Saskatoon

'He was a great man': Advocate for First Nations veterans dies

Ray Sanderson served his country overseas, but his biggest fight might have been back home, as a tireless advocate for First Nations veterans.

Ray Sanderson, 76, served in Europe during Cuban Missile Crisis

Ray Sanderson served in Europe during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was a fierce advocate for First Nations veterans. His funeral takes place this week at the James Smith First Nation in Saskatchewan. (Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association)

Ray Sanderson served his country overseas, but his biggest fight might have been back home.

Sanderson, who died recently of cancer, was a tireless advocate for First Nations veterans. Condolences for the former Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association grand chief filled the social media feeds of veterans' groups as news of his death spread Monday.

"RIP Grand Chief you have done an excellent job with our veterans here in Saskatchewan. And thank you for your service to this Country we call Turtle Island. Your Duty is done here. You can rest now," said fellow SFNVA Grand Chief Steven Ross.

Sanderson enlisted at age 17 and was stationed in Germany. During interviews, Sanderson said war seemed imminent during the Cuban Missile Crisis and after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

"We just about went at it. We were awful close," he said in a video produced by the University of Regina's Indian Communication Arts program.

Claudia McCallum, pictured with brother Neal Wichihin, says their dad Ray Sanderson was a great man. Sanderson has died of cancer. (submitted)

On his return to Saskatchewan, Sanderson saw how many veterans, including his uncle and grandfather, were denied the land, money and other benefits given to non-Indigenous returning soldiers.

They've worked to restore the grave sites of more than 200 First Nations veterans.

Sanderson talked to CBC News in 2010 about standing at the unmarked grave of his grandfather, Patrick Brittian, who fought in the Battle of the Somme and others in the First World War.

"He was wounded. He was decorated. He came back and never got his benefits. And here I see his grave, nothing on his grave at all, not even a cross. I was really disappointed," Sanderson said.

This week, many of his family members recalled a man filled with love and kindness, despite his residential school experience in Duck Lake, his military service and the death of his wife more than 40 years ago.

His wife, Marilyn, died suddenly when their two children were toddlers. He and other relatives raised the children, said his daughter, Claudia McCallum.

Sanderson took them on frequent summer trips to pow wows, where he'd watch son Neal Wichihin perform grass dance. During the drives, Sanderson would tell the kids stories about their mother.

"You kids won't be seeing another woman in my life," he told them. "Your Mom was my one true love."

Sanderson remained single, pouring his energy into veterans issues. He spoke in schools, lobbied government and was a fixture at powwow grand entries and other events.

"He was a great man," McCallum said. "I'm just proud to be his daughter."

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.