I should like her to have a little. I did not consign my (money) pay to her because I figure on coming back and will need some money and am afraid she couldn’t keep my money as well as you could. I hope the tone of this letter has not given you the blues, Sis. My reason for writing this, is because one never knows when the authorities may take a notion to give us our marching orders. The 151st I understand had only 60 hours notice before they left here. One can’t do very much in that time. We might get our orders to move tomorrow and we’d be so very busy packing for the rest of the time that I’d have no time for writing.
Well Sis, remember me to Grannie when you see her. I hope to be able to come up in person and see her before I go.
Am glad to know that you are all well and hope you are doing well in business. I have been pretty well myself since my last letter to you, except that little touch or rheumatism, but then I wouldn’t be in style if I didn’t have it. They all have it down here, more or less. I can’t write you much more tonight Sis, as I’m not a bit too warm. Some nights we have to sleep with our clothes on. They have issued two more blankets to each man, but I was on duty in town yesterday, and so did not get mine yet. We bought an oil stove for our tent the other day but it costs too much to keep it going all night, so it keeps me busy nights rolling over trying to dodge Jack Frost. It wouldn’t be so bad if we had a warm place to eat our meals in, but it’s kind of tough when a fellow had to eat with his over coat on. Oh well I s’pose it will be warmer in the next place.
Oh before I forget, where is Billy Rees now? I didn’t answer his last letter and he hasn’t written to me again. He was thinking of going away to some place then.
Well Sis, remember me to Dave and the children. I do hope to see you all before long, If only for a little while. Be good to yourself and don’t work too hard.
Your loving brother
P.S. Don’t say anything to mother about my making my will out to you. She would be offended. Better let her think I have nothing to my name.
Although very little is currently known where Alex worked while in Red Deer, it is clear farming was a very hard job. There was an attempt in the late 1800s to introduce farming to the First Nations people. It turned out to be a very unsuccessful enterprise, which has been attributed to meddling government policies motivated by misunderstood ‘science’ and paternalism.
For the autumn, however, he was back in the training camp, suffering from the uncertainty that many of his fellows experienced: knowing that their departure was imminent but unsure when the call would come. For many, the waiting was torture, but Alex seems to have kept up reasonably good spirits, at least for his relatives.
In conclusion, Alex was considered good natured and friendly — he could both take and tell a joke. Records show he was considered courageous, dignified and reliable. In his letters to his family and friends he was always concerned of the welfare of his mother and sister. He mentions his own welfare and the aches and pains he went through but always downplays them; just showing that he was more concerned of others before himself.
We’ll continue following Decoteau’s experiences during the Great War over the next year, so stay tuned for more! In addition, keep an eye on our website and YouTube channel as we near November for more content about Edmontonians amidst the trials of the Great War.