July 22nd., 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 29
Looking Back - John Kinnear
A Canadian Code-Talker Story
Herald contributor photo
Navajo Code Talkers in Pacific theater
When first I heard about code-talkers years ago I thought it to be an amazing concept, one of utilizing obscure languages to help in war time radio communications. I recall the big brouhaha about the movie Windtalkers which starred Nicholas Cage and was centered around Navajo code talkers in the Pacific theater during World War Two. As usual, film makers seem to find it impossible to trust minority groups with their own stories so Windtalkers, done it 2002, was presented from a white man’s perspective and slant and was mostly about the heroics of Nicholas Cage.

The use of foreign language in code was not a new thing really. Hitler, a World War One vet, recognized its value and sent a team of about 30 German anthropologists to the U.S. between the world wars to learn Indian languages. By the time war broke out, they reported what they had been able to put together but the task was simply too much for them to assimilate in the time allotted.

For the Americans secrecy had become a complicated issue later in the Pacific War with Japanese infiltrators working within their communications system. So it was that about 400 Navajos code-talkers were recruited and took part in almost every assault in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. It has been said by some that if not for the Navajos, the Americans would never have taken Iwo Jima. How ironic and disturbing I find it is that these same American Navajo heroes were not allowed to vote in their own country until 1948 in Arizona, 1953 in New Mexico and 1957 in Utah.

Code-talkers were not formally recognized until 2000 by the Clinton administration and in 2008 the Code Talkers Recognition Act was passed that acknowledged all Indian code talkers with specifically designed medals for each tribe. That included the Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Creek, Chippewa and Hopi as well as the Navajo.

Code-talkers were sworn to secrecy about what they did. And that is why Charlie ‘Checker’ Tomkins never revealed to anyone, including his family his role as a Canadian code talker during the war. Unlike his American counterparts, Checker Tompkins has never received any official recognition for his important contribution to the war effort through this special approach.
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Charlie, a Métis, came from Grouard Alberta which is on the very west side of Lesser Slave Lake about a hundred miles northeast of Grande Prairie. Charlie joined the Canadian military in May 1940 and transferred to Britain six months after completing his basic training. Tomkins was eventually summoned to the Canadian military headquarters in London, but apparently not even his commanding officer knew why. It seems they wanted to utilize his Cree language skills which he said he learned from his grandparents. His grandmother was a Cree from the Saskatchewan Pine Acres Reserve and his grandfather, though white, spoke fluent Cree. Cree is a very complicated language to translate and in one week Charlie and others of his kind developed an enigma-like code that was to prove invaluable in the war effort in Europe.

So it worked like this. Charlie’s job was to translate military messages into Cree before they were sent out through European battlefields. Often messages came from military officials requesting specific types of weapons for planned attacks. It was vital that these requests remained secret from the enemy who was always working to intercept them. Once the coded messages were received at their proper destination, they were translated back into English from Cree by another Aboriginal "code-talker" and given to military officials to read.

Tomkins was one of hundreds of Aboriginal and Métis people recruited for this specific purpose and like their American counterparts, this code work undoubtedly saved many lives.

That is something to be very proud of. But apparently our government doesn’t think so as there has never been any acknowledgement for Charlie ‘Checker’ Tomkins or the other Aboriginal veterans who served in this capacity.

Over 500 Aboriginal veterans died during the First and Second World Wars. Many of the 7,000 that served were recognized with medals for their bravery and excellence during the world wars and the Korean War.
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American Silver Star, was awarded to 59 Canadians, including Reconnaissance Sergeant Thomas George Prince who came from the Brokenhead First Nation in Manitoba. Prince was with none other than the “Devil’s Brigade” in Italy near Littoria when he earned his medal for a daring and innovative bit of bravery as a reconnoiterer.

Charlie re-enlisted after the war as commercial fishing had declined and there was just no other work. I recall my brother who worked on a bridge crew up north many years ago talking about the whitefish commercial industry at Lesser Slave Lake and how they fished through the ice with nets. In 25 years with the military, Checker Tomkins served with the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

In May 2003 Charlie was interviewed in Calgary by members of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Indian Code Talkers Travelling Exhibition and at age 85 finally shared some of what he had been told was classified top secret all those years. He passed away three months later. Charlie said: “I loved my country; I fought as a Canadian citizen.” When asked about not having any recognition for his service he said: “It doesn’t matter at all. I did what I was asked and that’s good enough. But at least some recognition would be all right, it would be appreciated.” Dam rights it would. Time for the Legion and our government to step up on this one. The sooner the better!

Alexandra Lazarowich, a Canadian Native American artist and filmmaker is presently working on a ten minute documentary on Tomkins. It should be out by next March. She said: “This kind of sacrifice and this kind of use of our language, I thought that more people need to know about this.
July 22nd. ~ Vol. 85 No. 29
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