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Parks Canada program recognizes heroism of decorated Indigenous veteran Tommy Prince, and injustice he faced

His bravery earned him a dozen medals. Among them, Tommy Prince was decorated by King George VI at Buckingham Palace with both the Military Medal and, on behalf of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Silver Star.

Family members and dignitaries celebrate the unveiling of a plaque in honour of decorated war hero Tommy Prince. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Of all his daring feats, one of the boldest may have been the time that Tommy Prince — one of Canada’s most renowned war heroes — tied his shoelaces. 

At least, that’s what the German soldiers thought the unassuming man, dressed like a farmer, was doing.

In the midst of the Second World War, Prince posed as an everyday civilian, looking over a field ravaged by shelling. When he leaned down — seemingly to tie his shoelaces — he was, in fact, repairing a vital communication line.

Acts of bravery like that — both in the military and his life after — are why Prince was honoured Saturday at a grand celebration.

‘He fought for freedoms and rights’

These heroic tales deserve to be shared, said White Spotted Horse, who helped organize the event at Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site, just north of Winnipeg, to celebrate the life of Prince, an Anishnaabe activist and war hero originally from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Manitoba.

The event, hosted by Parks Canada, Treaty 1 First Nations and the Canadian Armed Forces, was attended by hundreds of people.

Though highly decorated for his service during the Second World War and the Korean War, “he eventually was starting to be forgotten in this country, except from the Indigenous community,” where he attained near-mythological status, White Spotted Horse said.

He is the latest addition to Parks Canada’s Hometown Heroes program, which recognizes people who made major contributions to Canada’s wartime efforts.

Sergeant Tommy Prince’s bravery earned him a dozen medals, including battle honours for service in Korea with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. (PPCLI Museum and Archives in Calgary )

Saturday’s event included the firing of a historic cannon, a military parade, ceremonial hand drumming and a military flyby.

Prince has been recognized before — on roadways and through scholarships and programs, for example — but events like Saturday’s matter just the same, says his son, Thomas Prince Jr.

“I wouldn’t miss them for the world.”

Tommy Prince’s bravery earned him a dozen medals. Among them, Prince was decorated by King George VI at Buckingham Palace with both the Military Medal and, on behalf of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Silver Star.

He was also known for his stealth — in addition to pretending to be a farmer, he was known to sneak into an enemy camp to take something small, like a pair of shoes, to make his presence known.

When he returned to civilian life, though, he was at times treated like a second-class citizen, White Spotted Horse said in an interview with CBC Manitoba’s Weekend Morning Show host Nadia Kidwai, adding many other Indigenous veterans had similar experiences.

“He fought for freedoms and rights, but he didn’t receive it,” White Spotted Horse said, “so he was an activist.”

Saturday’s ceremony was attended by Prince’s son, Thomas Prince Jr. (Travis Golby/CBC)

His return to civilian life was difficult, and by the time of Prince’s death in 1977, the decorated war hero was homeless.

“Sgt. Tommy Prince represents the story of many Indigenous veterans who were not treated equitably when they came back from the foreign battlefields, facing oftentimes discrimination, illness and poverty,” said Ray Coutu, event director for Parks Canada.

‘Telling the truth’

He said the Hometown Heroes program is a way to not just celebrate accomplished people, but to also acknowledge instances where the country, and society, let them down. 

“This is an opportunity to tell both sides of the story and to invite people to walk the path of healing,” Coutu said, “which starts by telling the truth of what happened.”

Prince Jr. said the government needs to do more for veterans today as well. Those who have served in the military need to be provided with medical treatment, a full pension and housing, he argued after the ceremony.

“These veterans have to be recognized and given proper treatment, so once again, government steps up to the plate.”

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