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Brigadier Oliver Milton Martin – Military leader, teacher and magistrate (1893-1957)
  • Brigadier Oliver Milton Martin – Military leader, teacher and magistrate (1893-1957)

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  • By Natalie Flynn, Army Public Affairs

    Ottawa, Ontario — Brigadier Oliver Milton Martin, a Veteran of the First World War, held a distinguished career in both military and civilian life. He set a series of precedents, achieving the highest military rank ever held by an Aboriginal person in his lifetime and also being the first Aboriginal person to be appointed a provincial magistrate in Ontario.

    Brig Martin was born on April 9, 1893 in Ohsweken, a village situated in the heart of the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nations community in southwestern Ontario. One of seven children, Martin left his home community as a teenager and went to find employment in upstate New York. However, a friend’s persuasion and a call to teach inspired Brig Martin to return to Canada and graduate from “Normal School”, which is equivalent to today’s teacher’s college.

    In 1909, Brig Martin joined the 37th Regiment, Haldimand Rifles, a Reserve unit known today as the 56th Field Artillery Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery. In 1916, he deployed to serve in the First World War as a Canadian Expeditionary Force Lieutenant with the 114th Infantry Battalion, the "Brock's Rangers". When the battalion was disbanded upon arrival in England, he transferred to and served seven months in France and Belgium with the 107th Infantry Battalion, the Winnipeg-based “Timber Wolf Battalion”. Both battalions included a sizeable number of members from Six Nations and other Aboriginal communities in the region. Brig Martin survived a gas attack while in Belgium and in 1917, changed paths to become a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps.

    Both Brig Martin’s military and teaching careers steadily progressed throughout the years following the First World War. Upon his return from Europe in 1919, Brig Martin joined the teaching staff at Secord School in suburban Toronto and rose through the ranks to assume command of the Haldimand Rifles in 1930, a ground-breaking achievement for an Aboriginal person at that time. The regiment amalgamated with the Dufferin Rifles in 1936 and Brig Martin became its first commanding officer.

    LCol Robert Christopher, current Commanding Officer of the 56th Field Artillery Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, is proud to acknowledge Brig Martin’s prominent role in the history of the regiment. “We greatly value the contributions of our Aboriginal members, both past and present. Oliver Milton Martin’s pioneering leadership and exemplary career stand as an example of the courage and tenacity that Aboriginal people bring to the military community.”

    While at Secord School, Brig Martin met and married Jean "Lillian" Bunt, a colleague. His ongoing success and dedication as an educator enabled him to then become principal of Danforth Park School in Toronto.

    At the start of the Second World War, Brig Martin was able to apply his experience as an educator to his command, as he managed pre-deployment training for hundreds of recruits. His successes prompted his promotion to the rank of Colonel in 1939 and then to Brigadier the following year.

    Between 1941 and 1943, Brig Martin commanded the 18th Infantry Brigade (based in Nanaimo, BC) and the 16th Infantry Brigade (based in Prince George, BC), two units assigned under Pacific Command, the Canadian Army’s line of home defence along the western coast of Canada during the war. He retired from active service in 1944.

    Brig Martin believed that the crucial role Aboriginal people played in the shaping of Canada should be widely taught. He is quoted in issues of the Indian Missionary Record and The Native Voice from 1954 as saying: “I think the history of our country should be written in such a way as to give the [Aboriginal] people credit for their part in exploration and fishing and the fur trade. The history books should give them credit too, for their defence of British institutions in Canada, and for surrendering this whole country for settlement without the European people having to fight for it.” He also said “I try to teach [Aboriginal people] about the rest of the country and I try to educate the people of this country about [Aboriginal people]. I am in the happy position of knowing both sides.”

    Brig Martin was quite vocal on the topic of Aboriginal rights, saying “the [Aboriginal Peoples] of this country should be treated in every way like other Canadians. I think they should be allowed to vote, since they pay taxes on everything except income earned on the reserve.” To him, the then much-anticipated revisions to the Indian Act implemented in 1951 merely made provisions therein easier to administer as opposed to representing any real advances for Aboriginal people.

    Despite having no formal legal training, Brig Martin left the teaching domain in 1944 and became the first Aboriginal person to serve in the judiciary in Ontario. As provincial magistrate for District 6, he presided over the counties of York, Halton and Peel. His outspoken character and life experience almost certainly aided him in this role and he proudly served the bench until his death in 1957.

    His influence was palpable to many, as Brig Martin was the first Aboriginal person to achieve such a senior rank in his lifetime. He is said to have inspired several family members to enlist for service in the Second World War. Rick Shaver, chairman of the Canadian Military Heritage Museum in Brantford, Ontario and friend of the Martin family, says that “Brigadier Martin’s legacy is profound and continues to resonate and inspire other Aboriginal people, military and civilian alike, until today.”

    Brig Martin was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers’ Decoration for his service and achievements, and the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #345 in Toronto was named in his honour.

    Note: the rank “Brigadier” was replaced with “Brigadier-General” in 1968 when the Canadian Forces were unified.

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