Martin, Oliver Milton

Oliver Milton Martin reached the highest military rank ever held by an aboriginal person. During the First World War, he served in both the army and the air force. And during the Second World War, he oversaw the training of hundreds of recruits in Canada. In his civilian life, he was a school teacher and principal and a provincial Magistrate in Ontario.

A Mohawk from the Six Nations Grand River Reserve, Martin was born on April 9, 1893, in Ohsweken, Ontario. Martin had no taste for the cloistered life of the reserve. So when he was about 16, he left the reserve and took a job at a drug store in Rochester, New York, where he met an American minister who befriended him and persuaded him to return to Canada and finish high school. Martin eventually graduated from Normal school, which enabled him to teach.

His military career began in 1909 when he joined the 37th Regiment, Haldimand Rifles, as a bugler. In February 1916, he took leave of his teaching post and signed his CEF Officers' Declaration Paper as a Lieutenant with the 114th Infantry Battalion "Brock's Rangers" which had been raised shortly before in Haldimand County and the Six Nations Reserve, with mobilization headquarters at Cayuga. The Battalion sailed to England November 1, 1916. In England, Lieutenant Martin was eventually transferred to the 107th Infantry Battalion "Winnipeg Battalion" (AKA Timber Wolf Battalion), which itself was re-designated the 107th Pioneer Battalion. Lieutenant Martin served with the latter seven months in France and in Belgium, where he survived a gas attack. Then, in 1917, he qualified as an observer with the Royal Flying Corps before earning his pilot's wings the following year.

Martin appears to have married sometime towards the end of the war and divorced in the early 1920s, his first wife returning to London, England, with their daughter, Virginia (born 1918). After the war, Martin enrolled as a teacher at Secord School in East York, a suburb of Toronto. In 1936, he married one of the teachers, Jean "Lillian" Bunt, in York, near Cayuga. He then left Secord School and was appointed principal of Danforth Park School in East York, a post he held until the outbreak of the Second World War. As a lieutenant-colonel, he also maintained his ties with his old militia regiment having assumed command the of Haldimand Rifles in 1930, and becoming the first commander of the newly amalgamated Haldimand Rifles and Dufferin Rifles on December 15, 1936. He held this position until the outbreak of the Second World War.

At the outbreak of WWII, Martin oversaw the training of hundreds of recruits in Canada. Martin was quickly promoted to the ranks of colonel in 1939, and of brigadier some time shortly after. In this capacity, his first appointment was to command the 13th Infantry Brigade (June 1940-August 1941) at a training camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake:

It was a sad and sore group of men that piled off the cars in Niagara. It was our good fortune to have Brigadier Martin as our new brigade commander, and he, sensing our condition, was most tactful and kindly. His first inspection of the unit, and his words to the men, won him at the outset our strong friendship and loyalty.

The Brigadier went on to command the 14th Infantry Brigade (Nanaimo) between August 1941 and May 1942, and finally the 16th Infantry Brigade (Prince George) on the West Coast of Canada from May 1942 to July 1943. In October 1944, Martin retired from active service at the age of 51. However, he was named Commander of the 7th Infantry Division of the Canadian Army in the Hamilton-Niagara District in 1945 which had been mobilized in the spring of 1942 and assigned for home defence within Atlantic Command.

After leaving the armed forces, Martin was appointed provincial magistrate for Ontario District 6, which included the counties of York, Halton and Peel, making him the first Native to hold a judicial post in Ontario. In this capacity, he won high praise for his humanity and justice. Although he lacked formal legal training, he never tried to "cover up" in court. When stumped by a point of law, he candidly asked counsel for advice. The Mohawk magistrate served the district until his death in 1957.

He was also a proud spokesperson for the Aboriginal cause. In an article published in “The Indian Missionary Record” (January 1954) and another in the February 1954 issue of “The Native Voice”, Martin is quoted as having made the following statement:

The Indians 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. I think they should have liquor privileges like other Canadians. I had Indian soldiers under my command in both great wars and when they were given the same liquor rights as other Canadians, their behaviour is no better and no worse. Some get drunk, some don't. I think the history of our country should be written in such a way as to give the Indian 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 went on to explain:

I try to teach the Indians about the rest of the country and I try to educate the people of this country about the Indians. I'm in the happy position of knowing both sides.

Brigadier Martin received many awards for his accomplishments. For his 20 years of service in the militia, Martin was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers’ Decoration. In 1953, he and his wife, Lillian, were invited to, and attended, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Martin was a member of the Royal Canadian Military Institute and a member of the Metropolitan Licensing Commission. In recognition of Martin's civic and military achievements, the Royal Canadian Legion named its Branch No. 345 the Brigadier O. M. Martin Branch. The brigadier-magistrate is also a member of Canada's Indian Hall of Fame.

Further Reading

  • John Moses, with Donald Graves and Warren Sinclair. A Sketch Account of Aboriginal Peoples in the Canadian Military. [Ottawa]: National Defence, 2004. Retrieved March 7, 2016
  • Veterans Affairs Canada. Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields. [Ottawa]: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2005. Retrieved March 7, 2016
Biographical Record
Full Name Martin, Oliver Milton
Heritage Six Nations
Band Location Six Nations River, ON
Birth Date 1893-04-09
Birthplace Ohsweken, ON
Date of Death 1957-01-01
Next of Kin Father: Robert Martin
Occupation before Enlistment Teacher
Biographical Notes In October 1944, the brigadier retired from active service. After leaving the armed forces, Martin was appointed provincial magistrate for Ontario District 6, the counties of York, Halton and Peel. He was the first Native to hold a judicial post in Ontario., The Mohawk magistrate served the district until his death in 1957. Brigadier Martin received many rewards for his accomplishments. For his 20 years of service with good conduct in the militia, Martin was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officer’s Decoration., In 1953, he and his wife, Lillian, were invited to, and attended, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II., Today, the East York branch of the Royal Canadian Legion is named the Brigadier O. Martin Branch. Cf. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/public/pages/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/natives_e.pdf
Religion Church of England
Conflict WWI, WWII
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=136404
CEF Unit 114 & 107 Bn, RAF, WWII
Rank Lt., Lt./Col., Brigadier
Previous Military Experience 37th Haldimand Rifles - 3 years
Date of Enlistment 1915-02-09
Location of Enlistment Ohsweken, ON
Age at Enlistment 21
Service History When the 114th Bn was broken up he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, No service number given for WWI
Age at death 63
Other links https://www.veterans.gc.ca/public/pages/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/natives_e.pdf
Photo https://www.veterans.gc.ca/public/pages/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/natives_e.pdf
Identifier 7023