Saskatoon Photos

'The first time I had freedom': Spotlighting Sask.'s Indigenous WW II veterans

Zehra Rizvi inspired to track down 3 still-living WW II veterans after interviewing the late Henry Beaudry

Bridget Yard - CBC News

November 13, 2017

Photographer Zehra Rizvi was stricken with how Indigenous veterans were treated after the war. (Zehra Rizvi)

When visiting her home province of Saskatchewan a few years ago, a photographer was inspired to learn more about a handful of remaining Indigenous Second World War veterans, in part because of the inequality they faced after their service.

"I was always aware of Aboriginal veterans not receiving fair compensation like other Canadians had," said Zehra Rizvi.

ADVERTISEMENT

The government eventually offered up to $20,000 in compensation for benefits denied to Indigenous veterans after returning from the Second World War.

"That seems so unfair, compared to what they would have gotten in the 1940s and 1950s, so that legacy still continues," said Rizvi.

Someone put her in touch with one Saskatchewan veteran: Henry Beaudry.

"I ended up meeting him and photographing him, and getting to know what his story was like, and I knew there would be other people like him," said Rizvi.

The encounter led to a photography project that highlights not only Beaudry, who passed away in 2016, but also Saskatchewan's three remaining Indigenous World War II veterans.

Here are their stories, as told to Rizvi.

Henry Beaudry

Henry Beaudry was a Cree man from Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan. (Zehra Rizvi)

Henry Beaudry was a prolific painter and actor from Sweetgrass First Nation.

"He was just a joy to be with," said Rizvi.

Beaudry lied when he joined the military, saying he was 19 years old, though he was younger.

"Nobody knew. I was working in Cut Knife with a farmer and thought I'll go and buy clothes," he said

"I saw a sign: 'Join the army and see the world, and kiss a girl in every port.' That attracted me!"

He had a sparkle in his eye and was a very generous person. - Zehra Rizvi, photographer

​Beaudry boarded a train to Saskatoon that afternoon. He was trained in Montreal and was sent overseas soon after.

"There was a big storm in January — the ships were going all over. It took us a long time."

When he reached Europe, Beaudry became a scout.

He eventually was taken as a prisoner of war.

Upon his return, Beaudry raised two biological children and several adopted children from his community.

"He had a sparkle in his eye and was a very generous person. If there were people in the community who didn't have food, he was the one who would bring them bags of groceries," said Rizvi.

Philip Favel

Philip Favel landed in Normandy, France, on D-Day. (Zehra Rizvi)

Philip Favel lives on Sweetgrass First Nation. Rizvi photographed him during the summer of 2017.

Favel tried to join the forces at 18, but his mother told officials he was too young. At 22, he left his wife to join again, this time successfully. He was sent to Red Deer, Alta., for training, then to Halifax before shipping out.

The now-96-year-old remembers his fellow soldiers in the military to this day.

"You get to know each other. I was the only Indian in that group. They were all white. We all got along. What's the difference? We're going to do the same thing, so why should be not agree with each other?"

Favel landed in Normandy, France, on D-Day.

On June 6, 1944, "paratroopers cleared that path for us guys to go behind enemy lines. They were waiting for us, then we're on our own for three days after the landing," Favel recalled.

At 96 years old, Favel is the oldest veteran Zehra Rizvi photographed for the project. (Zehra Rizvi)

Favel is proud to have fought for the freedom of the people he encountered in Europe.

He currently lives on Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan.

"He is a strong advocate of treaty rights and is aware of his community," said Rivzi.

"He basically came back and I think he was more empowered to know about things and be proactive about things in his community."

Virginia Pechawis

Virginia Pechawis was one of 22 Indigenous women who served in the war. (Zehra Rizvi)

Rizvi calls 89-year-old Virginia Pechawis "an amazing woman," one of 22 Indigenous women who served in the war.

"I had a little sister and, boy, was she spoiled. Every time she cried, it was me that made her cry. Finally, I decided, I'm going to leave," said Pechawis.

"I didn't tell them where I was going, so I went to the Prince Albert regimental office."

Pechawis was 18 when she joined the army. She looked forward to the experience of leaving the reserve.

She served in the navy, and saw some of Canada and the northern United States throughout the Second World War.

"I used to go outside when the boat was moving," when she wasn't performing her duties, she said, mostly in the kitchen.

When Pechawis returned to Mistawasis First Nation, she was offered little compensation.

As a veteran, Pechawis was offered some land, which she said was hers anyhow, and wasn't enough.

"We were dirt poor," she said. 

She gave birth to 12 children and continues to live in Mistawasis.

Frank Tomkins

Like his fellow veterans, Frank Tomkins got a sense of empowerment from his service. (Zehra Rizvi)

Frank Tomkins, 90, is a Métis man from Alberta who now resides in Saskatoon.

He had five brothers in the army and 27 people in his extended family who served in the Second World War. Seventeen of Tomkins' family members were killed during the war.

If I had lied about my age, I might be dead, too. - Frank Tomkins, veteran

​Tomkins' brothers were Cree code-talkers, connected with the United States Army.

"They were needing soldiers towards the end of the war. There were so many wounded and killed and everything else. They had to start taking fighting men out of the other organizations," he said.

Tomkins waited until he was 19 to enlist, and just when he completed his training and was about to go serve, the war ended.

"If I had lied about my age, I might be dead, too."

Tomkins learned to drive a tank, to run and maintain every vehicle in the fleet, and how to shoot "every gun there was."

Frank Tomkins waited until he was 19 to enlist. 'I couldn't lie,' he said. The decision may have saved his life. The war ended soon after he enlisted. (Zehra Rizvi)

After the war, he became a parachute firefighter, working in northern Saskatchewan for many years.

Like his fellow veterans, Tomkins got a sense of empowerment from his service.

"I loved the army, because it was such a change of life for me," he said.

"It was the first time I had freedom."

With files from Zehra Rizvi
Start the day smarter
Get the CBC News Morning Brief, the essential news you need delivered to your inbox