Along with his face on the $5 bill, Honour Tommy Prince with Change

Tommy Prince - Image Supplied
Tommy Prince - Image Supplied

A group of Conservative MPs have started a petition to honour Sgt. Tommy Prince on Canada’s next $5 bill design.

It’s a noble gesture, initiated by Marty Morantz (Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley) and James Bezan (Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman) and intended to honour the Prince as “a great Indigenous Canadian who embodies duty, courage, bravery, and patriotism.”

Prince’s life was incredible: it includes multiple tours of duty in the Second World War and the Korean War, receiving the highest medals for bravery, and a lifelong ethic to protect human life — including saving a drowning man at the Alexander Docks in 1955.

Tommy Prince in Korea in 1953.
Tommy Prince in Korea in 1953.

He was a great-great-grandson of Chief Peguis and a descendent of St. Peter’s Indian Settlement (a community removed by the government of Canada in 1907 to what’s now Peguis First Nation). He knew how important land and Indigenous rights were to Indigenous survival, resulting in him advocating post-war for his community (Brokenhead Ojibway Nation) and all Indigenous peoples as chairman of the Manitoba Indian Association — fighting some of the most brutal years of the Indian Act.

At the same time, Prince was a residential school survivor who experienced trauma throughout his life. He was stabbed by a fellow Brokenhead citizen, lost his business due to unscrupulous partners, and suffered permanent disabilities as a result of combat.

He never received veterans benefits on par with other Canadian soldiers, and lived when being an Indigenous person meant you experienced discrimination, racism, and violence on a daily basis.

Prince may have been a patriot, but Canada never returned the favour.

He turned to alcohol in his attempt to escape. He lost his family, his children, his home, and lived in downtown Winnipeg shelters, selling his medals to survive. He died virtually alone in 1977.

The story of Tommy Prince is as much defined by trauma as heroism. Both defined his life.

Honouring him therefore cannot simply be putting his name and face on buildings and dollars, but stopping the very racism and discrimination he experienced — and is still happening.

On Sunday night, I went out with Mama Bear Clan on a weekly patrol. As always, the volunteer group knew what to expect on the last weekend of the month, when Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, and veteran disability pension cheques are paid out.

For most of Winnipeg, the last weekend of the month goes by like any other. For some Indigenous families, it’s fairly unremarkable, too.

For those working downtown, though, it is when many of the most marginalized — seniors, veterans, and those living with disabilities — have the most amount of money they will see for the month.

These are residential school and intergenerational survivors, and people who use wheelchairs and canes to get around, with few family supports due to estrangement or distance.

Virtually all are coping with real-life, ongoing struggles in which escape is the easiest path. This is where alcohol, drugs, and gambling enter.

For the Indigenous community, these are not random people but our elders: aunties, uncles, nookums and mishoms. They need proper housing, healthy food, suitable incomes and proper mental health services that focus on trauma and violence, But, most of all, they need to live in a world that values them.

Without it, you see what we saw Sunday night.

For weeks, I’ve written about the emergency situation in Winnipeg’s downtown and around Thunderbird House, due to the removal of a tent city and slashed city programs and provincial social services. I won’t recount that here.

However, there is garbage and needles everywhere. People are huddled in groups, sharing what they have, especially water. There is open use of drugs and alcohol, with people passed out in the sweltering heat.

Beyond gifting food, water, and medical supplies, Mama Bear Clan offers a medicinal smudge to anyone who wants one.

As we arrive at Thunderbird House, an elder asks for us to smudge and then launches into a long prayer using some of the most beautiful Ojibwa I have ever heard. He is intoxicated but speaks clearly, asking for the Creator to protect every direction, every person, every bird, animal, fish, and being around us. He then says he loves us, and to go in peace.

We thanked our uncle for his duty, courage, and bravery and promised to return.

We should honour Tommy Prince, but I’m betting he would rather us give back what he and thousands like him have never received: change.

Niigaan SinclairNiigaan Sinclair

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in April 2020. Republished with the permission of the author.


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