Dr. Scott Sheffield was at a payphone in France in the mid-1990s when he made a spur-of-the-moment decision that would not only change the course of his career over the next quarter-century, but would bring much needed global awareness to the historical contributions of Indigenous communities to the Second World War in Canada and other settler societies.
Months earlier, the then-23-year-old history major had applied to multiple graduate programs across Canada, each with a different historical focus. While backpacking in Europe post-graduation, he decided to accept an offer to study at the University of Victoria, focusing on the recruitment of Indigenous Canadian soldiers during the Second World War.
“It’s one of those quirks of fate, I literally made the decision in 30 seconds,” says Sheffield of Chilliwack, now an associate professor of history at UFV.
Sheffield proposed different topics for the various MA programs he applied to; for one, “I was going to look at comparative colonial naval development in the Pacific, comparing New Zealand, various Australian colonies, and Canada in the 19th century, which would have been a very different career path.”
Opting for this path has proven to be Sheffield’s destiny. Initially focused on Canadian Indigenous participation in and experiences of war, he grew increasingly interested in the striking parallels to be found in Indigenous peoples’ experiences in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Today, he is internationally recognized as a top-tier researcher of Indigenous military history. He has penned one solo-authored monograph and co-authored two other books on the topic, as well as publishing numerous articles and book chapters in peer-reviewed academic journals and edited collections.
This year, UFV recognized Sheffield’s life work, honouring him with the 2021 Research Excellence Award. Sheffield is the first faculty member from the History department (and the second from the College of Arts) at UFV to receive the award.
“His work is in equal parts as influential and inspiring in the local classroom as it is on the national scene among Canada’s leading military and Indigenous historians,” said Dr. Keith Carlson, one of Sheffield’s history colleagues who supported the nomination. “Awarding him the Research Excellence Award acknowledges that UFV recognizes his unique contribution to advancing knowledge.”
Becoming an expert on Canadian Indigenous history seems far-fetched considering Sheffield’s background. He was born in Saskatchewan, of European ancestry, and grew up in Cranbrook with limited exposure to and interaction with Indigenous communities. As a child, Sheffield developed a fascination for military history — Canadian military history in particular.
“At the time Canada’s military history was not all that well documented. It really wasn’t until I got to university that I was exposed on a more consistent basis to Indigenous subject matter in my coursework and my readings,” Sheffield said, who attended the University of Victoria as an undergraduate. “And yet, it wasn’t an area that I was initially drawn to as a history student.”
It was during his master’s program at the University of Victoria that Sheffield discovered he could combine uncovering Indigenous history with his passion for the Canadian military. Soon, researching the Indigenous community’s place and contribution to the Second World War became his passion and life’s work.
“Initially, in the 1990s, I was motivated by the fact that there was so little known about Indigenous people’s experiences,” Sheffield said. “And at the time, there were Indigenous veterans’ organizations who were starting to agitate for more recognition of their service and sacrifice, and also around their grievances that they had over unequal access to veterans benefits after the world wars.
“And, that really began to be part of my motivation: to help to raise that experience to a higher profile within the historical discipline, but also within popular culture and Canadian public awareness.”
After dedicating more than two decades to exploring the topic, Sheffield has scaled back his research in this area.
“It’s actually time for some fresh eyes and fresh perspectives and more Indigenous voices,” he notes.
He is currently focusing his research on the experiences of British Columbians during the Second World War.
On top of teaching history courses at UFV, he works and mentors the next generation of researchers. He teaches his UFV student research assistants methods of archival research, retrieving historical evidence through old newspapers on microfilm, as well as interviewing descendants of historical subjects. He wants his students or any British Columbia citizen that comes across his research to understand and appreciate how military history has shaped our modern province.
Naturally curious, Sheffield will continue to dig for information to uncover truths of our past. What and who he will study in the next quarter-century remains to be seen. He’s open to life-altering phone calls like that one long ago in the South of France.