Ken Comeau, a veteran in Hay River, has a family tradition of military service, as evidenced by his photos under the description ‘Comeau Family Veterans and Uncle Cree Code Talkers’.
Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

Hay River’s Ken Comeau is proud of the three generations of military service in his family.

Comeau is a veteran, his father and his uncles served during the Second World War, both in Canada and overseas, and his daughter also joined the military.

The 74-year-old said his relationship with the military goes way back.

“It’s very strong in me today because of the history and the presence,” he said, adding that’s why he sometimes volunteers to speak at the Royal Canadian Legion. “I’ve spoken a few times during Remembrance Day. It’s very important to me.”

During last year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies in Hay River, Comeau spoke about a unique aspect of his family’s service. Two of his uncles from Alberta – Charles (Checker) Tomkins and Peter Tomkins – were Cree code talkers in France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany during the Second World War.

His Uncle Checker was seconded to the U.S. Air Force to help provide a secure form of communications over the radio.

Comeau said the Cree language couldn’t be understood or translated by the enemy, especially because it has so many dialects.

The code talkers were sworn to secrecy and were not released from that vow until the early 1960s. In fact, Checker Tomkins’ family only discovered the secret just before he passed away in 2003, when the Smithsonian Institute became interested in his story after documents were declassified.

Comeau finds it unusual that his uncles were called upon to use Cree to help during wartime when at the same time Aboriginal languages were being suppressed in residential schools.

“I think it’s more than ironic,” he said. “I think it’s a poor time in Canadian history where they denied them not only their language but their traditions, their way of life.”

Comeau said his father and uncles, who have all since passed away, were volunteers and proud to serve.

“They spoke of going into the military because they were proud of their country, even though they were Aboriginals and they were treated differently back then,” he said. “They were denied certain rights, basically, in all ways. But they were still proud of Canada. There were proud to be a Canadian.”

Comeau himself signed up for the reserves in 1963 when he was 17, and joined the regular forces in 1966 as a member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Afterwards, he was sent to Germany for three years during the Cold War and then to Cyprus as a peacekeeper, before returning to Canada in 1969.

Then he joined the Canadian Airborne Regiment’s 2nd Commando Echo Company.

In one of his memorable experiences as a paratrooper, Comeau recalled jumping into the Mojave Desert during an exercise against the Green Berets in the early 1970s.

“I jumped out and I had a parachute malfunction,” he said, explaining the chute only partially opened. “And I was passing everybody.”

Comeau said he was trying to jettison his equipment before opening his emergency parachute.

“But by the time that happened, I had landed. I hit the ground,” he said. “But I had some support even though I was passing everybody.”

Instead of a big canopy, he came to earth under what he described as two bubbles of parachute material.

After landing in the sand of the desert, he got up, found his equipment and carried on.

At the time, his Uncle Jimmy Tomkins was also in the Airborne Regiment as a packer/rigger – the person who prepares the parachutes – and was watching from the ground as the parachute malfunctioned.

“They said they seen me coming down and they were saying, ‘Geez, that might be a fatality,'” said Comeau. “I came down hard, but I had some support.”

Afterwards, he used to tease his uncle about the malfunction.

“I said, ‘Did you pack my chute? Were you the guy?'” he said. “It was back and forth all the time. It was just a big joke.”

His Uncle Jimmy recently passed away in Alberta.

Near the end of his military career, Comeau trained as a firefighter, which eventually led him to the Hay River airport as a firefighter with Transport Canada about 35 years ago.

Comeau said he enjoyed the military lifestyle.

“It was challenging,” he said. “It was interesting.”

Comeau said that his daughter Amber Dawn Horricks, who grew up in Hay River and served in war-torn Bosnia and Afghanistan, recently retired from the military as a warrant officer after serving 20 years in uniform.

“She went up the ranks,” said her father. “She was a really good soldier. So I’m really proud of that fact.”

Comeau, who is a member of Poundmaker First Nation of Saskatchewan, said he is proud of all his family members who served in the military.

“I’m proud of every one of them,” he said. “I think back on every Remembrance Day.”

Paul Bickford

Paul Bickford is the reporter for Hay River Hub.

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