Veteran plans spiritual journey

Tyler
Tyler Clarke
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Cold War-era veteran Emile Highway is seen in uniform, with some of the medals he earned during his 20 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, between 1962 and 1982. 

First Nations names on tombstones in veteran cemeteries hold a special place in Emile Highway’s heart.

 

“The history of this country is nothing to be proud about in the treatment of its native people,” he explained.

“Despite that, a lot of our men and women took up arms, tore down the wall and fought for this country, despite the ill-treatment, despite the persecution, even, of native people in this country.

“What would make a man do that? It makes a guy think, you know? What was it that was so forgiving in their hearts that they would do something like that?”

Whenever he sees a First Nations name on a veteran tombstone, Highway feels inclined to accompany his visitation with a traditional ceremony to honour their contribution.

“I do a smudge ceremony and I call on the creator to rest his soul, and hope he had a good journey and thank you for giving up your life for those who are still alive to enjoy the freedoms and democracy of this country,” he said.

From April 20 to May 2, Highway plans on touring Europe with his brother, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Coun. Francis Highway, to pay homage to fallen First Nations veterans.

While Francis is a war history buff, Emile has 20 years’ Cold War era experience in the Canadian Armed Forces, from 1962 to 1982.

Originally from Southend, Highway -- a member of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation -- said that the residential school system at Sturgeon Landing helped prepare him for military life.

“That regimentation in residential school -- the bell ringing, and after eight years it was like Pavlov’s dog,” he said. “There was a connection from one institution to another.”

Although he wanted to join the Royal Canadian Electrical Mechanical Engineers, he was funneled into the infantry.

Even though he served during the Cold War era, it wasn’t without its dangers.

On one occasion, two of his comrades died right beside him in an armored personnel carrier crash.

“It still bothers me,” he said after relaying a detailed story of the incident in Germany, which saw one of his peers crushed “like a mosquito” underneath the vehicle and the other suffer a fatal head injury. “I still remember those guys all the time.”

While Highway said that he has respect for all members of the Canadian Armed Forces regardless of race, as a Cree man himself, First Nations veterans hold a special personal connection.

They overcame a lot to serve their country -- a country that through its residential school system pushed down its First Nations people “with put downs and degradation.”

Racism followed Highway through his 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces,

“I don’t know what it’s like now, but you can’t really blame the kids who came in there,” Highway said of the sometimes-racist attitudes that confronted him through his military career.

A lot of our men and women took up arms, tore down the wall and fought for this country, despite the ill-treatment, despite the persecution, even, of native people in this country. Emile Highway

“They were already taught that at home and they brought that. You put a uniform on a man or woman and their racism doesn’t automatically drop off.”

Highway also found himself addicted to alcohol -- a means of dealing with the underlying feeling of resentment he felt.

“Even though I was drunk most of the time I still had those sober moments where I kept my ears open and tried to keep an open mind, and tried to be forgiving and see that there’s more good in the world than there is bad,” he said.

After 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, during which he spent about half of his time in Western Canada and the other half in Continental Europe and Cyprus, Highway returned to the Prince Albert area in 1982 – a time he describes as particularly lonely.

“I had absolutely nothing in common with my siblings or neighbours or co-workers in P.A. or Pelican Narrows,” he said, adding that by then he’d lost his Cree language.

After two stints in rehab to deal with his alcoholism, he spent 15 years as an addictions counsellor and he currently serves on the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans’ Memorial Tipi Committee – an organization charged with making sure people remember Canadian First Nations’ contribution to the Canadian Armed Forces.

“There are many reasons for them to have joined the military -- many,” Highway said. “Some of them were just hungry, some wanted to be with a buddy who just joined up, some out of feeling patriotic, some went to see a John Wayne movie and went out feeling patriotic and signed up.”

Highway’s tour of Europe with his brother Francis will include stops at various memorials and gravesites.

“The reason we want to go there is to visit and honour and pray at the gravesites of these women who are laid over there in all the cemeteries, so we don’t forget them,” he explained.

“To me, it’s a personal journey,” he said. “We don’t have to shout it out from the front steps of city hall – it’s a personal journey, for me.”

Although it isn’t included in the itinerary of the tour they’ve signed up for, Highway hopes he’ll be able to find time to visit the Cold War cemetery where two of his fallen comrades are buried.

Although his ultimate goal is to bring a First Nations drum group and a group of elders to do a pipe ceremony at the final resting spots of fallen First Nations veterans, Highway said that the smudge and prayer tour he and his brother plan on contributing will be a healthy start. 

Organizations: First Nations, Canadian Armed Forces, Prince Albert Memorial Tipi Committee

Geographic location: Germany, Western Canada, Continental Europe Cyprus P.A. Pelican Narrows Saskatchewan

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