Star Phoenix – Doug Cuthand
May 8 is the 70th anniversary of VE Day, or victory in Europe. This anniversary brings back memories of the veterans I knew and worked with.
I was an Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations (FSIN) vice-chief for five years and one of my assignments was to assist the veterans organize. Saskatchewan Indians had been signing up and going to war since the First World War, but the real change came during the Second World War.
Our people signed up in record numbers and their involvement was a watershed event.
During the First World War, 107 First Nations individuals enlisted. At that time, there were an estimated 10,000 First Nations people in Saskatchewan.
By 1939, our population had grown to around 20,000 and following the war, the Department of Indian Affairs listed 443 First Nations individuals who had enlisted. Of that number, 27 were killed in action.
For both world wars, First Nations people made a significant contribution.
In November 1981, we held an organizing meeting at the Lebret School in Fort Qu’Appelle. In addition, we also had a Remembrance Day ceremony. There were more than 100 Second World War veterans in attendance and they were joined by veterans from Korea and peacetime duty.
There was Albert No Name from Piapot, who was a survivor of Dieppe. I remember Joe Ewak from Whitebear who was captured and survived several years in German prison camps.
Some enlisted at the beginning of the war and went through D-Day, Belgium, Holland and Germany without getting so much as a scratch. Alex Frank from Little Pine and Henry Langin from Cote were two examples.
I also found there is a sense of brotherhood among soldiers. The vets told me when they took German soldiers prisoner all they wanted was for the war to be over so they could go home. They felt the same as the Canadian soldiers. Soldiers on all sides place their lives in others hands, as Tennyson wrote in the Charge of the Light Brigade, “there’s not to reason why, there’s but to do and die.”
One time an enemy soldier was captured by First Nations soldiers. He thought he was going to be killed. He cried and showed them pictures of his wife and children. They took him prisoner and somewhere in Germany some family has the story of the Indians who saved their grandfather’s life.
VE day was a day of celebrations throughout Britain, Canada and the Commonwealth. However, the veterans told me they didn’t celebrate in that manner. They shook hands and congratulated each other for surviving the war. They felt a sense of relief rather than jubilation.
There was no celebration; just the sense of a job well done. They left behind too many dead in the war cemeteries in Europe. The veterans told me they were exhausted. They left the noise and violence of the battlefields. They carried with them the memories of fallen comrades or enemy soldiers they might have killed or wounded. Many veterans would suffer from post traumatic stress thinking of someone they killed. Some had nightmares from working on burial detail or the liberation of Nazi death camps.
The trip home was anticlimactic as the veterans told me they went back to their reserves and were Indians again. They had been heroes in Europe and liberated several countries, but soon they returned to the stifling life on the reserve.
Others returned to school and found work off the reserve. David Knight from Muskoday worked for Indian Affairs, was a chief of the FSIN and helped found the Saskatoon Indian Métis Friendship Centre. He was later honoured with a crescent named for him in the Silverwood neighbourhood.
Traditionally, we remember the fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day. This VE Day remember that victory came at a terrible price and the war graves in Europe are a constant reminder.
Doug Cuthand writes a weekly column for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix