He was 14 with no immediate family in Six Nations, Ont. — then he joined the military

·3 min read
Welby Isaacs, who's known as Ike, says serving in the Canadian military for seven years made him more proud to be Indigenous. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)
Welby Isaacs, who's known as Ike, says serving in the Canadian military for seven years made him more proud to be Indigenous. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)

When Welby Isaacs was a high school student in Ontario's Six Nations of the Grand River, he excelled in math and shop classes.

"I thought maybe I wanted to be an architectural draftsman or something," the 82-year-old, who is Cayuga, told CBC Hamilton.

But if he had, he wouldn't have earned the name everyone knows him by now — Ike.

"They gave that to me in the military," he said. "Short for Issacs I guess."

Isaacs had been living in Six Nations with his grandmother since he was about three months old.

"She was my rock," he said.

But then she died.

Bobby Hristova
Bobby Hristova

At age 14, Issacs said he became an orphan.

"I was very fortunate that I never went to the residential school because my neighbour took me in and I lived with them for about a year and a half," he said.

"It's just the way things were done on the reserve back then. The Natives looked after one another."

Joining the military

Issacs said he later lived with his first cousin and dropped out of high school to join the military at 17 — something he doesn't think would have happened if his grandmother was still alive.

He said the thought petrified her. At first, it scared him too.

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

"I was on my own from then on. It's kind of scary at first, at 17, getting on a train in London in the middle of winter, getting off in Alliston, a little hick town, everything is closed at 10 o'clock at night," Isaacs said.

He said he joined in 1959, going to the Canadian Forces Base in Borden, Ont., to do basic training, recruit training and trades training before going to The Royal Canadian Dragoons regiment in Petawawa. He was sent to Germany as a radio operator in a tank and other vehicles.

At the height of his seven-year career, which included time in Egypt, Isaacs was a lance corporal before being honourably discharged in 1966.

"You come out of the service with a totally different attitude to what you went in," he said.

He bought a home in Brantford, and spent the rest of his professional life as a steelworker and working in the automotive industry.

He also joined the Six Nations Veterans Association, where veterans meet on the reserve and catch up. He's now the second oldest living veteran in the club, behind Ed English, who's 92.

Bruce Patterson is first vice-president of the association. He's Tuscarora, of the Six Nations of the Grand River. He said he served in the U.S. for two years, spending one year in Vietnam.

Patterson said the association is meant to honour people like Issacs, who he regards as "the epitome of a serviceman."

"It keeps everything alive for the veterans so they're not forgotten," he said.

Issacs even received recognition from his favourite hockey team after the Toronto Maple Leafs honoured him on Monday.

From no family to having 2

Despite being without an immediate family at 14, Issacs managed to start his own family.

He married and had two children before divorcing and entering a second marriage.

But tragedy stuck.

"I lost my oldest daughter; it'll be three years next month," he said.

"My [second] wife passed away seven months after my first daughter, so it's been a hard life for the last few years."

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

While he has still had a daughter and stepchildren to lean on, he also has a whole other family by his side — his military family, made up of dozens of friends he made while serving Canada.

"So when my wife died I had more phone calls from the east coast, you know, consoling and just talking to me," Issacs said.

"The military family was one family that, it doesn't matter where you are or what you do, they're there for you. They may be 900 miles away, but if they can be beside you, they would be there."

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