Alex Decoteau: Difficult beginnings, life of achievement


By Cheryl Petten

Each spring, students in Edmonton gather to take part in a five-kilometre race named in honor of Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau. To the children, Decoteau is a role model, an example of what people can accomplish with their lives. And although Decoteau's life was a short one, almost 90 years after his death he still inspires others with his example.

Alex Decoteau was born on Nov. 19, 1887 on the Red Pheasant Reserve near North Battleford, Sask. He was the second youngest of five children born to Mary and Peter Decoteau. When he was just three years old, his father was murdered and his mother, left with no means to support herself and her family, asked that three of her children be placed in the nearby Battleford industrial school.

Peter Decoteau had been employed by the Indian department for many years up until his death, and the department agreed to Mrs. Decoteau's request, and young Alex began his studies at the industrial school.

Decoteau was a good student and an exceptional athlete. He excelled at a number of sports, including boxing, cricket and soccer. He also demonstrated his ability as a runner.

When he finished school, Decoteau moved to Edmonton where a job awaited him in a machine shop owned by his brother-in-law. He also continued to run, and soon made a name for himself as a middle and long-distance runner.

He ran his first competitive race in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. in May 1909 and came in second. He had greater success in his next race the following month, a five-mile race held during the Edmonton Exhibition. But it would be his next race that would make people sit up and take notice. It was the Mayberry Cup in Lloydminster, located on the Saskatchewan/Alberta border, another five-mile race. When he'd crossed the finish line that day in July, Decoteau had set a new western Canadian record, finishing in 27 minutes, 45.2 seconds.

In 1909, Decoteau left the machine shop for a career in policing. He joined the city of Edmonton's police force, becoming Canada's first Aboriginal police officer. And he continued to run and to win.

In 1910, he entered the Alberta provincial championships held in Lethbridge. Decoteau competed in four events-the half-mile, one-mile, two-mile and five-mile races-and took first place in each of them.

His list of racing accomplishments includes winning the Calgary Herald's Christmas Day Road Race three times, the Hon. C.W. Cross Challenge Cup in Edmonton five times, and the annual 10-mile race in Fort Saskatchewan three times.

In 1912, Decoteau was given a leave from his policing duties so he could represent Canada in the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, competing in the 5,000-metre event. Decoteau finished second in his qualifying heat and in the final was running in third place after the fourth lap when he began getting leg cramps. When the race was over, he had finished in eighth place.

Despite not winning a medal, Decoteau arrived home from the Olympics to a hero's welcome, complete with a parade down Jasper Avenue, right through the heart of downtown Edmonton.
After the Olympics, Decoteau returned to policing. He was promoted to police sergeant and was given his own station. He also continued to run, winning almost every race he entered.

Then, in 1916, Decoteau answered a call to another kind of duty.

He enlisted with the Canadian army in April 1916. He would use his athletic abilities in aid of King and country, serving as a runner in the trenches during the Second World War. The following May, he shipped out overseas with the 49th Canadian Battalion, arriving in France.

In a letter to his sister written in early September 1917, Decoteau talked about his experiences in the war. He spoke fondly of all the people from Edmonton he'd run into in France, and told her about a bout of trench fever he was just beginning to recover from. He asked her not to tell their mother he'd been ill. He didn't see any reason to worry her needlessly.

By the end of October, Decoteau found himself in Belgium, and in the thick of the battle on Passchendaele Ridge. British and Australian troops had been battling at Passchendaele for months, with little to show for their efforts other than mounting casualties.

The battle to take the ridge was an important one to the allies, as the high ground would give them footing to launch attacks on ports on the Belgian coast, under the control of German troops and being used as bases for their submarines. The allied forces launched their assaults from the only part of Belgium they still held, around the town of Ypres. The Canadian troops would try to take the ridge battle by battle, bit by bit.

The Canadian effort was eventually successful, but at a huge cost. By the time the Canadians had secured the ridge on Nov. 10, 16,000 Canadian soldiers had been killed or wounded or were missing. One of those 16,000 was 29-year-old Alex Decoteau, who died in the morning hours of Oct. 30, killed by a sniper's bullet during an attack on the German line.

The bodies of some of those who fell at Passchendaele were never recovered but were instead claimed by the mud of the battlefield. Those who were recovered lie in a number of cemeteries surrounding the battle site, some identified, but many more buried as the unknown dead.
Alex Decoteau was buried in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery north of Passchendaele, alongside 649 other Canadian soldiers killed.

In 1985, Decoteau's friends and family gathered in Edmonton to hold a special ceremony to bring his spirit home. In attendance were members of the Red Pheasant band council, First Nations veterans, representatives from the Canadian Armed Forces and a 10-member honor guard from the Edmonton Police Service. A drum group performed a burial song, then a piper from the police department played Amazing Grace.

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, the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame and the Saskatchewan First Nations Sport Hall of Fame. He was also named one of the 100 Edmontonians of the Century as part of that city's centennial celebrations being held this year.

He passed away on Oct. 30, 1917