The story of Thomas “Tommy” George Prince, Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal soldier, is both inspiring and tragic. It also underscores the inequality that Aboriginal soldiers experienced upon returning home after risking their lives to fight under the Canadian flag.
Tommy George Prince, born in 1915 on the Brokenhead Reserve in Manitoba, came from a long line of men who were distinguished in battle - family members fought for the Crown in the Red River Resistance in 1870, led the Nile River Voyageurs in 1885, and fought in World War I.
Tommy George Prince - Military Medal and Silver Star Recipient
While at residential school he enrolled in Army Cadets, and felt that first thrill of putting on a uniform. He signed up with the Canadian Engineers in June 1940 and shipped out to England shortly afterwards. The boredom of life as a sapper in England frustrated Prince so he took up running and boxing as an outlet. When the call came for volunteers to join the newly formed First Canadian Parachute Battalion, Prince, longing for some excitement, volunteered and was one of the very few accepted. The Battalion, and the United States Special Force, otherwise known as the Green Berets, formed an elite bi-national unit, later referred to as the “Devils' Brigade” by the Germans. Recruiters recognized Prince as a unique asset due to his intelligence, extreme fitness, skill as a marksman, ability to track, hunt, and live off the land. He excelled in the unit, and quickly earned renown for his bravery, and cunning and audacious attacks on the enemy, behind their own lines, at times right before their eyes and frequently in the dead of the night.
He was awarded the Military Medal (MM) and the Silver Star at Buckingham Palace in 1945. Prince was one of 59 Canadians awarded the Silver Star, and was one of only three of this group who were also MM recipients - and is today recognized widely as Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal veteran. Unfortunately, his contributions to World War II, and later the Korean war were only recognized posthumously from his own countrymen.
After the war, Prince, like many of his fellow veterans, found that life back home had changed as had they due to their experiences on the battlefields. As a civilian, Prince found he was not only no longer treated with respect, but was also not even treated as an equal. He struggled to settle back into life on the Brokenhead Reserve but found it impossible - he wanted something better for himself and for all Aboriginal veterans. He was frustrated and disillusioned by the inequality he and his fellow veterans experienced compared to non-Aboriginal veterans. He believed Aboriginal veterans could be role models for younger people, but the restrictions and discrimination dealt them by Veterans Affairs, such as paying out their grants to the Indian Agent rather than to the individual, stymied them from successfully establishing themselves in businesses. Restrictions within the Indian Act prevented veterans from learning about available benefits and programs. The bulletins, posted in Legion halls, were out of reach to Aboriginal veterans because the Legions served alcohol therefore Aboriginal People were prohibited from entering. Illiteracy rates were high so finding information through newspapers was rarely an option, and radios were a rare commodity.
He was asked by the Manitoba Indian Association to serve as vice-president and chief spokesman; their hope was that a decorated war hero would have some impact in Ottawa. He was again a leader in battle but this time with words and the battlefield was the House of Commons. It wasn’t a perfect fit for Prince because, as a man of action, he soon found the turgidity of life as a political spokesman tiresome.
Disillusioned with life, Prince re-enlisted for the Korean War with the Second Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry where his bravery and strong leadership distinguished him again. But, this gruelling war took its toll on him physically and emotionally. He developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and arthritis in his knees, which made the hardscrabble life of a front line soldier impossible. He was given honourable discharge in 1953.
His life from that moment became intolerable for him as he was subjected to racial prejudice, his body ruined and his mind broken. By 1961, he had spiraled down to poverty and alcoholism. In 1977, Thomas George Prince, the most decorated Aboriginal soldier, died alone at age 62, at the Deer Lodge Hospital for Veterans.
Tommy George Prince was a man who held a great sense of commitment to his country but whose country, in return, did not respect that commitment or the man - not as a brave and courageous soldier and certainly not as an Aboriginal person. However, since his death, he has become a hero and great effort has been made by the Canadian Forces to use his name and heroism to encourage Aboriginal volunteers to enlist. The Sergeant Tommy Prince Army Training Initiative was established by the Canadian Forces in 2000 to increase the number of Aboriginal people serving in the infantry, and in which Aboriginal volunteers receive specialized military indoctrination which takes into account Aboriginal views and values.
If Aboriginal war heroes is your area of intereste, we thought you might enjoy this aricle "Aboriginal War Heroes More than a Few Good Men"
Subscribe to our free, monthly newsletter!