Some time ago I pointed out the similarities between myself and Paul Gross, the actor/renaissance man who played the fictional Mountie Benton Fraser on Due South, including our devilish good looks. It turns out that I have several connections with another actor who portrayed a Mountie on TV, Tina Keeper. And in the process of this discovery found a fascinating corner of Canadian (and Canadian Olympic) history.
Tina and I are both Manitoba people, of pretty much the same generation (she's the same age as my younger brother). Like Gross, we both played Mounties, her on TV and me in real life. And while Benton Fraser was posted to Chicago, Michele Kenidi (Tina Keeper's character) and I were both posted in the Deh Cho in the Northwest Territories. Lynx River may have been a fictional place but it is based on a community in the Deh Cho region, a partner of mine in Fort Providence even helped with the technical advising for the series.
But like my connection with Paul Gross, my biggest link with her is that our grandfather's were both in the Great War. And its a closer connection. Tina's Grandfather, Joe Keeper and my Grandfather served time in the same regiment, although possibly at different times. They may have known each other, but they certainly would have known many of the same people.
Joseph Benjamin Keeper attested into the 203rd Battalion and went overseas with them as a Cpl. in 1916, but at some point he moved over to the 107th Battalion. The 107th was the Battalion that my Grandfather attested to, and went overseas with before joining a draft for the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion.
The 107th Battalion was originally conceived to be an aboriginal battalion (indeed it had over 500 native members over the course of the war), but quickly began accepting anyone willing to sign up. It recruited heavily in my hometown of Roblin, and the surrounding area and some 60 men from there joined up with them. I was amazed to see so many surnames I recognized, not only from home, but from other places I've been, such as La Ronge.
The 107th, was conceived and started by Lt.-Col. Glenn Campbell, who led it until his death from illness in France. Campbell was a larger than life character from the early days of the Canadian Prairies and Northwest. A fellow, who by rights should be widely known in Canada, but is largely forgotten. When war broke out be was an Indian Agent in Saskatchewan hence the aboriginal connection for the Battalion. That and one of his wives was Native, and he has a number of Native descendants.
But back to Joe Keeper. When the 107th made it to France it was as a Pioneer Battalion (by this time my Grandfather already in France, with the 16th) not an infantry battalion. The Pioneers were workers, they worked with the engineers and built trenches, and roads, and railways and all manner of works. Lest you thing this was safe work, it was done at the front and in the heat of battle. Imagine digging a new trench while being shot at, rather than shooting back. Indeed during the Battle of Hill 70, the 107th not only were credited with saving a number of men from the 10th Battalion, but suffered some 300 casualties (killed, missing, wounded and gassed) over three days.
Corporal Keeper was a runner for the Battalion. Communications, especially in battle, in those days was tenuous at best, and often the only way to communicate between the front and rear areas, or between battalions was by a runner carrying messages (and ammunition and supplies) back and forth. It was a dangerous job. It was also a job that Keeper was made for. You see, Joe Keeper, was an athlete. More than that he was an Olympian. In 1911 he set the Canadian record in the 10 mile run, and the following year he was running for Canada at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games.
Keeper ran in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races in those games. But it was the 10,000 metre race that he shone at. He easily qualified for the final, and in the final finished fourth, the best ever finish for a Canadian in the event. Still. The 1912 games might best be known for the Pentathlon and Decathlon wins by Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest all round athlete ever. The silver medalist in Keeper's 10,000 metre race was also native. A Hopi by the name of Lewis Tewanima. Tewanima happened to to be a team mate of Jim Thorpe's at the Carlisle Indian School.
Keeper continued his competitive running during the war. Back of the lines there were often sports days and competitions run. One of his comrades in the battalion was Tom Longboat, arguably one of the more famous Native athletes. Longboat was an also an Olympian, having run in the Marathon of 1908. Longboat collapsed, along with other top runners during that race. In a makeup Marathon later that year he won the race.
The War Diaries of the 107th make mention of several races that Keeper, Longboat and others from the regiment participated in. Keeper racked up several wins in middle distance running (1 mile, 3 mile) beating Longboat and others (to be fair Longboat was a long distance runner). And he also excelled at soldiering, earning the Military Medal at some point of the war.
After the war Joe Keeper returned to his carpentry trade in Winnipeg. Later he joined the Hudson's Bay Company and returned to northern Manitoba. He retired in 1951, and got to enjoy twenty years of retirement before passing away in 1971 at the age of 85.