From the Olympics to Passchendaele: Alexander Decoteau’s exceptional journey

Article / November 7, 2017 / Project number: 17-0328

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By Caroline Fyfe, Army Public Affairs

Passchendaele, Belgium — On November 12, 2017, Canadians will participate in the Alex Decoteau Run, a 5K portion of the 16K Poppies’ Run taking place through the historic battlefield of Passchendaele in Belgium. This event is one of many held in 2017 to commemorate the centenary of the battle.

But who was Alex Decoteau?

Alexander Wuttunee “Alex” Decoteau was born on November 19, 1887 on the Red Pheasant Reserve located in what is now the province of Saskatchewan. His Cree father, Peter Decoteau, had fought at the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, during the conflict between Canadian government forces and the Métis and First Nations peoples over land and treaty issues, two years prior to his son’s birth.

The younger Decoteau became the first Indigenous police officer in Canada when he joined the Edmonton Police as a constable in 1911. He was also one of the city’s first motorcycle policemen. Renowned for his athletic abilities, notably as a track champion and long-distance runner, he represented Canada at the 1912 Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm, where he placed sixth overall in the 5,000 metre race.

During the First World War, he left Edmonton to serve with the Canadian Army – then called the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He joined in April 1916 as a Private in the 202nd Infantry Battalion, nicknamed the “Edmonton Sportsmen’s Battalion” because of the large number of local athletes who joined the unit. He was transferred to the 49th Edmonton Regiment and arrived in Europe the following year.

Private Decoteau never stopped training and competing in athletics while he was stationed overseas. After winning a five-mile race in Salisbury, England, King George V, who was presiding over the event, presented Pte Decoteau with his personal gold pocket watch when the designated trophy was late arriving. Decoteau treasured the watch and carried it with him everywhere.

In May 1917, Pte Decoteau’s regiment was sent to France. There, his athletic abilities undoubtedly benefitted him as he served as a communications trench runner.

In a letter sent to his sister Emily in September 1917, Pte Decoteau described the ups and downs of his time in Europe, reminiscing with his comrades and being somewhat homesick. “Many an hour we pass away talking of old times and wishing we were all back home again,” he wrote. “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.”

However, Pte Decoteau admitted “we have lots of fun too. It isn't all hardships and loneliness out here.” He alluded to the fact some of his brothers in arms might have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, then known as shell shock: “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 humor, and laugh at almost anything.”

The next month, in October 1917, Pte Decoteau and his Canadian comrades were sent to Belgium to relieve Australian and New Zealand forces and take part in the final push to capture Passchendaele. Led by Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, the Canadian offensive began on October 26. The Canadians reached the outskirts of Passchendaele by the end of a second attack on October 30 during a vigorous rainstorm.

It was during this offensive that Pte Decoteau unfortunately met his demise, killed by a sniper’s bullet, less than two weeks before his 30th birthday. There are claims, although unsubstantiated, that the German sniper who shot him took his pocket watch and that Pte Decoteau’s comrades later killed the sniper and retrieved the watch, sending it home to his mother.

Pte Decoteau is buried in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery near Zonnebeke, Belgium, alongside 649 other fallen Canadian soldiers.

His accomplishments went largely unnoticed until the mid-sixties, when an Edmonton police officer discovered an old news clipping and started doing some research. Since then, the policeman-turned-soldier has been honoured on various occasions, notably in Alberta. A park in downtown Edmonton was named after him, and he is featured in a comic book created by the Edmonton Police Service.

In 1985, representatives from the Red Pheasant First Nation, First Nations Veterans, Canadian Armed Forces and Edmonton Police Service took part in a ceremony to bring Pte Decoteau’s spirit home from Belgium.

Despite having had it cut short just before his 30th birthday, Pte Decoteau’s life was filled with amazing achievements, culminating with the ultimate sacrifice for his country. His legacy lives on in the Alex Decoteau Run, which will be held in Belgium this November, a century after his death.

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