It was a special birthday for one of Canada’s oldest surviving Second World War veterans.
Saturday was the 96th birthday celebration of Philip Favel, a member of Sweetgrass First Nation, who served as a private in the armed forces in Europe during the war.
On hand for the celebration was Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, and Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
They arrived at Favel’s home on the Sweetgrass reserve that morning with several gifts that included blankets, a book on the service of Indigenous people in the Canadian armed forces and other items.
Vance also presented his Canadian Armed Forces crest to Favel. Faval also received a letter from Lt. Gen. C. A. Lamarre along with a logistics branch coin. Favel served in the same branch known as the Service Corps during the Second World War.
Another priority for the Canadian Forces was to make sure Favel had in his possession all the medals he should rightfully have. Favel signed a document authorizing the armed forces to retrieve his service records, to make sure he received all medals.
When asked by Bellegarde if he thought he had all his medals, Favel replied “I don’t know. I don’t buy them,” which drew a lot of laughs.
There was at least one item Favel was missing: a pin featuring the image of Queen Elizabeth II. Vance pledged they would track down and replace that pin.
After the gifts were bestowed, Favel, Vance, Bellegarde and Sweetgrass Chief Laurence Paskemin they talked about Favel’s service during the war.
On Juno Beach on D-Day
It was recounted that when Favel first tried to join the army, he lied about his age. But his mother intervened at the time to get him removed.
Favel eventually did join the army in the spring of 1942.
After enlisting, Favel trained in England before landing on Juno Beach on D-Day. Favel was in action during the war as a truck driver, driving to and from the front lines. It was, at times, a dangerous assignment.
“My windshield on the vehicle got smashed three times,” said Favel. But “you had to keep going, you cannot run back.”
He recalled one time in France when he lifted a person who had been injured and placed him on the ground. He wondered how he was able to do it, adding he could not do it today.
“When I picked up that guy, who couldn’t do anything for himself, I just picked him up and put him in the spot,” Favel said. “Today, I can’t even lift five gallons of water.”
Favel also took care of two children who were also on the scene. Favel holds a medal from the French for his actions that day.
“You did what you needed to do then,” said Vance.
An Opportunity to Learn
Favel credits the armed forces for providing him with the knowledge that he hadn’t received in school.
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“The main thing, is I got to learn,” Favel told Vance.
He walked out of residential school in Grade 2 because “I didn’t like the way the priests and the nuns treated the kids.”
“I learned a lot more in the Army than I did in schools,” said Favel.
Near the end, when Vance asked Favel if he had liked his time in the army, Favel responded “yeah.”
“I don’t hear that from everybody,” Vance responded.
A Difficult Experience
Still, the Second World War was a tough experience.
“He never forgets what happened,” said Favel’s youngest daughter, Juliette.
“That’s the thing most people don’t understand is it still haunts him. I’ve heard him talk about it all the time. I’ve tried to listen and respectfully understand being his youngest daughter. Back when we were kids growing up we didn’t understand but now I do.”
When the war ended in Europe, Favel had joined up to go to Japan, but the war in the Pacific wrapped up soon after. Favel returned to Sweetgrass.
Chief Bellegarde reminded everyone of what the situation was like for Indigenous veterans returning home in those days. While most returning veterans were covered by Veterans Affairs, the Indigenous veterans were covered by Indian Affairs, which meant they were excluded and deprived of numerous benefits. Favel was part of the team that wrote a report about the missed benefits, which ultimately resulted in compensation being provided by the government.
The day also provided a chance for Bellegarde to remind Vance about the long history of Indigenous people serving in the Canadian forces.
One article of the treaties promised Indigenous people would not be called upon to “fight the Queen’s wars.” But during the world wars and Korean wars, Indigenous soldiers volunteered in large numbers.
“They did it out of honour and respect and duty to family and community and nation,” said Bellegarde. He also said many Indigenous Second World War veterans were motivated by their desire to preserve the treaties from foreign conquest.
Later on Saturday, a feast was scheduled in Favel’s honour at the reserve’s community centre complete with a birthday cake. A round dance was held that night as well.
Favel said he doesn’t know why he should be the centre of attention.
“Why me? To have all these people do all that … I don’t understand,” said Favel.
For Vance, the day represented a chance to personally thank one of last surviving Indigenous Second World War veterans in Canada.
“Every member of the armed forces serving today recognizes the service and sacrifice of those who landed at D-Day and those who fought before us and we revere them,” said Vance.
“Unfortunately, those numbers are starting to dwindle, so it’s a deep honour for me to be here today to just tell Mr. Favel how much I appreciated his service and just to spend a moment with someone who I consider a Canadian hero.”
“Philip served with honour and dignity and pride, and you could feel that this morning when we brought in the chief of defence staff,” said Bellegarde.
“I’m just very pleased to be part of this … and to see him and show how he’s loved and respected, not only on Sweetgrass First Nation, but across Canada.”