Decoteau, Alexander

Decoteau in his track suit with a shamrock which indicates that he was a member of the Shamrock Athletic Club, Edmonton, c. 1912. Source

Alexander (Alex) Wuttunee Decoteau was a famous Canadian Cree Olympic athlete who served in WW1. Born on November 19, 1887, on the Red Pheasant Indian Reserve near North Battleford, Saskatchewan, he was the second youngest of five children born to Peter Decoteau (a Metis) and Dora (Mary) Pambrun (a Cree). His father, who had fought with Poundmaker at Cut Knife during the North-West Rebellion, was an employee of the Indian Department when he was murdered by an American citizen on February 3, 1891. Alexander was then only three years old. He had one sister (Emily) and three brothers (Benjamin, Samuel and Alfred).

Like many members of his band, Decoteau attended the reserve day-school. However, in May 1892, his mother having been left with no means to support herself and her family asked the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs to be readmitted to membership in the Red Pheasant Band of Indians and that three of her children, including Alexander, be placed in the nearby Battleford Indian Industrial School. It was at this time that he developed his athletic skills in boxing, cricket, soccer and baseball as well as in running.

Decoteau was very close to his elder sister Emily (Millie) and her family. After working for some time as a farm-hand, he moved to Edmonton in 1909 where he found employment as a blacksmith with his brother-in-law, David Gilliland Latta. He even lived with the couple for a while. Latta had emigrated from Ireland in 1889. Soon after, he joined the North-West Mounted Police and was stationed near South Battleford. Discharged in 1893, he established a sheep farm and married Jessie Scott who died a few years later in childbirth. Latta sold the farm in 1897 and moved to Edmonton where he worked as a carriage maker and married Emily Decoteau in 1899. The following year, he founded his own blacksmith and carriage shop and partnered with John H. Lyons in 1902. In 1905, Latta was appointed an alderman to the Edmonton City Council. But politics did not appeal to him, so he did not run in the following election. His partner Lyons left him in 1912 to found the Lyons Motors Ltd. As for Latta’s company, it continued on well as the D.G. Latta Ltd.

On January 16, 1911, Decoteau left his employment at the Latta and Lyons Company to join the Edmonton City Police as a constable, becoming the first aboriginal police officer in a municipal force in Canada. Recognizing his diligence and dedication to the job, the police chief promoted him to Sergeant on April 11, 1914 and he was placed in charge of the No. 4 Police Station. He also went on to become the country's first motorcycle policeman.

After moving to Edmonton, his athletic career as a runner blossomed. There was hardly a major middle or long-distance race in western Canada that Decoteau did not win. For instance, in June 1909, he won two five-mile races within six days of each other, one at the Edmonton Exhibition, the other at Lloydminster where he set a new western Canadian record. In 1910, he went on to win the Fort Saskatchewan ten-mile race in a time that was eight minutes faster than his nearest competitor. Then on Christmas day in 1910, Decoteau set the record for the Calgary Herald’s annual 6.33 mile race (on a snow-covered course) at 34 minutes, 19 seconds. He continued to win this race every time he entered it. With his record unbeaten, the cup was permanently presented to him in 1915. And at a provincial meet in Lethbridge, he won the five-mile, two-mile, one-mile, and half-mile races all in one day. Sports writers soon began to refer to him as the “Champion Runner of Alberta”. His running ability eventually earned him a place on Canada’s Olympic team in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden. He was the only Albertan to compete in the games. He qualified in the 5,000 metre heat finishing second but in the final race, he suffered leg cramps and finished sixth in the 56,000 metre final. He was however awarded an Olympic Merit Diploma and a medal for his performance. Undeterred by this setback, Decoteau went on running and setting new records upon his return to Canada.

Following the outbreak of the Great War, Decoteau resigned from the police force to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a private on April 24, 1916. It should be noted that his army enlistment was voluntary – there was no conscription yet in Canada, and when it did come later, his police status would have exempted him. This was also a time when racist sentiment toward Aboriginals in Western Canada was strong and open.

Decoteau first served with the 202nd Canadian Infantry Battalion, also known as the Edmonton Sportsmen Battalion. This Battalion had been raised and mobilized in Edmonton during the winter of 1916. He trained at the Sarcee Military Camp between June and October. On October 4th, while in Sarcee, he made out his will to his sister Emily. Once overseas, half of his pay would have been placed in trust in some bank unless it was assigned to someone. His mother could not read or write, nor was she able to speak English. So rather than assigning his half-pay to her - he was afraid that she would be taken advantage of - he assigned it to his sister, asking her to keep it in the Bank till his return or, if he failed to come back, to keep it and take care of their mother. When he sailed for England with his Regiment on November 24, 1916, he had just over $100 to his credit.

While stationed in England, Decoteau went on competing and winning most service races held overseas. On one occasion, he won the five-mile race during a military sports day in Salisbury, England. But the trophy that was to be presented to the winner was misplaced and so King George V, who was presiding over the event, awarded him his personal gold pocket watch as a prize and Decoteau treasured it the rest of his life.The very next day, he entered another race but discovered that is was a bicycle race. Decoteau borrowed a bike and promptly went out and won that race.

In July 1917, Decoteau joined the 49th Infantry Battalion (Alberta Regiment) which was part of the 7th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division. This battalion served in France and Flanders till the end of the war. Putting his athletic abilities to good use, Decoteau served as a runner in the trenches. His regiment was sent to reconnoiter the enemy front lines and by September, it was still under constant heavy shelling and suffered severe casualties. By this time, Decoteau was becoming war-weary. On September 10, 1917, he wrote to his sister:

Well Sis, in spite of the fact that we are used very decently by the French people, there’s no use denying the fact that we are all aching and longing for our own beloved Canada. Of course there’s work to be done yet and I s’pose will stay till it is finished.

Most of our boys have become fatalists. Their motto is “If my turn comes next, I can’t do anything to avoid it, so I shouldn’t worry.” They don’t worry either. Of course there are lots who suffer from shell shock or nervous breakdown, and they can’t fight against fear, but most of the boys have a keen sense of humour, and laugh at almost anything. I know of one in particular, a corporal. He is the life and wit of our party. It’s the likes of him that make army life bearable, and the army is full of such as he.

By the end of October 1917, Decoteau found himself in Belgium, and in the thick of the battle of Passchendaele Ridge. On October 30th, the 3rd Division met with exceptional German resistance during the second stage of the Canadian assault of the Ridge. In his book “If You’re Reading this… - Letters from the Home Front”, Siân Price describes the scene at Passchendaele on October 30th:

The battalion were training regularly in gas and wiring drills by this time, in preparation for the Passchendaele offensive in the Ypres Salient. It was a unique location, with two armies almost surrounding each other, each refusing to relinquish their lines. At 5.40 am on 30 October, the attack that would cost Decoteau his life began. It was cold, wet and windy. Guns and howitzers created a hellish maelstrom of noise as the Canadians advanced. Eight minutes later, the enemy returned fire with a vengeance, from machine-gun posts and concrete pillboxes. The 49th Battalion were one of the hardest hit, yet still managed to capture Furst Farm. Indeed, overall, the Canadian forces gained up to a thousand yards of the almost three-thousand-yard line. They paid the price, though: 884 men killed, 1,429 wounded or gassed and 8 taken prisoner.

On this single day, the battalion suffered the worst casualties in the whole of its history. Among the victims was the battalion messenger, Private Decoteau, who fell victim to a German sniper’s bullet. He was just short of his 30th birthdate. It is said that the sniper who shot Decoteau took the gold watch awarded to him by King George V but his comrades later killed the sniper, recovering the treasured memento and sent it home to Decoteau’s mother. He was buried in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium.

In 1985, in Edmonton, Decoteau’s Cree relatives and friends performed a ceremony designed to “bring his spirit home”. According to their culture, since he had not had a Cree burial, his spirit had been left to wander the earth. In attendance for the ceremony were band council members, native veterans, representatives of the Canadian army, and a 10-member honour guard sent by the Edmonton Police Department. A burial song to guide Decoteau’s spirit home was performed by Red Pheasant band drummers and followed by a chant of homage. Then paying tribute to his memory, an Edmonton police piper played “Amazing grace”. Decoteau’s spirit was finally laid to rest.

Decoteau's many achievements continue to be recognized and remembered to this day. He has been inducted into the Edmonton City Police Hall of Fame, as well as in the Edmonton Sports Hall of Fame (1967), in the Saskatchewan Indian First Nations Sports Hall of Fame, in the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame (2000), in the Alberta Sport Hall of Fame (2001) and in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (2015). As part of Edmontons centennial celebrations in 2004, he was named one of the 100 Edmontonians of the Century. Each year since 2001, an Alex Decoteau run for students from kindergarten to Grade 9 is held in Edmonton. It is an event that draws attention to a remarkable Aboriginal role model and shows Aboriginal students that they too can achieve great things.

The Edmonton Police Museum and Archives holds a number of his personal and military trophies and awards, many of which were donated by his family, including his medal for participating in the 1912 Olympics and the Calgary Herald trophy which had been permanently presented to him in 1915. Then, in April 2014, the Edmonton Police Service made him the subject of “Legacy of Heroes”, a digital comic.

The City of Edmonton named a park located at the northwest corner of 105 Street and 102 Avenue in Downtown Edmonton the Alex Decoteau Park on September 24, 2014. Then, on October 28th of that same year, a future residential area in southeast Edmonton was also named after him. There is also a Decoteau Way, west of 97th Street and south of 144th Avenue, and a Decoteau Trail which is a walkway running from 80th Avenue to 87th Avenue, east of 184th Street.

Further reading

Photos

Alex Decoteau, his mother Mrs. Pambrun, and Peter Decoteau, circa 1910. City of Edmonton Archives. EA-302-68. Source

Alex Decoteau in police uniform, 1911. City of Edmonton Archives, EA-302-82. Source

This is a rare picture of Alex Decoteau probably taken at the Sarcee Military Camp where he trained during the summer of 1916. Source

Alexander Decoteau’s tombstone in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium. Source

Biographical Record
Full Name Decoteau, Alexander
Also Known As DeCouteau, Alexander
Heritage Cree
Band Location Edmonton, AB (also Red Pheasant FN, SK)
Birth Date 1887-11-19
Birthplace Battleford, SK
Date of Death 1917-10-30
Next of Kin Mother: Mrs. Dora Pamebrum
Married before Enlistment Single
Occupation before Enlistment Police Sergt.
Biographical Notes 1912 Olympian runner, Son of Peter and Mary Decoteau, of Battleford, Saskatchewan
Religion Church of England
Conflict WWI
Service Number 231462
Service Files http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/first-world-war-1914-1918-cef/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=333820
CEF Unit 202nd to (49th Bn)
Rank Private
Date of Enlistment 1916-04-24
Location of Enlistment Edmonton, AB
Age at Enlistment 29
Commonwealth War Graves Commission http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/461212/DECOTEAU,%20ALEXANDER
Age at death 28
Burial location Passchendale New British Cemetery, Belgium
Veterans’ Land Grants reference number 1946-1957 (LAC RG10-B-3-e-xvi)
Identifier 1324