Code talkers in the United States have been storied, honored and lauded for their military contributions. But much less known, and barely recognized for their service by the Canadian government, were Cree code talkers from Canada who assisted the Allies in World War II.
A documentary is in the works that would tell their story and explore the power of language through the lens of one such warrior, Charles “Checker” Tomkins, a Cree soldier from Grouard, Alberta, Canada. He enlisted to escape the Great Depression but ended up with a career in the military, serving 25 years with the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, according to the South Peace News.
During World War II, the Métis soldier was stationed in Britain and was one of hundreds called upon to use his Cree language—he grew up hearing it from his grandparents on the Pine Acres Reserve in Saskatchewan, according to the South Peace News—to befuddle the Germans.
He was successful; the South Peace News, quoting an interview that Tomkins gave in May 2003 in Calgary, Canada to curators of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Indian Code Talkers Traveling Exhibition, said he received six medals. But none of them were for his work as a code talker.
In Canada, the code talkers were never officially recognized or commended, partly because their work was considered so covert that they were sworn to secrecy even long after the war was over. The program was not declassified until 1963, according to the Edmonton Journal, but even then most did not speak of their work. And now they have entirely died out. Tomkins died in August 2003 at age 85, but not before beginning to talk a little about his experiences with family members. And that led one of them, a documentary filmmaker, to make a 10-minute film about Tomkins’s life and service, Cree Code Talker.
"This kind of sacrifice and this kind of use of our language, I thought that more people need to know about this," documentary producer Alex Lazarowich, Tomkins’s niece, told CBC News. "Everyone knows the Navajo story, but we had our own guys in our own backyard who were doing this. Cree from Alberta and Cree from Saskatchewan."
The National Screen Institute of Canada (NSI) is funding the documentary, which Lazarowich and director Cowboy Smithx plan to release in 2016. The project was given a boost in April, when it won first place at the 2015 Hot Docs BravoFactual Short Film Pitch competition, which came with $30,000. The documentary will air on the NSI site and the Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN).
“I think it’s important to highlight the Cree language and the role it played in winning the war,” Lazarowich told the Edmonton Journal. “I’m Cree myself, and I think that [the documentary] will be a great way to inspire youth to learn more about their heritage and language, and be proud of it.”