Origins & Connections to Sport
How does a young man whose life began in Northern Manitoba go on to thrill audiences locally and on the international stage in a decade-long track and field career? This is the story of Joseph Benjamin Keeper, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation born on January 21, 1886.
Joe was the youngest of ten children of Matilda and Arthur Walker Keeper. Much of Joe’s early life was traditionally based on what the family could harvest from the land. The area was rich in fish, wild game, and animals for their fur for trading.
At age 12, Joe was forced to attend the Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba, about 1,000 kilometres away from his home and family. Because of his ability to remain focused even beyond the point of exhaustion, Joe became known for his outstanding athletic abilities and excelled in the most physically demanding endurance sports. This mental fortitude and love for endurance activities steered Joe towards long-distance running for which he developed a passion. His running coach, Reverend Jones, remarked that “Joe was so self-aware when he ran that he could call his own time before seeing a watch.”
Trophy given to Joseph Benjamin Keeper by the people of Norway House in recognition of his sportsmanship and invaluable community contributions.
Courtesy of Joe Keeper
In 1910, Joe went to Winnipeg to start his career training as a carpenter and to further his athletic training at the North End Amateur Athletic Club. In short order, Joe rose to the forefront of the club’s running talent, setting a Canadian record for the ten-mile event in 1911 and positioning himself with two others to attend the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. At the Olympic trials in Montreal, only Joe and one of his teammates made it onto the Olympic team. They were the only two Manitobans on a roster of 36 other Canadians.
Sadly, the Olympic Games in Stockholm posed some unfortunate challenges for the Canadians, particularly the runners, regarding scheduling and bad food. The way the placing heats were scheduled for the 10,000m final over the week meant Joe had to run on each of the four days before the final. Narrowly missing out on the Bronze medal in the 10,000m final, Joe’s time is still on the record books today as the best showing ever for a Canadian at that distance in the Olympic Games.
On his return from the Olympic Games to Manitoba, Joe continued to win races and set records. In the prime of his competitive life, there would be no second Olympic Games for him. Scheduled to be held in Berlin in the summer of 1916, the Olympic Games were cancelled at the start of the First World War.
To serve his country, Joe Keeper enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in May 1916 and by November arrived in England. By February, he was appointed to the rank of Corporal and transferred to the 107th Battalion known as the Timber Wolf Battalion. The 107th was unique in that as many as half of its men were of Indigenous descent. What is even more amazing is that these men readily served our country while not having the same rights to citizenship at home.
Joe Keeper’s role was that of a runner, carrying out the dangerous job of couriering dispatches to and from the front line. In the same way in which he competed as an athlete, Joe performed his job with focus and distinction, earning the Military Medal in 1918 for Bravery in the Field.
Military service did not mean Joe had to give up his competitive running, as sports were a big part of boosting soldiers’ morale. He competed in Sports Day Demonstrations on at least four occasions.
After the war, Joe returned to Winnipeg where he continued to race for a few more years, but by 1921 he stepped away from the local sports scene. He was ready to leave the noise and pollution of city life behind and return to his childhood home, Norway House.
For the next 30 years, Joseph Benjamin Keeper would work at the Hudson’s Bay Company post, raise his family, and make lasting contributions to his community.