An evolution of community service: How the Bold Eagle program became a success

Article / June 21, 2017 / Project number: 17-1034

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By Natalie Flynn, Army Public Affairs

Canada has celebrated National Aboriginal Day on June 21 since 1996. This commemorative day was chosen because of the significance of the summer solstice. For generations, many Indigenous peoples and communities have celebrated their culture and heritage on this day as it is the longest day of the year. It is a day to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

Wainwright, Alberta — Every summer, approximately 100 young people from across western Canada undergo six weeks of rigorous training as they complete their Basic Military Qualification through Bold Eagle, the Canadian Army’s (CA’s) development program dedicated to Indigenous youth.

Bold Eagle’s long-standing success has helped propel some positive changes. In 2017, following recent process improvements and increased focus on expanding the CA Primary Reserve (CA Pres), the course will be expanded by 50 per cent. This is a welcome development, as records show that applicant demand has long exceeded supply of placements within the program.

This unique initiative combines learning the fundamentals of military life with Indigenous teachings and cultural elements. It began as the brainchild of Major John Moberly, then-Reservist with The North Saskatchewan Regiment, who pitched the idea of a youth development and military training program to Brigadier-General (Retired) Cliff Walker, who in turn helped realize Bold Eagle in collaboration with the Prince Albert Grand Council in Saskatchewan in 1989.  

“As a Colonel and the Commander of the Saskatchewan Militia District, as it was known then, [now part of 38 Canadian Brigade Group], and with the blessing of then-Commander of the Canadian Army Lieutenant-General Kent Foster, I authorized a trial program involving some 15 First Nations young people from the Prince Albert Tribal Council area to attend a summer training program led by the North Saskatchewan Regiment in Dundurn, Saskatchewan, in the summer of 1990,” said BGen (Retd) Walker. “In addition to military training, there would be a First Nations’ cultural component to familiarize some of the young soldiers with their traditional Cree customs and culture.”

Observing the tensions that occurred over several months in the summer of 1990 between the Mohawk community of Kanesatake and the town of Oka, both in Québec, BGen (Retd) Walker’s first goal was to build a stronger relationship between the military and law enforcement and the Indigenous communities in the region. The second goal was a long-standing ambition to attract more Indigenous people and bring greater diversity into the Canadian Armed Forces.

“By the following spring [in 1991], there were rumours abounding about possible Oka-like confrontations throughout the Prairies,” said BGen (Retd) Walker. “Three men got together to discuss what we might do to prevent such a confrontation in Saskatchewan. The three men were Chief Roland Crowe, Chief of the FSIN [then-named the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, now known as the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations], Assistant Commissioner Cortlandt Macdonnell, Commanding Officer of "F" Division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police [RCMP] and myself, recently promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General and now commanding the Prairie Militia Area.”

With this important collaboration between the Army, the RCMP and FSIN, the Bold Eagle program established its footing. The CA would manage the military training of the Bold Eagle candidates, the FSIN would look after funding for the cultural component and the RCMP would assist in the publicity and recruitment for the program. In the summer of 1991, participant numbers doubled and over the next six years, Bold Eagle enjoyed local success, running courses of approximately 30 participants annually, first in the training area in Dundurn and then in Shilo, Manitoba.

In 1997, the CA Pres stood up new brigade groups, resulting in a reorganization of administrative jurisdictions and a consolidation of Reserve units over a larger territory. At the newly established 38 Canadian Brigade Group Headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Major Dennis Desrochers (Program Coordinator from 1997 to 2000) was among those charged reviewing the various programs and initiatives in the group’s area of responsibility. When details about the Bold Eagle program came across his desk, Maj Desrochers immediately saw the value that this program delivered to both the youth it served and to the CA.

With chain of command support, over the next two years the program grew to include applicants from other western provinces. Maj Desrochers and his staff worked to develop relationships with various Indigenous groups and community leaders, and a revitalized Bold Eagle program was moved to the CA training area in Wainwright, Alberta in 1998. By 1999, Bold Eagle was enrolling upwards of 100 candidates and its reach spanned across all of western Canada through to Thunder Bay in northern Ontario. The program continues to take place in Wainwright every year, with the military, law enforcement officials and Indigenous leaders working together under a joint management board.

“There was evidence coming out at the time that the various Indigenous communities were tracking that a Bold Eagle graduate was much more likely to complete high school. They were more likely to go on to more meaningful employment,” said Maj Desrochers. “Bold Eagle was used as a development program because the Canadian Armed Forces is great at building confidence and team spirit. All the things you’d learn at basic training were life skills that these people would take back to their communities.”

Maj Desrochers also underlines the importance of the four-day culture camp element at the start of the program. Candidates take part in traditional ceremonies and activities as a group. “It was important to bridge gaps. We firmly believe, and the data showed, that that first week was critical because it just got [candidates] over the shock of leaving home and being in a new environment. They built up those friendships and it just introduced them into the military slowly,” he said.

“By the time the second week rolled around and we went full hard into the recruit course training, they had the confidence and self-esteem to go forward. We were graduating 99 out of 100 students. Those numbers aren’t seen on a regular military qualification course,” said Maj Desrochers.

During his time with the program, Maj Desrochers witnessed first-hand the various challenges facing some of the communities that he visited, including finding gainful employment. “This was one of the reasons the program was also welcome, because not all communities had a lot of opportunities for youth and this was something that allowed them to have something to strive for,” he noted.

2nd Lieutenant (Retired) Herman Blind has been a member of the Bold Eagle management board since 1992. He served with the Royal Regina Regiment and is a long-time friend of BGen (Retd) Walker. In his view, Bold Eagle helps to instill valuable traits in the youth, such as citizenship and discipline. According to 2Lt (Retd) Blind a significant number of candidates, upon completing Bold Eagle, continue on as Reservists or join the Regular Force, as well as join local first responder services or seek public service employment, such as in customs or correctional services. “This program increases candidates’ chances of becoming leaders,” he said, adding that some graduates have gone on to become Band leaders, councillors, administrators, educators or other key figures in their home communities. 

“The Bold Eagle program has produced hundreds and hundreds of outstanding young graduates. They, in turn, have had a very positive effect on thousands of other people. I can only thank the multitude of military personnel, the Vice Chiefs and Elders from the FSIN and the various contributions made by the RCMP over the years who have jointly ensured that this program has grown and thrived,” said BGen (Retd) Walker.

Of his own personal and professional take-away from his time with Bold Eagle, Maj Desrochers said “it was an opportunity to take a challenge and make your mark. I was able to work with some outstanding and dedicated people in various Indigenous communities across western Canada and see their level of commitment to their youth and their overall excitement at this opportunity,” he said. 

BGen (Retd) Walker also carries many fond memories of Bold Eagle, one of which he considers particularly moving: “A memory that stood out in my mind was the sight of some older Elders and tribal chiefs at a Bold Eagle graduation parade. They were part of the parade ceremony itself and I can remember having to look away from the tears of joy that were streaming down their faces as they watched these wonderful young people marching proudly by as part of the graduation process,” he said.

“There’s such a fraternity of Bold Eagle graduates across the west, it’s almost hard to go to certain communities and not find someone who has participated in Bold Eagle or know someone who has done so,” said Maj Desrochers. “I encourage Indigenous youth quite simply to go for it. Regardless of what your future holds, it will provide you with memories and skills that you’ll have for the rest of your life.”

“I think that all Canadians, regardless of race or creed, can be justifiably proud of Bold Eagle,” BGen (Retd) Walker concluded.

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