Indigenous veterans stories come to life in new book
- NC Raine | November 11, 2021
From the shores of the small Mediterranean country of Cyprus, to jungle warfare training in Australia, Emile Highway travelled places and made friends beyond what he could have imagined before his 20-year military career.
Highway, a residential school survivor from Southend, Saskatchewan, joined the armed forces in 1962 to learn about the world.
That curiosity took him all over continental Europe and Scandinavia and gave him a lifetime of memories: he was almost shot in the back in Cyprus; he spent weeks in a British hospital after a training accident; he started a family with a woman, Barbara, whom he met in Germany; he broke bread and made friends with Germans, Italians, French, English and Dutch people; he got up early every morning to put in a hard day's work; he learned about cultures and beliefs in different countries, which opened his eyes to the inequalities between white societies and Indigenous people, he said.
Highway's decorated military career is just one of the many stories included in the new book from the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association (SFNVA), onâpêhkâsowiyiniwak kisiskâciwan ohci/Courageous Warriors of Saskatchewan: We Answered the Call.
It gave many veterans an opportunity to tell their stories about why and how they joined up and what happened when they did, said Steven Ross, Grand Chief of the SFNVA.
“Some people walked many, many miles just to join the Armed Forces. It's a very exciting book, and it's good for the families so they can understand what happened to (their family members) who joined the Armed Forces.”
Courageous Warriors is a 79-page book highlighting the stories and military careers of 50 Indigenous Veterans from Saskatchewan. It chronicles a rich, and often neglected, part of Canadian history – with stories from World War II Veterans like Virginia Pechawis of Mistawasis Cree Nation, who enlisted in 1944 at 18, to Veterans like Shaun Wendell Cameron of Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation, who retired as a Sergeant in 2016 after 18 years of service.
“It's been very rewarding. The feeling that the Veterans get when they see the book, when they see themselves, when they see their buddies, when they see their stories. It's a great feeling to have someone recognize you and having these stories finally come to light,” said Ross.
Ross has been trying to get the book, his “pet project,” off the ground for years, he said, but it was finally made possible by a $60,000 grant from Nutrien.
The SFNVA began reaching out to its members in July 2020 asking for contributions to the book. Compiling and documenting the detailed individual stories proved to be a challenge, said Ted Whitecalf, the book's producer.
“We were persistent, leaving messages until they're tired of you. I did a lot of phone and Zoom interviews. Then, once we did the transcribing, we fired that back to them to make sure everything was accurate. When they tell you (of some little town in Germany), we had to make sure we had all the details, all the proper spelling,” Whitecalf said.
“A lot of these Veterans were very humble about it. They don't just come out and boast about themselves,” he said.
Whitecalf, who has published about 20 other books through his company, Sweet Grass Records, was tasked with interviewing, transcribing, and photographing the subjects of the book, which took about nine months to complete. It has since sold about 1,000 copies, many of them to elementary and high schools around the province. It is now on it's second printing.
“It's something that really hit me to my core,” Whitecalf said of working on the book.
“We are so lucky we don't have to (do what these Veterans did). We really take things for granted that these Veterans at the time had to defend our country. Every time I think of a Veteran now, I really want to thank you for defending us, for doing what you believed in at the time. For the rest of us to enjoy today,” he said.
One of the veterans in the book is David R. Gamble of Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation, who enlisted in 1990 and served in Canada for six years, during peacetime. His story, like many other veterans, is a journey of personal growth.
“I was getting into a lot of trouble when I was young, so a cop told me to do something with my life, become a cop or join the army. 'You'll end up in the pen if you don't straighten yourself out',” said Gamble.
“The military taught me a lot of discipline.”
Gamble said he's not looking for individual recognition from the book, but hopes it impacts First Nations and young minds.
“We put the book out so we could teach other First Nations around Saskatchewan and Canada what we did and what we still do, so the younger kids can get information about their families, their grandmas and grandpas. I have a 17-year-old son who is asking me when he can sign up,” said Gamble.
The SFNVA is planning to publish a second book, focusing on the stories of Veterans from the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, who have already passed on.
For Emile Highway, the book is long overdue, and exposes important contributions that Indigenous people made for Canada.
“Reconciliation comes into play here. There can be no Reconciliation until the truth can be known about the history of the country and how it treated its Aboriginal people,” he said.
“We want to rouse some interest and get people asking questions. We want to instill some pride and understanding in the people whose relatives put on a uniform – some of whom died, who never came home. They made the ultimate sacrifice for a country that didn't always treat Aboriginal people fairly.”
Joining the military took Highway around the world – an experience he misses. That distance gave him a profound realization about his home.
“After a while, the answer came to me, that reason why I was there. Initially it was for the adventure and to prove to my dad that I was a man. But it was more than that for us Aboriginal soldiers. I came to realize that I was there not because of broken treaties and broken promises made by governments, that I was there for the love of the land. For that reason, and that reason alone. The land of my ancestors,” Highway said.