Grandpa fought many bat­tles, but won his war

Winnipeg Free Press - - REMEMBRANCE DAY - NIIGAAN SIN­CLAIR niigaan.sin­clair@freep­ress.mb.ca

GRANDPA Henry never spoke about the war. I asked him once: why did you go?

“Ev­ery­one was go­ing,” he said, end­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.

My grand­fa­ther was like many In­dige­nous veter­ans. He didn’t have to go to war, he chose to.

In­dige­nous Peo­ples in those days weren’t Cana­di­ans, they were In­di­ans.

But, like 12,000 other In­dige­nous men and women who fought in two world wars and other con­flicts, he en­listed.

Grandpa was raised in a res­i­den­tial school. While there, he was abused sex­u­ally and phys­i­cally. He never spoke about this — we found out long af­ter he died.

One of the worst lega­cies of vi­o­lence is si­lence.

When Grandpa was 14, the Sec­ond World War broke out in Europe. Soon af­ter, he lied about his age and signed up with the Armed Forces.

He chose the war over an­other year in res­i­den­tial school: bul­lets over nuns.

Fol­low­ing his friends and two broth­ers Melfort and Elmer (who en­listed, too), he loved his fam­ily.

Try to re­mem­ber that dur­ing this next part.

As soon as Grandpa signed up, he also en­fran­chised him­self, giv­ing up his — and his chil­dren’s — In­dian sta­tus. In­dige­nous sol­diers had to be­come Cana­di­ans be­fore they could be sent to fight.

This meant Grandpa was no longer an In­dian in the eyes of the gov­ern­ment. He could not live, travel to or be buried on re­serve.

He was lit­er­ally cut off from his com­mu­nity. He could not ac­cess any­thing un­der treaty.

In those days, be­ing an In­dian meant a lot fewer rights and sec­ond-tier sta­tus. As an en­fran­chised In­dian, he could now own prop­erty, work of­fre­serve and vote.

Grandpa trained and was as­signed to the Toronto Scot­tish Reg­i­ment. He was on the ground in France, a bru­tal scene of com­bat.

He re­turned a short time af­ter, in­jured for the rest of his life. By that time, he had started a fam­ily and tried to find work in Win­nipeg.

No one wanted to hire a wounded In­dian, though — so he found what work he could, mostly in the mines in the north.

Work wasn’t easy and Grandpa’s in­juries chal­lenged him. Still, he per­se­vered.

Stay­ing in Win­nipeg ho­tels, he waited for calls to go up north, and sent money and vis­ited home in Selkirk when he could.

Around this time, what was a ca­sual drink­ing habit — some­thing he did with his army bud­dies — be­came an is­sue for Grandpa. Soon, he be­gan to drink more and more.

When he drank, Grandpa was a com­bat­ive, moody and abu­sive man. The cy­cles of abuse he learned in res­i­den­tial school, added to the trauma he ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing the war, made him a dif­fi­cult man to be around.

Dur­ing the worst of it, he hurt peo­ple around him, es­pe­cially his chil­dren.

My grand­mother — the per­son my grand­fa­ther loved more than any­one — died giv­ing birth to my un­cle. That’s when things went re­ally bad.

Grandpa went to a dark, ter­ri­ble place.

Most sto­ries about him dur­ing this time in­volve vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing him seek­ing out guys to fight. One time, he got beat so bad he was hos­pi­tal­ized with per­ma­nent dis­abil­i­ties.

My great-grand­par­ents re­moved my dad, my two un­cles and my aunt from their home, and raised them. I pray and say thanks for them ev­ery day.

This isn’t the end of Grandpa’s story. In fact, none of this is my story of him.

My story of him be­gins Jan. 7, 1976. The day I was born.

I was the first grand­son in my fam­ily. To Grandpa, I was a big deal — for what­ever rea­son.

He wanted to come and see his grand­son. He was drink­ing a lot dur­ing those days, though.

My dad con­fronted him.

He told his fa­ther he would never see his grand­son if he was drink­ing. I can only imag­ine the brav­ery it took for my fa­ther to do that.

Grandpa quit drink­ing. He chose me over a fu­ture no one would have blamed him for.

He eas­ily could have drank him­self to death. He was a res­i­den­tial school sur­vivor with post-trau­matic stress disor­der from the war.

If he had died that way, it would have been yet an­other tragic story.

But he chose some­thing dif­fer­ent than the vi­o­lence that had char­ac­ter­ized his life.

Grandpa be­gan to visit me when I was a baby. He lived with us for a bit. When I was school-aged, he got an apart­ment nearby and I used to go visit him by my­self.

My par­ents would leave me there for a few hours, where he and I would have lunch, watch TV or play with toys he had bought for his grand­chil­dren.

We didn’t talk much. You see, Grandpa was al­most com­pletely deaf — one of his many in­juries.

So we passed notes, mostly with mes­sages such as “turn the chan­nel.”

I spent most of my vis­its rolling cig­a­rettes for him. I must have rolled a few thou­sand from the ages of eight to 16.

I re­mem­ber the laugh­ter. Grandpa was one of the fun­ni­est peo­ple I ever met. While we could barely com­mu­ni­cate, Grandpa was al­ways teas­ing me, play­ing tricks or pre­tend­ing to chase me.

All I knew was love from Grandpa. Ev­ery day I spent with him, he showed me how peace, kind­ness and com­mit­ment to an­other per­son can change ev­ery­thing.

My cousins and sis­ters say that’s what he showed them, too.

Grandpa couldn’t change the ug­li­ness of the past — still very much a part of my fam­ily’s life — but he showed me what love is. I try to live up to his gift ev­ery sin­gle day.

Grandpa’s big­gest war was to be a good Anishi­naabe in a world that didn’t value that.

He won.

Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal Veter­ans Day is cel­e­brated each year on Nov. 8.

Re­mem­brance Day is Sun­day.

NIIGAAN SIN­CLAIR / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

Henry Sin­clair, grand­dad of colum­nist Niigaan Sin­clair, en­listed dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

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