During the Second World War, Indigenous Cree speaking Canadians were vital in winning the Battle of Britain and to the success of the Allied invasion of Europe, in spite of ongoing racism directed towards them by the establishment.

Inuvik Legion McInnes Branch 220 president Matthew Millet tells the story of the Cree Code Talkers, who helped the allies defeat the Nazis in the Second World War, during his presidential address at the Nov. 11 Remembrance Day ceremony.
Eric Bowling/NNSL photo

Inuvik Legion McInnes Branch 220 president Matthew Millet recalled the story of the Code Talkers, as they were known as, during the Nov. 11 Remembrance Day memorial service, commemorating the 75th anniversary since the end of the war.

“Despite the racial discrimination faced by Indigenous peoples in the armed forces and on the home front, an estimated 4,300 First Nation soldiers and a number of Inuit and Metis peoples took up arms in the Second World War,” said Millet, noting he was drawing his information from the Canadian Encyclopedia. “When Canada declared war in 1939, Indigenous people volunteered in the thousands.

“Indigenous people who enlisted experienced racially biased recruitment policies, with the majority funnelled into the Canadian Army instead of the Royal Canadian Air Force or Royal Canadian Navy. Enlistment in the RCAF at the time was for British subjects of pure European descent until 1942, and in the RCN, for those of pure European descent and the ‘white race’ (sic) until 1943.”

Millet described a number of situations where the Cree language was used to send messages from allied headquarters in Britain to the front lines in Europe, as well as to coordinate bombing targets and other classified information.

Another help the Code Talkers brought to the war effort was that many were fluent in both English and French, making translating between the three languages much easier.

Charles Tomkins (second from the right) served as a Code Talker during the Second World War, sending vital messages to the front lines in Cree, which was unintelligible to the Axis forces who were listening for radio transmissions. Pictured with him are his brothers, from left to right, John Smith, Henry, Peter and Frank.
Photo courtesy the Memory Project/Historica Canada

Unlike a similar effort in the Pacific theatre of the war with Navajo Code Talkers, noted Miller, the contributions of the Cree Code Talkers in Britain has been largely underrepresented in the historical narrative. Millet noted there were only a few takers known to history.

“While Cree Code Talkers provided an invaluable service to the allied forces during the Second World War, a significant number of them remain unidentified,” said Millet. “This is likely because they were sworn to secrecy during the war and uncovering information about them has not been prioritized.

“Of the Cree Code Talkers that have been identified, by Charles Tomkins, most of those were who served with him in his immediate circle. They include Walter McDermott, Peter Tomkins — his brother, John Smith —his half-brother and Archie Plante —his friend.”

Ceremony broadcast

Intertwined with the laying of wreaths, several prayers and the reciting of In Flanders’ Fields, the ceremony was well received by dignitaries and the public.

Chris Garven salutes an old friend after laying a wreath and poppy following the ceremony. Members scoured the cemetery for the graves of fallen veterans to lay wreaths and poppies.
Eric Bowling/NNSL photo

Limited to 50 people to keep within Covid-19 safety precautions, the legion broadcast to the community by means of its Facebook page and the ceremony was emceed by Eugene Rees, with wreathes lain by representatives of the Department of National Defence, the RCMP, the GNWT and Canadian government, the Town of Inuvik, town of Inuvik Fire Department, the Inuvik Firefighters association, East Three Secondary and elemental school, the Girl Guides of Canada and Gwich’in Tribal Council.

Following the wreath laying, several members of the legion set out to the Inuvik Cemetery to lay poppies on the graves of the fallen.

“They shall not grow grow old as we that are left grow old,” said Rees. “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”


Eric Bowling

Covering all things related to the Beaufort Delta, Eric Bowling is your editor for the Inuvik Drum. He came north after cutting his teeth in Alberta. Eric enjoys long walks, loud music and strong coffee.

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