A young Indigenous man from Grouard, Alberta, enlisted to fight in the Second World War and he just received a secret summons from the Canadian High Command in London.
Confused, he asked his superior officers about it but they were oblivious as well. The summons said to go to a specific location, at a specific time on a specific day. When the time came, he showed up on time and as he walked into the large room, he saw at least 100 other Indigenous men standing there. They all wore Canadian uniforms, and all seemed as confused as he was..
He looked around but saw no familiar faces.
Then, several high-ranking individuals walked into the room and as they walked they asked the men what Indigenous language they spoke.
When he was asked, the young man said “Cree”. He was separated and grouped with other men who also spoke Cree.
He was then paired with a man from Saskatchewan. They were put in different rooms with a phone and told to translate an English message to and from Cree.
Once they had successfully completed this, they were told they were now code talkers and sworn to secrecy.
Charles Tomkin’s kept that secret for decades…I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx![TRANSITION]
Often when I research an episode, I have ample information at my disposal to craft a narrative.
However, this time it was tough to find the information I needed because the man who is the subject of this episode, Charles Tomkins, didn’t talk about what he did during the war until just before his death. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating story to tell,[PAUSE]
Charles Marvin Tomkins was born to Isabella and Peter Tomkins on Jan. 8, 1918 in Grouard, Alberta, a small community located four hours north of Edmonton, on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake. Tomkins grew up in a quiet community with his family that included nine other biological children and three stepchildren. They nicknamed Chicksees him, which means Checker.
His brothers couldn’t explain the nickname that stayed with him until the end. His parents were Metis and often spoke Cree and English within the home which made the children bilingual.
His parents wanted to ensure that their children learned Cree to maintain the cultural connection to their ancestors. Their grandmother was a widow of the celebrated Chief Poundmaker, who led the Cree for many years in the 19th century, and her uncle was Big Bear, another important Cree chief. Charles’ grandmother also taught him Cree, and told him that if he were ever in combat, he should sing the war song, she taught him, to protect him.
At the time, speaking an Indigenous language at home was incredibly important because of the residential school program. In 1900, there were 22 industrial schools and 39 residential schools then it expanded during Charles’ lifetime and by 1931, the peak of the residential school program, there were 80 schools in operation around Canada. It was mandatory for Indigenous children to attend residential schools, as it was illegal for them to attend any other educational institution.
The goal was to force Indigenous children to assimilate into European culture by taking them from their parents and forbidding them from speaking their language, or celebrating their culture. I couldn’t find a record of Charles or his siblings attending a residential school, survivor records are not easily found but considering the time it is likely they attended the Grouard Indian Residential School, now known as the St. Bernard’s Residential School, which operated from 1894 to 1961.
This is the same school where in 2022, 169 potentially unmarked graves were discovered on the property.
There are many survivors and people affected by the residential school system and support is available at 1-866-925-4419 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience.[PAUSE]
Back to Charles’ story…
In 1939, he married Lena Anderson and shortly after, Charles enlisted with the Canadian Army to fight overseas in the Second World War. In the background of The Great Depression enlisting with the army ensured a paycheque for his wife and family. Of the ten siblings in the family, six served in the Second World War which was common for Indigenous families across Canada.
Despite not being allowed to vote, and enduring residential schools and other trauma, over 3,000 Indigenous people enlisted to fight for Canada in the Second World War. Six months after Charles enlisted, he crossed the Atlantic ocean destined for Europe with his brother Peter. The trip was terrible. Charles was one of 800 soldiers who spent 11 days on a crowded ship in rough seas with nothing to eat but salted herring and beets.
On Christmas Eve, 1941, they landed in Scotland and Charles was assigned to the Second Canadian Armoured Brigade, where he would begin working with tanks. Until a few months later when a message came in that completely changed his life.
That’s when the Canadian High Command sent Charles, a baffling recruiting message. He later described the meeting he went to as
“When I got there, there were all kinds of different Indians. We didn’t know what it was all about.”
That was Charles’ first step towards becoming a code talker…
For Code talkers Secrecy was paramount. They quickly became key to the Allied war effort because up until then Germany and Japan were able to break Allied codes, allowing them to know battle plans, making it easy for them to prepare and defend. The Allies had an ace up their sleeves though, the Indigenous languages of North America.
The Germans and Japanese were unfamiliar with them. They have a different root language which is completely different from anything the Axis had in Europe or Asia so they couldn’t decipher it and be able to crack the code. The use of Indigenous languages actually dates to the First World War, when Cherokee, Comanche and other Indigenous languages were used by the United States to hide messages from the Germans. Navajo and Mohawk were used by the United States primarily in the Pacific War against Japan in the Second World War, but in Europe, Cree was the language of choice. Outside of North America, Cree was virtually unknown, making it perfect for encoding battle plans.
Cree was also chosen as the coding language to use because of its accuracy in translation between it and English.
The language is actually called Nehiyawewin and it consists of five dialects which are spoken by the Plains Cree, Woodlands Cree, Swampy Cree, Moose Cree, and Atikamekw Cree.
These dialects were found in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. When code talkers were assigned to each other, they were often simply assigned in pairs if the other person spoke Cree. There was little thought of dialects, which created challenges for the code talkers as they now had to translate messages from English and find the proper word across five different dialects before being able to successfully code and decode messages.[PAUSE]
Although he was part of the Canadian Army, the United States had a much larger code talker program and Charles was assigned to the United States Eighth Air Force and the Ninth Bomber Command.
Working with five other Cree-speaking soldiers, they translated information about troop movements, supply lines and bombing runs. Once the messages were translated, they were sent to battlefields where another code talker translated the message back into English. The use of an Indigenous language created some challenges though.
There were no words for bombers, machine guns and tanks. Charles and other code talkers had to use pre-existing words in new ways all had to agree on them. The Mustang aircraft was referred to as wild horse, and the Spitfire was simply called fire. A machine gun was ‘little gun that shoots fast’ and the Mosquito fighter-bomber was simply called mosquito.
The B17 bomber used the words for bee and the number 17. The German High Command was never able to break the Cree code, and ensured American success in bombing raids. The cruel irony is not lost on me that if residential schools had been successful in forbidding and thus killing Indigenous language, it could’ve very much changed the result of war efforts during the Second World War.
Two years after he first became a code talker Charles and the others were all sent back to their units, where they continued to fight. For the remainder of the war, Charles saw action in France, Germany, and Holland. When it was over Charles and his five siblings who all served in the war, thankfully all of them returned home
For his service during the war, Charles was awarded the Defence Medal, the 1939-1945 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the War Medal 1939-1945.
Sworn to secrecy, Charles took that oath very seriously, and few ever learned about his service as a code talker.
Years later, he said,
“Although we’ve done the job as Cree Indians, that part doesn’t matter. I’ve done what I was asked and that’s good enough.”
Discharged after the war, Charles was given $100 to buy civilian clothes, a transport warrant, and a handshake. Unlike white soldiers, he was not told about any land he was entitled to as a reward for his service. This was unfortunately common for many Indigenous soldiers who fought for Canada.
With little options, he chose to go back to the army to provide for his family.
(SMALL PAUSE – MUSIC TRANSITION)
He was first stationed at Currie Barracks in Calgary and then spent the next 25 years serving in different regiments in Canada including the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. By the end of his military career, he had risen to the rank of corporal, only one rank above private. It was one rank below the highest rank for junior noncommissioned members, Master Corporal and two ranks below sergeant. How could someone spend 25 years in the Armed Forces and only rise to the rank of corporal?
When others with his experience would be a lieutenant, captain, or at least a sergeant.
It came down to the fact he was Indigenous.
Charles said years later that no matter what he did as a soldier, he was overlooked for promotions.[PAUSE]
You might be wondering… if Charles was so committed to the secret oath.. how did I know he was a code talker? The answer to that is hidden in muddy waters… and dates
In some sources Charles’ brother Jimmy said he learned of his brother’s secret in 1992 after they watched the movie Windtalkers starring Canadian Indigenous actor Adam Beach and Nicholas Cage. This fact was stated in several newspapers as well. He said in an interview in 2015,
“I had no idea that he had been involved with code talking. After we saw that movie, he started talking about it, that was the first time that I had ever heard anything about it.”
The issue is that Windtalkers was released in 2002, and just prior to the movie’s release, the Ottawa Citizen interviewed Charles about his code talker service. There is also a Calgary Herald story about Charles from November 2000,two years before Windtalkers was released. In some sources his brother Jimmy was involved, while in others it was his brother Frank.
Considering Jimmy is the one quoted in the newspaper, I believe it’s him.
As I said…it’s a bit muddled, but I wanted to cover all the angles. The fact of the matter is that for decades, until at least the early-1990s to early-2000s, Charles said little to nothing about his time as a code talker.
Speaking of it, his, Jimmy said,
“All that time, they were under an oath of secrecy, and they honoured it. I never knew about it.”
The work of Charles and others had been declassified by the Canadian government in 1963, but most refused to break their oath and never talked about it. And there was little press coverage about the code talkers upon the declassification of their work. I did a search through every major newspaper in Canada from 1963, and there was no mention of code talkers.
In fact there’s nothing until the 2000s, after Charles’ story came to light. Charles took his secret nearly to the grave. Charles was in his 80s when his family finally learned about his service as a code talker, around the same time as that Calgary Herald article came out in 2000.
In it Charles said of his comrades
“They are long dead now. I am the only one alive, except maybe one or two in Saskatchewan.”
When the movie Windtalkers was released, there was a renewed interest in code talkers. The sudden interest in code talkers was an annoyance to Charles, who was unhappy with the recognition but felt it was too little too late.
“What upsets me is I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. It is a little late now. I’m really discouraged about it.”
In 2003, Charlie gave the names of other code talkers he knew so their story could be preserved. They were Walter McDermott, his brother Peter, his half-brother John Smith and his friend Archie Plante. That year, two representatives from the Smithsonian came to Calgary to interview him about the Cree code talkers’ program.
“I love my country and I have done everything they asked me to do. That’s why I was in the army.”
In 2016, a short documentary about Charles was released called Cree Code Talker through the National Film Board and Aboriginal Veterans Society of Alberta. Apart from his own oath of silence, why don’t we know more about Canada’s code talkers?[TRANSITION]
The Navajo code talkers in the United States received the highest military award in the United States in 2001, the Congressional Medal of Honor. In fact another Charles, Charles Chibitty, the last code talker in the United States, received a medal for extraordinary service at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. But for Canada’s code talkers, it is a very different story.
In 2000, Janice Summerby, a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs said,
“A lot spoke in their native language. Veterans are recognized in many ways, and there are so many people who contributed. We have to review his record and the department will make a decision.”
Charles only received a letter of commendation from Veterans Affairs. Even that commendation was not specifically for his code talking, but his service in the military throughout his life. Even today, it is unknown how many Canadian code talkers there were because code talking was never officially adopted into the Canadian military.
Charles died in 2003 and before he did he said of the lack of recognition,
“It doesn’t surprise me. It is just like everything else.”[OUTRO]
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Readers Digest, CBC, Regina Leader-Post, Wikipedia, Radio Canada, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, Canada History, Cree Code Talker