Sgt. Tommy Prince, war hero from Manitoba First Nation, put forward as potential new face on $5 bill

Manitoba Conservatives are calling for Anishinaabe war hero Sgt. Tommy Prince to become the new face on Canada's $5 bill.

Bank of Canada asked for public input on redesign of $5 bill in January

Sgt. Tommy Prince's cunning and bravery earned him a dozen medals, including battle honours for service in Korea with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. (PPCLI Museum and Archives in Calgary )

Manitoba Conservatives are calling for decorated Anishinaabe veteran Sgt. Tommy Prince to become the new face on Canada's $5 bill.

"Sgt. Tommy Prince was a great Indigenous Canadian who embodied duty, courage, bravery, and patriotism," the province's Conservative caucus wrote in a letter to federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

Prince, originally from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation roughly 65 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, earned 11 medals for his heroism during in the Second World War and Korean War, including one presented to him by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.

But when he returned to Canada, racist federal policies meant he and thousands of other Indigenous veterans were denied many of the benefits given to other veterans. When he died in 1977, the decorated war hero was homeless.

Prince a humble, hard-working visionary, nephew says

Jim Bear, Prince's nephew, said the nomination is an honour, and one his uncle would never have sought out in life.

"To me, he was a humble man. He was a quiet man," said Bear, a former chief of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, on Tuesday. "He just had a great sense of humour."

It's bittersweet to see his uncle get recognition now, decades after his death and the racism he experienced after returning from service, Bear said.

"He was accepted when he was in the uniform, but when he got home and took off the uniform, he was just treated with racism and systemic racism," Bear said. "I think that's really, really disgusting."

Prince rarely spoke of the wars, Bear said. In fact, Bear had no idea his uncle was a military hero until just a couple of years before his death.

Instead, Bear remembers his uncle's unstoppable sense of humour, which persisted despite the horrors of war and his time in a residential school, and how hard he fought to to see Indigenous rights recognized during his lifetime.

The idea to put his uncle on the $5 bill is nice, Bear said. But the best way to honour his uncle's memory would be to make the meaningful changes Sgt. Tommy Prince fought for all his life.

"I describe him as a visionary," Bear said. "He was advocating abolishing the Indian Act, even back then — and those are the kind of things we're still trying to change."

'Poetic justice': Bezan

"[Prince] served this country valiantly. He's the most decorated Indigenous veteran in Canadian history," said James Bezan, Conservative MP for Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman.

"I think Sgt. Tommy Prince is the ideal candidate to be on $5 bill to show his service, as well as reconciling the racism and the discrimination he faced."

The party put Prince's name forward after the Bank of Canada announced in January it's seeking a new design for the $5 note — including replacing its current portrait of Canada's first francophone prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Laurier has been on one side or the other of the bill since 1969, through four separate redesigns in 1969, 1986, 2001 and 2011.

Bezan said there would be a "poetic justice" in replacing Laurier with Prince.

During his time in power, Laurier forced the illegal surrender of St. Peter's Reserve north of East Selkirk, moving the community 160 kilometres north to what is now Peguis First Nation.

Prince himself is a direct descendant of Chief Peguis, for whom Peguis First Nation is named, Bezan said.

Other famous Canadians put forward as potential replacements are musician Gord Downie, hockey player Wayne Gretzky, astronaut Roberta Bondar, "Father of Medicare" Tommy Douglas and iconic runner Terry Fox.

But Manitoba Conservatives say Prince is the best choice for the redesign, citing his bravery as a member of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and as a step toward reconciliation.

The Conservative caucus has created an online campaign asking the public to call for Prince to be on the bill in emails to Morneau as well as Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem.