Call grows to put Indigenous war hero Tommy Prince on $5 bill

·3 min read

An online campaign is gaining support to honour one of Canada's most-decorated Indigenous war heroes by making him the new face on the five dollar bill.

Tom Kmiec and two other Conservative MPs are suggesting sergeant Tommy Prince be the new face of the bank note.

"He was homeless, he lost his kids, he went through a residential school system, so there's so many interesting aspects of his life. And he's a combat veteran and he's someone who served this country in two major conflicts," Kmiec said. "Here's an interesting fellow who represents bravery, courage, citizenship — all these wonderful attributes."

The Bank of Canada announced in January that it was looking for recommendations.

"Tommy Prince would be just the perfect, perfect pick," Kmiec said.

Kmiec says the petition received 1,500 supporters within its first 48 hours, after launching on June 21.

"He's a founding member of Canada's elite first Canadian parachute battalion, and the Devil's Brigade during the Second World War," Kmiec said. "He was one of the soldiers who defended hill 677 in the battle of Kapyong during the Korean War. He won 11 medals. That makes him the most decorated Indigenous war veteran, combat veteran, in the history of Canada."

Josie Nepinak is the executive director for the Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society in Calgary. She's from Manitoba, where Prince was born.

"People often say, 'Well, all Indigenous people do is complain and take and take,' but we don't do that," Nepinak said. "We have a very rich and very strong history, and Tommy Prince is part of that history. We need to let people know that to dispel some of those myths around racism."

A representative with the Bank of Canada says even though the nomination period is over, Tommy Prince is on their radar.

Submissions were supposed to be in by March 11, but Kmiec hopes the government will make an exception given the pandemic circumstances.

Travis Golby/CBC
Travis Golby/CBC

Prince, originally from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, roughly 65 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, earned 11 medals for his heroism during the Second World War and Korean War, including one presented to him by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.

But when he returned to Canada, he and thousands of other Indigenous veterans were denied many of the benefits given to other veterans. When he died in 1977, the decorated war hero was homeless.

A humble man

Jim Bear, Prince's nephew, said the nomination is an honour, and one his uncle would never have sought out in life.

"To me, he was a humble man. He was a quiet man," said Bear, a former chief of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, on Tuesday. "He just had a great sense of humour."

It's bittersweet to see his uncle get recognition now, decades after his death and the racism he experienced after returning from service, Bear said.

"He was accepted when he was in the uniform, but when he got home and took off the uniform, he was just treated with racism and systemic racism," Bear said. "I think that's really, really disgusting."

Prince rarely spoke of the wars, Bear said. In fact, Bear had no idea his uncle was a military hero until just a couple of years before his death.

Instead, Bear remembers his uncle's unstoppable sense of humour, which persisted despite the horrors of war and his time in a residential school, and how hard he fought to to see Indigenous rights recognized during his lifetime.

The idea to put his uncle on the $5 bill is nice, Bear said. But the best way to honour his uncle's memory would be to make the meaningful changes sergeant Tommy Prince fought for all his life.

"I describe him as a visionary," Bear said. "He was advocating abolishing the Indian Act, even back then — and those are the kind of things we're still trying to change."