When Checker Tomkins went off to war, he took with him a top-secret weapon the Germans knew nothing about.
The Cree language.
His work was so highly classified, even after the war ended he was under orders not to tell anyone – not even his own family.
Until recently, even Tomkins’ own brothers had no idea he was involved in covert work.
“All that time, they were under an oath of secrecy,” said Frank Tomkins. “And they honoured it. I never knew about it.”
For that reason, and perhaps others, few people know about the role men like Charles “Checker” Tomkins played in the Allied victory during the Second World War.
Film director Alexandra Lazarowich hopes to change that. She’s making a 10-minute documentary about Tomkins.
“This is an important story to tell,” she said. “Because I feel like lots of aboriginal veterans in Canada have not been recognized by anyone, anywhere.”
The role of the Navajo “code talkers” was brought to the big screen in 2002, in the Hollywood movie Windtalkers.
Lazarowich wanted to tell the story of Cree soldiers from Canada who played much same the role during the war.
“This kind of sacrifice and this kind of use of our language, I thought that more people need to know about this,” she said. “Everyone knows the Navajo story, but we had our own guys in our own backyard who were doing this. Cree from Alberta and Cree from Saskatchewan.”
Tomkins was from Grouard, Alta., about 170 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie.
Smokey Tomkins said before his brother died in 2003, at age 85, he told the family some details about the messages the “code talkers” would pass back and forth.
“Numbers, of course,” he said. “There’s 14 bombers, you know, so they say the word fourteen.
“If they were referring to a mosquito bomber, you would use the word sakimes… sakimes in Cree is a mosquito.”
Lazarowich hopes her film leads to more recognition for Checker Tomkins and other aboriginal veterans.
“I’d really love to see him get recognized by the Canadian government,” she said. “And I’d also really love for him to get a Congressional Medal. Because the United States honoured all of their code talkers … a few years ago.”