An Indigenous soldier's story: equal on the battlefield, but not at home

An Edmonton woman honouring the heroic wartime deeds of her late grandfather is pleased to see a growing recognition of the contribution of Indigenous soldiers.

'There was no prejudice until he got back to Canada,' Edmonton granddaughter recalls being told

Chantell Burns said her grandfather Albert Noname enlisted because he wanted to fight for his country. (CBC/Scott Neufeld)

Every year before Remembrance Day, the late Pte. Albert Noname drycleaned his blazers, shined his black boots and polished up his medals.

Then he took his family to parades and ceremonies in Regina, 20 kilometres southwest of his home at the Piapot First Nation reserve.

"Everybody was so proud of him, especially on our reserve," said granddaugher Chantell Burns, who now lives in Edmonton, recalling those childhood memories. "He said 'I wanted to fight for my country.' And that's what he did."

As another Remembrance Day approaches, top of mind are the heroic actions of her beloved grandfather, who enlisted during the Second World War when he was 19.

Burns, her husband, mom and dad, aunts and her daughters will all attend a public Remembrance Day ceremony in Edmonton this weekend, a family tradition that they are excited to pass down to the next generation. It will be the first time they take Burns' baby granddaughter Clara.

"I'm going to make sure that my granddaughter knows that she had a great-great-grandfather who decided to fight for her country and fight for all Canadians," said Burns.

'It didn't matter, the colour of his skin'

5 years ago
Duration 0:34
Chantell Burns, whose late grandfather served in World War II, is pleased to see a growing recognition of the contribution of Indigenous soldiers.

Burns was 18 years old when her grandfather started proudly showing her off at legion reunions. She recalled the veterans' camaraderie, how they seemed just like kids again as they sang and danced around the piano to How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? and other oldies.

That's around the time Noname began opening up to his granddaughter about his experiences, both off and on the battlefield, as one of the surviving troops who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day, the final resting place of 2,043 Canadians, at least 33 of them of Indigenous heritage.

'Back to being Indian again'

Overseas, Noname told his granddaughter, they were all brothers and sisters. Nobody judged him. Along the victory parade route in Dieppe, France, people approached him to shake his hand and say thank you.

But back in Canada he was denied equal treatment — including access to land grants and education — compared to the white soldiers he fought alongside overseas.

"He said there was no prejudice until he got back to Canada and stepped off that plane," said Burns. "He said: 'I was back to being an Indian again.' "
Some of Pte. Albert Noname's medals, awarded for his service in the Second World War. (CBC/Scott Neufeld)

Even half a century later, Burns remembers clearly the day her grandpa returned from a legion in Edmonton, after he had moved to the city.

"He wasn't welcome and I remember he was so sad," Burns said. "They were kind of racist to him. And that was the last time he went to the legion in Edmonton."

Indigenous contributions

According to the Veterans Affairs Canada website, up to 12,000 Indigenous people served in the first and second world wars and the Korean War.

In the Second World War, Indigenous Canadians took on the roles of snipers and scouts and some were involved in top secret missions.

So-called Code Talkers like Charles "Checker" Tomkins from Alberta passed secret messages back and forth in Cree. Their covert role only became public in recent years.

While Noname suffered no major physical injuries, Burns is certain he returned with post-traumatic stress disorder, which heightened earlier trauma inflicted on him as a child at Lebret Residential School.

Still, he showered his granddaughter with hugs and affection, as she breathed in the lingering scent of leather from his job at a tannery.

Heading to the latest powwow squeezed between him and her grandma, Sheila, he'd sometimes even let her sit on his lap and steer.

Aboriginal Veterans Day

In 1994, Manitoba was the first province to mark Aboriginal Veterans Day on Nov. 8, but the special day eventually became recognized across Canada.

In a ministerial statement issued Wednesday, Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan encouraged everyone to take time "to express gratitude to these brave men and women."

"Aboriginal Veterans Day provides an opportunity to honour the legacy of Indigenous veterans who were willing to lay down their lives, safeguard against forces of oppression, persecution and other forms of tyranny that threaten our collective rights and freedoms," he wrote.

On Aug 31, 1995, remaining members of the South Saskatchewan Regiment laid Noname to rest. He was 76.
Pte. Albert Noname received a plaque from Piapot First Nation in honour of his service. (CBC/Scott Neufeld)



Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca