Sask. elder and veteran recalls throwing his rations to children from a train during Korean War

Elder and Korean war veteran Tony Cote, from the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, was among veterans honoured at a Remembrance Day service at First Nations University of Canada.

Tony Cote, who enlisted at 17, among veterans honoured at First Nations University of Canada service

Elder and veteran Tony Cote lays the wreath in honour of Korean War veterans at the First Nations University of Canada Remembrance Day service on Thursday. Cote served in the Korean War with the 81st Field Regiment with the Canadian Artillery. His unit was shipped off to Korea in March 1953. (Brad Bellegarde/CBC)

A pin dropping could have been heard across the atrium of the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) in Regina when the clock struck 11:11 a.m. on Thursday.

Indigenous veterans, members of the Regina Police Service, staff, students and community members were in attendance for the university's annual Remembrance Day service.

Elder and Korean war veteran Tony Cote, from the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, said he remembers the first service held at FNUniv and to him it's important to attend.

"There was about 20 of us [veterans] that time, 20-25 of us were all lined up," said Cote, pointing to the front of the First Nations Veterans Memorial Tipi.

Veterans Art Anderson of the George Gordon First Nation, left, and Tony Cote of the Cote First Nation attended the First Nations University of Canada's Remembrance Day service. (Brad Bellegarde/CBC)

Cote was 17 years old when he decided to leave the reserve and enlist in the army. He said he did it because there was "nothing going on, on the reserve at that time."

"I'd get a job on a farm for about two, three weeks or a month. Then you'd finish the job that you got. So I thought maybe I should just join the army and I'll get steady income," he said, laughing.  

"I didn't know they were going over [to Korea], but we started training in Wainwright, Alta., that summer."

That's the worst part [of training]. You had to have your gun pit all ready by morning.- Tony Cote, elder and Korean War veteran

Cote said the training and preparing to go into battle was tough.

"I didn't like those night manoeuvres, and you had to dig gun pits," he said, smiling.

"That's the worst part. You had to have your gun pit all ready by morning."

As part of the 81st Field Regiment for the Royal Canadian Artillery, Cote's unit was shipped to Korea in March 1953.

They spent 21 days on the ocean before docking in Japan.

Eagle Staffs and flags are carried out at the end of the memorial service. (Brad Bellegarde/CBC)

Cote said there was a Canadian base in Japan and then the next morning his unit boarded a smaller ship to head to Korea.

"The Commonwealth troops had already moved towards the centre of Korea because they had taken over the whole place like Incheon [City]," said Cote.

A memory that has remained vivid for Cote since that spring of 1953 was seeing the effects of the war on Korean civilians.

"The worst part of it, what I didn't like to see, was little wee kids at all the train stations, no clothes, starving ... probably their parents got killed. These are the things that you see when you go into action."

Cote said the children were no older than four or five years old, begging for food.

"We used to throw our rations at them from the train... We would just throw them out to them. You'd see them scrambling, picking them up and what not."

Elder Sidney Kay from Kawacatoose First Nation lays a wreath to honour elders. (Brad Bellegarde/CBC)

Military careers

Cote was not the only Indigenous soldier in his unit.

"There was about six of us," he said.

Along with other battalions he said there were quite a number of First Nations soldiers. He emphasized the amazing work ethic of Indigenous soldiers in the Korean war and the sheer commitment each soldier gave to each task.

Indigenous peoples have a long-standing relationship with Canada's Armed Forces and many chose to enlist during the world wars, even though they were not subject to conscription efforts of the federal government.

"My grandfather was a part of the Armed Forces," said Sgt. Christopher Bird of the Royal Regina Rifles, who is also a member of George Gordon First Nation.

Bird started his military career 23 years ago when he took part in the Canadian Armed Forces' Bold Eagle program.

According to its website, the summer employment program combines Indigenous culture with military training.

Bird, now 41, is the newly-appointed Bold Eagle program co-ordinator. He said the role has provided him with a great opportunity to meet Indigenous youth.

"I am able to see the respect that is given to the military, past and serving members."

The Regina Police Service also believes the role of Indigenous peoples in the military is something that should be recognized and remembered.

"Anytime we could come out and show support ... for those veterans that lost their lives and gave themselves to our country, to our city and to our province, we're proud to do so," said deputy chief Dean Rae.


Brad Bellegarde

Reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Saskatchewan

Born and raised in Treaty 4 Territory, he holds an Indian Communication Arts Certificate from the First Nations University of Canada and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Regina. Follow him on Twitter @BBellegardeCBC