Before Henry Norwest went off to war, he spent some time saying goodbye to his two young daughters.
The girls, living in an Edmonton-area residential school at the time, would never see their father again -- it’s not known if they ever had the chance to hear the stories of his heroics in battle.
This summer staff at the Fort Heritage Precinct are helping keep Norwest's story alive, unearthing some details about the life of the local First World War marksman 100 years after his death.
Norwest was Metis, of French-Cree ancestry. He spent his younger years on the prairies, working as a rodeo performer and ranch hand and eventually becoming a member of the North West Mounted Police force. He was living in Fort Saskatchewan when he joined the war effort, signing up in 1915 with the 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion using the name Henry Louie.
According to heritage precinct historical interpreter Meghan Cardy, Norwest’s first time in the forces didn’t last long. He was discharged for misbehaviour after about three months of service.
“He snuck back in though by enlisting under his father's last name,” Cardy said. “And after that he rose to almost infamy among the Canadian forces."
Cardy speculates that it was Norwest’s time out on the land ranching and hunting that helped make him one of the most remarkable Canadian sharpshooters of World War One.
Norwest had 115 confirmed kills during his nearly three years of fighting in the trenches and fronts of France and Belgium. The sniper also had a habit of heading back into battle when he was supposed to be off duty.
“So the amount of contributions that he made to the war effort could be even beyond what's noted down in official records,” Cardy said.
Veterans Affairs Canada reports that members of Norwest’s unit found the uniquely skilled marksman detached on the battlefield, but kind and pleasant at close quarters. Norwest would have seen countless men around him die of wounds and infections. Three months before the war ended, in August 2018, he was buried in a temporary grave in France, fatally wounded by enemy fire. A fellow soldier paid tribute with a few fitting words on Norwest’s grave marker.
"It must have been a damned good sniper that got Norwest."
Norwest earned a Military Medal in 1917 for his bravery in battle at Vimy Ridge. Later in the war he received another award, the silver bar, for his continued efforts. Veteran Affairs Canada reports that Norwest was one of about 830 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to earn the double honour of medal and bar.
In 2008 Norwest’s name was added to the cenotaph at the Fort Saskatchewan Legion. His memorial is one of the stops on the heritage precinct’s August 15 historical tour of the local cemetery.
“It's great to see people realize that this is an incredible story,” Cardy said. “To see someone who definitely would have considered himself from the area be recognized as a local hero.”
Anyone wanting to sign up for the tour can visit the city’s website.