Profile: Gordon Ahenakew
by Cal Vandale
with permission from
Past President of the Saskatchewan Indian Veterans Association, Gordon Ahenakew is both soft spoken and out-spoken at the same time. He has been blessed with an engaging dry wit and an inclination towards understatement. Gordon's reminiscences about World War II and his concerns for the treatment of Indian veterans remind us that all too little has been said and done in given Indian veterans the appreciation that other non-Native veterans have received over the years.
Gordon Ahenakew was born in 1925 on the Sandy Lake Reserve. His parents were Edwin Ahenakew and Edith (Peekeekoot) Ahenakew and there were twelve boys and two girls in his family. Gordon grew up on the reserve and received his education at the Day School there.
In 1943 Gordon volunteered for active duty in the Second World War. He enlisted just before his eighteenth birthday and was sent overseas. Gordon mentioned that at least seventeen men from Sandy joined up at about the same time. He reminisced about the feelings he had when he enlisted. "I was going to save the whole world....but that didn't happen," and on a lighter note, he added..." and it still hasn't happened!"
While he was most accommodating about sharing stories and concerns, he does so at a personal cost to himself. He says that quite often, the memories come back to haunt him at night and he dreams about the war after speaking of it.
Gordon related, "during the war it was quite rough....you prepare yourself to die as you go....one of the hardest things at first was seeing boys...get killed...but then you get used to it...you get heartless." He mentioned that there were many stories that have never been told. There were things, he said, that happened and no one ever talked about them after the war. He added that "because we won the war no one talks about the war crimes."
Although he jokes about his memory not being what it used to be, reminding us that it has been more than fifty years since these events took place, he recounts specific incidents with clarity and detail.
Memories of a seemingly mundane marching drill remained through the years, because of a certain Sergeant Major. Gordon recalls marching in formation when he missed a command from the officer. The man in front of him stopped and Gordon almost bumped into him, breaking formation and causing a disruption in the drill. The Sergeant Major screamed at him, saying "Bloody Indian! Don't you understand timing?"
Although the stories are old by some standards Gordon feels that it is important that school children are taught about Indian veterans' involvement in the Second World War.
Gordon said that he goes into the schools to tell school children the things they should know about their grandfathers....and the things they did in the war...so that the Indian children will recognize the accomplishments of their ancestors who fought in the war.
When asked whether or not Aboriginal youth are taught to respect and honour their veterans and elders, he said "I would like to be able to say yes...but....the way things are going....the way the world is going now...they don't teach anything about respect. Young people are only involved in their own little world......"
After the war, Gordon was ordained in the Anglican church. He was a priest for over seventeen years and ministered in the Big River, Sandy Lake, and Muskoday areas. It was Gordon's experiences in the war years that led him into ministering.
He remembers that he always was the one to offer comfort and prayer to the other soldiers around him. One particular incident stood out over the others, as he recalled offering prayer and a hymn for a dying soldier. He sang Abide With Me, as the young man who was not more than eighteen or nineteen died from his wounds.
Gordon said that at that time telegrams were sent to the family of the men who died, and they would have reached the family within one day of the death. This young man's name was Doucette and his family was from Duck Lake. Gordon recalled that the parents had tried to meet with him to thank him for what he had done for their son, but he was not able to face them. He said that the memory was just too painful, and he was not able to meet them until he felt that he was ready.
When asked if Indian soldiers returned home to better conditions because they were war veterans, Gordon said, "That's the story.... I expected big things....but it didn't happen..." Gordon said that the non-Native soliders were known as Veterans of the Second World War when they were discharged but, he added, "We weren't veterans...we were 'Treaty Indian veterans...there was a difference."
All veterans were supposed to get $6,000.00 in benefits when they got back to their home communities. The former president of SIVA stated that Indian veterans were only eligible to receive about $2,300.00. Gordon remembers the bands were expected to pay this money, and quite often the funds were simply not provided by the government for them to do so. Gordon mentioned that the perception at the time was that Indian veterans would use the money to purchase alcohol, even though Indians at the time were still not allowed to be in licensed establishements, nor were they allowed to purchase alcohol.
Gordon remembers that Diefenbaker was involved in speaking up for the rights of non-Native veterans, but that politicians did not pay attention to the plight of Indian veterans. He stated that, "One guy got wounded but he didn't get any pension until over 20 years after the war...." He mentioned that "We had over 600 Native men in the war...but there is an argument over this...the government says around 400..." He feels that this has to do with the unpaid benefits that remain and he feels that this matter still needs to be addressed between Indian Veterans Associations and the federal government.
After remembering and hearing the stories of individuals like Gordon Ahenakew, we must remind the government about their outstanding obligations to the veterans. At the same time, by recording their stories, we ensure that future generations will recognize the valuable and memorable contributions of previous generations who were involved in events that changed the course of history.