He was 14 with no immediate family in Six Nations, Ont. — then he joined the military
Welby Isaacs, known as Ike, is the oldest living Indigenous veteran in Six Nations of the Grand River
When Welby Isaacs was a high school student in Ontario's Six Nations of the Grand River, he excelled in math and shop classes.
"I thought maybe I wanted to be an architectural draftsman or something," the 82-year-old, who is Cayuga, told CBC Hamilton.
But if he had, he wouldn't have earned the name everyone knows him by now — Ike.
"They gave that to me in the military," he said. "Short for Isaacs I guess."
Isaacs had been living in Six Nations with his grandmother since he was about three months old.
"She was my rock," he said.
But then she died.
At age 14, Isaacs said he became an orphan.
"I was very fortunate that I never went to the residential school because my neighbour took me in and I lived with them for about a year and a half," he said.
"It's just the way things were done on the reserve back then. The Natives looked after one another."
Joining the military
Isaacs said he later lived with his first cousin and dropped out of high school to join the military at 17 — something he doesn't think would have happened if his grandmother was still alive.
He said the thought petrified her. At first, it scared him too.
"I was on my own from then on. It's kind of scary at first, at 17, getting on a train in London in the middle of winter, getting off in Alliston, a little hick town, everything is closed at 10 o'clock at night," Isaacs said.
He said he joined in 1959, going to the Canadian Forces Base in Borden, Ont., to do basic training, recruit training and trades training before going to The Royal Canadian Dragoons regiment in Petawawa. He was sent to Germany as a radio operator in a tank and other vehicles.
At the height of his seven-year career, which included time in Egypt, Isaacs was a lance corporal before being honourably discharged in 1966.
"You come out of the service with a totally different attitude to what you went in," he said.
He bought a home in Brantford, and spent the rest of his professional life as a steelworker and working in the automotive industry.
He also joined the Six Nations Veterans Association, where veterans meet on the reserve and catch up. He's now the second oldest living veteran in the club, behind Ed English, who's 92. Isaacs is the eldest of the Indigenous veterans of the club however.
Bruce Patterson is first vice-president of the association. He's Tuscarora, of the Six Nations of the Grand River. He said he served in the U.S. for two years, spending one year in Vietnam.
Patterson said the association is meant to honour people like Isaacs, who he regards as "the epitome of a serviceman."
"It keeps everything alive for the veterans so they're not forgotten," he said.
Isaacs even received recognition from his favourite hockey team after the Toronto Maple Leafs honoured him on Monday.
From no family to having 2
Despite being without an immediate family at 14, Isaacs managed to start his own family.
He married and had two children before divorcing and entering a second marriage.
But tragedy stuck.
"I lost my oldest daughter; it'll be three years next month," he said.
"My [second] wife passed away seven months after my first daughter, so it's been a hard life for the last few years."
While he has still had a daughter and stepchildren to lean on, he also has a whole other family by his side — his military family, made up of dozens of friends he made while serving Canada.
"So when my wife died I had more phone calls from the east coast, you know, consoling and just talking to me," Isaacs said.
"The military family was one family that, it doesn't matter where you are or what you do, they're there for you. They may be 900 miles away, but if they can be beside you, they would be there."