Decorated First Nations vet Tommy Prince embodied triumph, darkness of war

Tommy Prince is the most decorated First Nations veteran in Canadian history. CBC's Meagan Fiddler travelled to Brokenhead First Nation in Manitoba to find out about the life and legacy of Tommy Prince.

On 100th anniversary of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Prince's legacy remembered

Tommy Prince was one of the most decorated aboriginal war heroes in our country's history. 

Sgt. Prince, from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, served in the Second World War and in Korea with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

And his son, Tommy Prince Jr., dreamt of following in his father's footsteps.

"My mother said yes. but my dad ... No. When I asked him why he said, "OK when you join the army, they'll expect everything from you. They'll break you. They'll push you to the limit," said Prince Jr.
Growing up Tommy Prince Jr. had no idea that his dad, Sergeant Tommy Prince, was a Canadian hero. (CBC)
His son didn't know much about his dad's war stories until he was 18.

"One day we were sitting down having a beer and one of his friends starts talking about some of his episodes overseas. I started looking at my dad like, who is this gentleman and what is he talking about?" said Prince Jr.

Growing up Prince Jr. knew his dad was a prankster. But he didn't know he was so stealthy.

"When he was on his reconnaissance tours, he would sneak into the enemy's camp and he would take a pair of shoes, a helmet, a jacket, whatever he could take," he said. "That was more of a calling card." 

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

But Prince's return wasn't easy. After fighting in Korea, he returned to Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, also known as Scanterbury. And the worst stayed with him.

"My cousin said that he would wake up thrashing his arms, hitting out and so forth," said Prince's nephew, Chief Jim Bear. "So I guess he was reliving Korea and the hand to hand combat."

Prince's former wife, Verna Sinclair, still lives in Scanterbury.Sinclair met Prince when her eldest daughter, Joyce Hourie, was just a toddler.

"From then on he was my dad," said Hourie, "Because that's the only dad I knew."

Hourie remembers Prince as a loving, caring father. But admits when he drank things would often get violent.

"Like my mom was home looking after us children while he's out at work," said Hourie, "Then he would come home tipsy and want to fight mom. For what?"

The "what" was not clear until after Prince's death in 1977. The military funeral and the decorated dignitaries attending confused Prince's daughter. Who was this man she thought she knew?

"I wonder if he told us about his feelings and what happened to him overseas, like in the army ... if he took time to explain to us, maybe things would have been smoother for all of us," said Hourie.

Now 82 years old, Prince's former wife won't talk about those years. He kept his demons hidden even from her. His daughter wishes it could have been different.

But there are positives from Prince's legacy. Daniel Black grew up in Scanterbury, and heard many stories about Prince when he was growing up.

I … tell them who he was and what he did for our country and our people. Like, that's a big thing. It shows on their faces ... They're proud to come to school.- Daniel Black

"He's a big person to look to and it's I guess the whole reason I joined the military," said Black.

Black went on to serve in Afghanistan in 2009. Now he's a teacher's aide in the Scanterbury school that bears Tommy Prince's name. 

Now, he shares those same war stories with a new generation. 

"I … tell them who he was and what he did for our country and our people. Like, that's a big thing. It shows on their faces ... They're proud to come to school."

Tommy Prince now rests at the Brookside Cemetery in Winnipeg. Prince Jr. recently visited his grave to offer tobacco, and his admiration.

"I'm very proud of his name," said Prince Jr. "And I'm honoured to carry it."

Find out more about the 100th anniversary of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.


Meagan is Oji-Cree from Kistiganwacheeng (Garden Hill First Nation) in northern Manitoba. Before joining CBC Manitoba in 2013, she graduated from the Academy of Broadcasting in 2009 and began her career at APTN that same year. As the Senior Producer for CBC Indigenous, she leads a team of Indigenous journalists who share real stories and voices from Indigenous communities across the country.


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