Aboriginal veteran proud of his service

He holds no bitterness despite discrimination

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A stroke put the aboriginal veteran in the hospital for three months. Racial discrimination -- including "jokes" about "drunken Indians" -- plagued him during his time in the Canadian Armed Forces. But nothing can stop Melvin Swan from sharing his message of remembrance.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/11/2012 (3670 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A stroke put the aboriginal veteran in the hospital for three months. Racial discrimination — including “jokes” about “drunken Indians” — plagued him during his time in the Canadian Armed Forces. But nothing can stop Melvin Swan from sharing his message of remembrance.

“I carry a torch that’s got to go on,” Swan said before getting help putting on his military uniform for Aboriginal Veterans Day on Thursday.

“I’ve experienced a lot in my life and buried a lot of veterans,” said the widower, who suffered his stroke in April. “I think of them at this time of year.”

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Veteran Melvin Swan won a landmark human rights case in the 1990s.

The Winnipeg veteran, who served in the military for 12 years, won a landmark Canadian Human Rights Commission case in 1994.

He was harassed during his military career because of his aboriginal ancestry.

At the human rights tribunal, he listed incidents of being treated differently or hearing negative comments about “Indians.” They included references to drunken Indians and comments such as “Indians aren’t so bright, eh Swan?”

Some tribunal witnesses insisted the comments were meant as jokes. That wasn’t the point, the tribunal wrote in its judgment. The context or intention of the perpetrator was not the issue.

“The issue is the perception of the individual who is victimized. Lack of objection and even participation in the activity do not imply consent or cloak otherwise objectionable behaviour with propriety… individuals may feel powerless to do anything but accept the behaviour because of their desire to fit into the peer group.”

The tribunal ruled the employer has a duty “to respond promptly and effectively to complaints of harassment with a thorough investigation and with sensitivity to the person complaining.”

It said the Forces’ “glossing over” the complaint and not investigating was “not good enough.”

It ordered the Forces, which was adopting a zero-tolerance policy for harassment at the time, to give Swan a written apology, $2,500 plus interest for hurt feelings and damage to his self-respect, plus legal costs. It also ordered the Forces to make changes to the harassment policy being developed.

The treatment he received hasn’t soured Swan on the military. This week, he and veterans of all ages will polish their shoes, don blazers and badges to visit classrooms across Canada as part of the Historica-Dominion Institute’s Memory Project speaker’s bureau.

“It’s my job and my duty to honour those veterans,” said Swan, 54.

It’s the right thing to do as a warrior, he said.

“Warriors are people (who) protect the people, the culture, the language and the treaties,” the Ojibwa-speaking man said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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