By Lloyd Dolha
Condolences from across the country poured out when the highly respected and well-known Aboriginal veteran’s advocate Tom Eagle passed away on September 28th in Yellowknife. He was 77.
Eagle was a member of the Tootinaowazibeeng (Valley River) Ojibway First Nation in Manitoba. He joined the Canadian army in 1951 and was honourably discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1975. Eagle served two tours of military duty in West Germany and served with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Cyprus where he was a platoon commander. After 25 years of service, he retired and settled in Yellowknife. “Tom was, personally, a modest man, but was fiercely proud of the contributions First Nations veterans made to Canada and advocated strongly for equitable benefits for First Nations soldiers,” said AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo. “He will be remembered for his commitment to Canada and his pursuit of equality and justice for his people.”
Eagle was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal and the Canadian Forces Decoration. He also received the Veteran’s Affairs Citation and a citation from the government of Canada for his contributions to community work. New Democrat MP Dennis Bevington rose in the Western Artic House of Commons to praise Eagle’s work for First Nations veterans. “In the two world wars, more than 7,000 Aboriginal people served Canada, and 500 gave their lives. These veterans were marginalized, never receiving the services and benefits provided to non-Aboriginal veterans,” said Bevington. “Tom worked to right these wrongs as chair of the First Nations Veteran’s Association, as a member of the National Round Table on First Nations Veterans Issues, and as the chair of the NVT/Nunavut Aboriginal Veterans Association,” said the Western Artic MP.
Tom Eagle was devoted to the socio-economic and political development of the Dene in Canada, particularly in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, since 1960. He helped form Aboriginal organizations such as the National Association of Indian Friendship Centres and the Native Council of Canada. Before coming to the Northwest Territories, Eagle acted as Métis spokesperson with the federal Housing Task Force from 1968 to 1969 and was a chief organizer in the formation of the Manitoba Métis Federation and the National Native Brotherhood (forerunner of the Assembly of First Nations).
Eagle served as the executive director of the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre in Yellowknife twice from 1979 to 1984 and again from 1986 to 2002. In 2006, he witnessed the realization his vision of a new facility for the centre. In his capacity as the chairperson of the Northwest/Yukon Friendship Centre Association, Eagle was responsible for the development of Friendship Centres in Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, Hay River, Fort Providence, Rankin Inlet, and Fort Rae. He was a relentless advocate of First Nations veterans’ rights and was also active in the outreach process, informing the community about the First Nations Veteran package and helping veterans and their widows apply for benefits. Eagle worked for years with the late Anishinabek Nation elder Ray Rodgers to achieve recognition and fair treatment for veterans. “I met him many times and had great talks with him,” said Anishinabek Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee. “We will not soon see their like again.”
Tom Eagle is survived by daughters Bertha, Eleanor, and Margaret and sons Brian and Raymond. He also had ten grandchildren and six great grand children. First Nations Drum offers our condolences to his family and friends.