Indigenous veteran Emile Highway stands up for 'forgotten soldiers'

·8 min read

Warning: This story contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting to some readers.

The float plane kissed the water's surface for a moment before rising and taking Emile Highway far from home.

It was 1949, and Highway was seven years old. He was born on a trapline near Southend as a member of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, a northern Saskatchewan community 220 kilometres northeast of La Ronge.

He watched as the plane sped away, leaving him with the huge "alien" buildings of Sturgeon Landing residential school.

"I always think I was born into a society that at the time was going to be tough for myself to live in," he says.

The path Highway took through that society — through trauma and addiction — led him to staunch advocacy for the Indigenous veterans he calls "forgotten soldiers."

Highway, 79, was a soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces for 20 years without a promotion, primarily serving in Europe and Cyprus in the grips of the Cold War.

It wasn't hard for him to transition between residential school and the military.

He doesn't remember crying on his first night at the residential school, but he saw other boys who did. Highway walked the yard with his brother, an eight-year-old who Highway says took on the heavy burden of comforting his younger brother.

"It was a house full of fear, this enormous building," he says.

It was a "mosquito-infested place," so isolated in the bush that a child running away had to cross about 33 kilometres before reaching a rail line between Flin Flon and The Pas, Man.

Highway, who participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, experienced abuse. He has vivid memories of the rigid religious teachings that told him to be ashamed of who he was and that kept him from his culture's values and history.

The children were stick figures, and diseases like tuberculosis ran rampant.

A cousin of Highway's died there when she was 12. He doesn't know where she's buried.

Highway found ways to survive. When the winter came, he secretly hid a turnip in the snow in the building's yard so he could eat it later that season.

"I quit at Grade 7. I refused to come back. I thought, 'I'm going to risk taking a beating from my dad. I'm not going back there again.' And I never did go back," he says.

The overcrowded facility burned down in 1952, according to Shattering the Silence, an education resource on residential schools by the University of Regina faculty of education.

After he left Sturgeon Landing, Highway was angry and swore no one would ever hurt him again — a sign of the trauma that later strained his relationships and contributed to his addiction.

Highway found work as a commercial fisherman, hunter and trapper like his father did. He also discovered a valuable skill: he was a crack shot.

He had what he calls an initiation around age 12 when he took off with his dad's shotgun. He snuck up on a gaggle of ducks, took aim and fired. The gun burst apart, gave him a nosebleed and sent him sprawling backward.

He made his living that way until he turned 17 and left his reserve for good, only returning roughly 20 years later for a funeral.

Highway wandered and was sleeping on the river bank at The Pas, Man. on a mattress of cardboard when he decided to join the military at about 19.

"A lot of people joined up because they're hungry or because their buddies joined up for the adventure, or for employment," he says. "You know, I wanted to prove something to my dad that I was now a man."

However, the office turned Highway away. He only had a Grade 7 education and they couldn't accept him until he studied at a vocational school in Saskatoon.

When he had done so, Highway wanted to be an engineer; they offered him infantry.

He was "straight out of the bush" when he walked into the barracks for the first time and saw other high school-aged soldiers milling around.

Highway, who had spent days and nights alone fending for himself, felt older than his years due to his life experience when hearing their locker-room humour across the bunks.

Roughly half of about 60 recruits graduated training with him. He landed a spot in the top three.

That success helped him secure a station in Germany, flying into the divided country as part of a standing force in a Cold War showdown splitting east and west Europe.

As opposed to high-stakes politics, Highway's best moments in Europe were spent at play. He was an excellent sniper and hockey player and became a regular in a circuit of competitions for both.

Competition and socializing were escapes from the monotony of service. His past was never far away. He feared authority — a trait he attributes to residential school — and his officers never promoted him.

Restlessness gripped him in Europe as he drifted from company to company, battalion to battalion and regiment to regiment.

"Run, run, run. Always running. Running throughout my army career, if you can call it a career," he says.

He was forever confined to the barracks, scrubbing pots and pans. He spent stints in jail. One of them was in Victoria, B.C. when he was driving an army truck under the influence with a bunch of drunk, hooting civilians in the back. A police officer pulled him over and Highway ended up in a cell.

When death did come, it wasn't in the heat of battle — but it weighed the same.

One morning in Germany, Highway and two of his best friends flipped over a 13-tonne military vehicle. Highway says people heard the crash as far as four kilometres away.

He was badly hurt in the wreck, landing on the ground with a view of his two friends. One was caught underneath, while the other hung out of the driver's seat.

"I'm no doctor but I knew they weren't going to make it."

Their deaths stay with him to this day. When Highway spoke to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veteran's Affairs in 2018, he listed their deaths as part of the reason he became estranged from the uniform.

"I didn't want anything to do with the uniform anymore. I didn't own any weapons, rifles, hunting rifles, or anything for about 10 years. I completely wanted to isolate myself from that culture," he told the MPs.

At about 37, he was close to quitting at 18 years of service but stayed on to complete his time as support staff in Kamloops on the advice of a priest. An officer snickered when he asked for help with his post-duty resume.

However, after he grew alienated from the military and estranged from his family he found his sobriety.

An older Indigenous veteran named Thomas who drove a tank on the beaches of Normandy in the Second World War sponsored him. Highway remembers the man telling him to pray for a racist officer in the military, as a way to heal.

"If you carry that resentment around, he says you're going to find yourself drinking again," Highway says.

Highway was sober by the time he attended a powwow at Wanuskewin and recognized an old friend from the military in the early '90s.

They caught up, and soon Highway had joined the Saskatchewan First Nations Veteran's Association (SFNVA). He joined as they held military funerals, hosted Remembrance Day ceremonies and paid tribute to veterans who Highway felt often went overlooked.

Highway went on to serve as the grand chief of the association, before entering his current role as the president of the Prince Albert branch and Saskatchewan veterans representative to the Assembly of First Nations.

Through sobriety, he also reconciled with his family and rebuilt relationships.

Highway, who found peace, often reflects on someone who didn't: the war hero Tommy Prince, an Indigenous Second World War and Korean War veteran, who faced discrimination, addiction and a deteriorating personal life after his military service before dying in 1977.

Prince's heroism helped inspire Highway to push for more veteran support, but Highway's story has its own meaning outside of blood and guts battles on foreign shores.

Highway is a quiet man who sometimes struggled to strike his own path after the military, but listeners are drawn to his storytelling, says SFNVA Grand Chief Steven Ross.

It may be why he's such a successful advocate.

"People take note and listen when he speaks. It's fascinating how he's able to talk to people," Ross adds.

After a long healing journey, Highway now says he has three families of origin: his biological one, the military, and the one he created in his 32-years of uninterrupted sobriety as he sponsored those who came to him for help.

Those sometimes appear in tension. Once Highway was visiting his home community when a man he knew called him a "traitor" for serving in the army. Highway didn't know what to say until he saw him a second time. He told him he was proud.

"You'll never know the joy that Indigenous men and women feel in their hearts for having served their country. We didn't do that for the broken promises or the injustices. We joined for the Treaties," Highway said.

"We did it for one reason only: our love for the land."

Resources are available for survivors and those seeking emotional support in the wake of recent events. The 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419.

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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