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Joe Keeper: A Manitoba athletic and military hero

Many people don’t think of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Museum when they think of museums in Winnipeg, but they should. This small hidden gem is located on the bottom floor of the new Canada Games Sport for Life Centre on Pacific Avenue and documents our province’s athletic history from the late 19th century to modern times.

Right now the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame is hosting Reflections of the Great War: Manitoban Athletes-In-Arms. This exhibit highlights athletes who fought during the First World War. The exhibit tells their stories through letters, medals, and by the personal accounts of colleagues and family members. There’s no better time to recognize these heroes as the 100th year anniversary of the end of the First World War is commemorated next year.

Joe Keeper is one of the most notable athletes honoured in the exhibit.Joe Keeper photo

Born in 1886 in Norway House Cree Nation, Joe Keeper moved to Brandon to attend a residential school. At this time, Indigenous Manitobans were still regarded as second-class citizens facing racism and discrimination in nearly all aspects of life. Many Indigenous communities were over-crowded, and diseases such as tuberculosis contributed to high mortality rates. Despite these obstacles, Keeper gained positive attention and respect for his athletic abilities and played on his school’s soccer team. His aptitude for sport was noticed in long distance running while he attended school.

Keeper moved to Winnipeg in 1910 to work as a carpenter and became involved with the North End Amateur Athletic Club. In 1911, Keeper set the Canadian record for the 10-mile run with a record-breaking time of 54:50. To put things in perspective, 10 miles (16km) is roughly the same distance it would take to run from Assiniboia Downs to the intersection of Portage and Main. Based on this time, Keeper was selected to be on the Canadian Olympic Team and participated in the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden.

In Sweden, Keeper took part in both the 5,000 and 10,000-metre run. Keeper placed fourth in the 10,000-metre run. This remained the best Canadian result in the 10,000-metre until 2017.

Following the Olympic Games, Keeper continued to run until 1916 when he volunteered to join the military. Keeper spent two years in France, serving as a dispatch carrier for the 107th Pioneer Battalion. In 1919, Keeper received the Military Medal for his brave actions during combat in the French region of Cambrai.

Joe Keeper uniformDuring the war, Keeper remained involved in athletic activities and participated in the Inter-Allied Games. Different types of competitions were carried out often within miles of the front. During the war, the best athletes were regularly matched against Allied teams creating friendly contests. In a race near Vimy Ridge in 1917, Indigenous Canadian athletes Joe Keeper and Tom Longboat teamed up to win Canada the Inter-Allied cross-country championship.

After the war, Keeper returned to Manitoba and continued working as a carpenter, eventually working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Keeper had seven children with his wife, Christina McLeod. He passed away peacefully on Sept. 21, 1971 at Deer Lodge Centre in Winnipeg.

Keeper is still remembered in his hometown, Norway House Cree Nation and by the Manitoba Runners’ Association through a memorial race hosted each year. He is also a member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary. His legacy demonstrates the role that sports can play in building discipline and camaraderie in the military and in overcoming barriers in life.

Joe Keeper is just one of the many incredible stories on display at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. To read more about Keeper and other great Canadian athletes who served during the First World War, visit Reflections of The Great War: Manitoban Athletes-In-Arms from now until January 2019.

By Marlon LaForte

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