Canada’s Indigenous soldiers wove unbreakable wartime code with native languages

Article / August 9, 2019 / Project number: Ncr-ar-19-0098-Codetalkers

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By Lynn Capuano, with files from Shannon Morrow, Army Public Affairs

August 9 marks the 37th International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The 2019 theme is Indigenous Peoples’ Languages. The clever use of Indigenous languages to create an unbreakable secret code played a vital role in the victory of the Allies in the Second World War.

Ottawa, Ontario — Secrecy in communication during the Second World War was as important as it was difficult. What better way to create an unbreakable secret code than to use a little-known language as its base?

Messages, whether in plain language or in code, were constantly being intercepted, stolen, overheard or deciphered. It was vital that Canada and its Allies find a way to send secret messages that the enemy could not decrypt.

They finally succeeded towards the end of the war. Termed “Code Talking,” it cleverly used Indigenous languages to create an unbreakable spoken code.

The job was simple but ingenious in its application. The Code Talkers would translate a secret message into words from an Indigenous language, speak it over the radio and another Indigenous soldier would translate it back into English at the other end.

One of the languages used was that spoken by the Cree First Nation people in Alberta and Saskatchewan. There were many patriotic Cree men and women who served during the Second World War and, since Cree was little-known and only spoken in Canada, its use as a code baffled enemy forces.

One of the few known Code Talkers

Because they were sworn to secrecy during and following the war, few Cree Code Talkers are known by name. One was Corporal (Retired) Charles (Checker) Tomkins.

Cpl (Retd) Tomkins was born January 8th, 1918 in Grouard Alberta, about 170 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie. A Métis of Cree and European ancestry, he joined the Canadian Army’s Second Armoured Brigade in 1940.

Cpl (Retd) Tomkins’ family was unaware that he had served as a Code Talker until two months before his death in August 2003 at age 85. As he had vowed to remain silent, the family only found out when two Smithsonian Institute interviewers arrived at his home in 2003 once the files had become declassified.

The interviewers asked him questions for an exhibit the museum was preparing on Code Talkers.

Navajo was the primary language American Code Talkers had used as code for American Pacific defense, a language that does not have a written form. This made it virtually impossible to break. The Cree-based secret code also used spoken Cree, although it has a written form. Varying dialects among the speakers made it even more cryptic.

During his interview with the Smithsonian researchers, Cpl (Retd) Tomkins discussed few details, but he did name some of his deceased comrades, most of whom he helped recruit for the Code Talker program: his brother Peter Tomkins, his half-brother John Smith, Louie Norwest, Walter McDermott and Archie Plante.

These men served in Charles’ immediate circle and are some of the only known Cree Code Talkers. The six survived the war but all have since passed away.

Secret recruitment of Code Talkers

Cpl (Retd) Tomkins was called to Canadian Military Headquarters in London on August 22, 1942, along with a number of other Indigenous soldiers, for a mysterious mission. Soon enough, they learned that they were about to become a secret weapon.

Cpl (Retd) Tomkins estimated 100 men were in the room with him the day of his recruitment as a Code Talker. Cree speakers as well as Indigenous soldiers from Ojibwe and other First Nations were tested. Cree speakers were valuable as they were often fluent in other languages such as French and English, especially if they were Métis like Cpl (Retd) Tomkins.

The Americans were first to recruit Indigenous people for this task, particularly speakers of Navajo, which was a language that did not have a written form. The American Code Talkers and their role in the Pacific theatre of war was told in the 2002 movie Windtalkers. As a result, the American story is much more well-known than the Canadian one.

Like the Cree code, the Navajo code was never broken.

Code Talking begins

Cpl (Retd) Tomkins was assigned, along with other Cree speakers, to the 8th U.S. Air Force and 9th Bomber Command in England. He began translation immediately and described orders over the radio for aircraft that were carrying out bombing orders from England, as well as orders for troop movement and supply missions.

Cree Code Talkers were improvisers. Because the traditional Cree language didn’t have words for “tank”, “bomb” or “machine gun”, they began inventing new terminology.

For example, Cree Code Talkers would use the Cree word meaning “fire” as code for a Spitfire plane, and the Cree words for “wild horse” to identify a Mustang aircraft. The Cree words for “bee” and the number 17 indicated a B17 bomber.

Following their time as Code Talkers, Cpl (Retd) Tomkins and the others returned to their Canadian units to prepare for the D-Day invasion. Cpl (Retd) Tomkins was a motorcycle dispatch rider with the Second Armoured Brigade, landing in France six days after D-Day. He also served in Germany and Holland.

When the war ended, Cpl (Retd) Tomkins returned home to Canada and re-enlisted in the Canadian Army. He served 25 years with a number of different regiments, including Les Fusiliers de Sherbrooke, the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

Nieces Adele Laderoute and Shirley Anderson remember

Today, Cpl (Retd) Tomkins’ surviving family members include niece Adele Laderoute of Gift Lake Métis Settlement in northern Alberta, and a second niece, Shirley Anderson, who lives in Grouard, Alberta.

Ms. Laderoute has many fond memories of her uncle and his wife Lena, who did not have children of their own. They adopted her following a family tragedy.

“When we lost our mother, my Dad, Louis Anderson, asked his sister Lena to take me in as I was the youngest child of 11 children,” she recalled. “There is so much to say about this great man who fought in the war for us. I am so lost for words.”

Ms. Anderson said that she was extremely pleased that her uncle’s story was becoming better known. She wrote an article for the Reader’s Digest magazine “Our Canada” in 2017 called How Cree Code Talkers From Alberta Helped Win the Second World War. See Related Links to view the article.

“The service that the Code Talkers provided was essential in the Second World War,” said Ms. Anderson, who learned Cree as a child and continues to speak it, as does her cousin. 

“The more the story is told, the more people will hear it – and hopefully it will galvanize the younger people to learn their language. It is important to keep the Cree language alive and this story enforces this,” she said.

Documentary released in 2016

In 2016, two Indigenous filmmakers, director Alexandra Lazarowich and producer Cowboy Smithx released the award-winning short documentary, Hear the Untold Story of a Canadian Code Talker from World War II. It features voice clips from Cpl (Retd) Tomkins’ Smithsonian interview, as well as personal stories from his family. In 2018, National Geographic added it to its Short Film Showcase.

Please refer to Related Links to view the documentary.

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9) highlights the critical need to revitalize, preserve and promote the world’s Indigenous languages. About 370 million Indigenous people live in 90 countries. They make up less than 5% of the world's population, but account for 15% of the poorest. For more information, go to the United Nations website, here: https://www.un.org/en/events/indigenousday/

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