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Memories of the North: Trials and tribulations of Indigenous soldiers

In the early 1970s, I travelled with a friend, Richard, to Thompson, Man., via Portage La Prairie, Man.

In the early 1970s, I travelled with a friend, Richard, to Thompson, Man., via Portage La Prairie, Man.

We stopped to have a rest at the Legion where Richard was a member before we moved on.

Sitting at the bar, I started a conversation with an older Legion member. The conversation started politely enough and abruptly changed with my thoughts on Indigenous soldiers. He denied Indigenous persons ever registered or served in any front. He became somewhat vehement, and Richard intervened and we left.

Because of this encounter I believed this story that Indigenous People did not serve in any Canadian conflicts was supported by the Legion. It seemed that shared company with the Indigenous People was not seen as compatible to Legion members and their desired public face.

At the time, I did not even know my own natural father’s contribution in serving for Canada. I was a foster kid and names of my natural parents were not known or revealed at the time.

It was a soon-to-be retiring social worker that filled in the details of my natural parents with facts that I needed to know in order to be proud of my own natural family and their commitments to their community.

My natural father, John Charles Spence, was a well-decorated soldier. He was a gunner/sharpshooter who would serve in both the Second World War and in Korea. Even with peace declared in 1945, he was sent to many European countries to deal with the possibility of having to fight insurgents who did not favour the turn of events with victory for the Allies.

The men he served with also liked the fact he would shoot deer to supplement the food provided by the army, which was always welcomed.

PTSD was not recognized at the time. It was considered a coward’s emotion. My dad did experience episodes from time to time – once hiding in a ditch in his own home reserve property, thinking he was surrounded by enemy soldiers and refused to move or make a sound while his family was frantically looking and calling out for him within inches of his location.

The Metis soldiers for years were not welcomed to purchase municipal lands and for years relegated to federal railway and highway escarpments. Regardless, whether you were status, non-status or Metis, the looks from some, at the time, were scathing. The Portage La Prairie experience was a hurtful reminder how history is written and found acceptable by the larger society in which we live.

Indigenous people were nearly denied to enlist in the First World War with the federal government not knowing what to do with the people who enlisted at the time, some walking hundreds of miles to do.

In the Second World War, some of the same resistance happened, but the record of help the country received from Indigenous Soldiers could not be denied.

We will join the blonde, blue-eyed boys as defenders of the nation.

In the Second World War, code talkers were trained to warn others of suspicious behaviour of possible intruders on North American soil. We hear of the Navajo code talkers often, but several Canadian code talkers were used as well. Speakers of Inuit and Inuvialuit languages are encouraged to support our Northern borders so close to Russia

Elders have always stated Indigenous languages should be taught by speaking and not by writing and now by computer linguistics. This is a good time to review a call for the use of computer language for learning. If Indigenous languages are codified into computer language, any person capable may be able to decipher the messages to pass on to our enemies.

Perhaps we have learned. A special service was held for Northern Indigenous soldiers on Nov 8.

The Legions have changed in accommodation with great leadership.

The Remembrance Day gatherings have been great and inclusive.

All broadcasts brought in stories that reflected the fears of the young men and women of all colours who fought for Canada.

I thank my family for keeping me in touch with honours to my dad. Weeping in gratitude the whole day.

Thank you all!