Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/7/2021 (327 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Last week, after the Canadian Forces in the United States posted a series of tweets about Sgt. Tommy Prince — my great uncle — I couldn’t stop thinking about him, or about my papa. Two Indigenous war veterans, both heroes, who fought for a country that didn’t even let Indigenous people vote until 1960.
I called my dad to ask about his dad and his Uncle Tom.
My dad has a knack for telling a story. He is animated and spares no detail. He immediately took me for a walk down memory lane to a place I only know from my imagination, when he was a little boy. He shared vivid memories along with stories passed on from his own father. I hung on to every word, jotting down notes so I could piece it all together.
Family lore is that my papa, Colin Donovan Cook (Don, to his friends) was sitting under a tree with his buddy Frank Johnston one afternoon. It was the early 1940s. The two men were young married fathers who had been struggling to support their families. The way my dad tells it, my papa turned to Frank and said "My kids are starving, my wife is starving, maybe I can be making money if I join the army."
Frank said, "Me too," and the pair enlisted for service.
My Nana’s little brother, Tommy Prince, also enlisted in the army. He was turned away several times before he was finally accepted in June 1940.
My grandfather and Tommy had known each other for most of their lives. When they were young, before Tommy was sent off to Elkhorn residential school, they played together.
"He used to ride on this old horse-drawn buckboard out in the fields near Brokenhead and Uncle Tom and all his friends would chase behind him," my dad said with a chuckle, noting that papa was a few years older than Tommy. "My dad would slow down and let the boys catch up, and just when they did he’d hit the reins and yell "Hiyah" and ride off, and there’d be Tommy and all his little friends crying behind the buckboard."
After the war, the men came home, unable to fully shift back into civilian lives. They were heroes, but out of the uniform the equality they experienced on the battlefield faded away. Access to benefits for Indigenous veterans was not equal to their non-Indigenous comrades. If they even received any, the process to retain benefits was mostly handled by Indian Affairs in a way that disadvantaged Indigenous soldiers.
Once, my dad remembers that Uncle Tom dropped by their home in Selkirk unexpectedly. He said a bus driver refused to let him on the bus, accusing him of being drunk. He wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. The driver made his decision, stranding Tommy without a ride home.
My nana was livid. As Tommy settled in for a visit, she called the bus station to give them a piece of her mind. She was shouting something along the lines of ‘Don’t you realize that he’s a war hero?"
The impromptu visit lasted for hours. Papa, Uncle Tommy, nana and my dad sat around the table, talking, laughing and drinking tea. Tommy didn’t attempt to get back on the bus that day. Instead they called him a cab, and he made his way home.
"When he came over, you sure knew Uncle Tom was there," my dad said. "You had to know him to describe why having him there was a thrill. He and my dad called each other niitaa, which means brother-in-law in Ojibway."
In the years after the war, my grandfather was haunted. He never spoke about it in his waking hours — not in his day-to-day life. But every time he closed his eyes and drifted into sleep the war tormented him in his dreams. Every night he woke up screaming, arms and legs flailing, afraid and drenched in sweat. He kept a case of beer under the bed to try to cope with the trauma. My dad, his youngest son, slept in the same room in an adjacent bed. He slept close by so he could bring papa back to life from the nightmares.
In the dark of the night they’d sit, have a smoke and a beer and papa would tell him of the gruesome things he relived in his dream. For the rest of his life my papa couldn’t escape that hell, so he drank as a way to find peace.
"I can’t even share some of the things he told me," My dad said, his voice trailing off on the other end of the phone. "He would say to me ‘I want you to know ‘cause someone needs to know.’"
And now with my platform, I’m sharing these stories because I think they’re important and need to be heard. As we move forward as a country, we need to reconcile with our past, recognize the entrenched systemic barriers designed to segregate and marginalize Indigenous peoples. While we may not have set up the system, it’s our job to dismantle and fix it.
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley Cook is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press and manages the paper's Reader Bridge project, which seeks to expand coverage of underserved communities.