Indigenous youth challenged in new military co-op program

Article / May 26, 2017 / Project number: 17-1035

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By 2nd Lieutenant Stacie Nelles, 38 Canadian Brigade Group Public Affairs

Duck Lake, Saskatchewan — Twelve high school students from Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation (BOFN) are notably challenging themselves to become members of the Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve through a new high school co-op program. Over the past several months, the students have been testing their mettle to complete their Basic Military Qualification (BMQ) and graduate from the program on June 16, 2017.

This military and Indigenous educational initiative is ground-breaking. Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Engelberts, Commanding Officer of The North Saskatchewan Regiment said it was a process 15 months in the making. The seed germinated as a result of an informal conversation that took place between himself, Sheldon Couillonneur (principal of the Constable Robin Cameron Education Complex), and BOFN Councillor Roy Petit. Subsequent months of discussions and planning culminated in this “opportunity to develop personal skills that will make [these students] leaders in their community,” said LCol Engelberts.

“After an initial meeting, I received an email from [BOFN Councillor] Kevin Seeseequasis outlining that the program was an example of ‘Reconciliation in Action’,” recalls LCol Engelberts. “It was at this point that I became more aware of some of the potential impacts of what we were looking to accomplish, and if each of us worked towards Reconciliation in our own small ways, the journey we face as Canadians could be achieved,” he said.

Commander of the Canadian Army Lieutenant-General Paul Wynnyk  is the Defence Team Champion for Indigenous Peoples and strongly supports this initiative. “The Canadian military shares a unique and close bond with Indigenous Peoples,” he said. “Combining military training with the educational pursuits of Indigenous youth who will have the opportunity to wear the uniform afterward entrenches this bond. I fully expect these courageous young Canadians to become leaders in their communities and to value the leadership skills they learn for the rest of their lives.”

LGen Wynnyk said that, “the great thing about programs like this one is that they enable both the institution and participants to learn from each other. Incoming Indigenous youth may be assured that they are joining an organization that is knowledgeable about their heritage and is responsive and respectful of their unique cultures. The Canadian Army works with communities and leaders to make these programs work.”

About the program itself, LCol Engelberts said , “This is more than a BMQ co-op program. It’s also an opportunity to continue with a military career afterwards.” The program is coupled with social science courses and the students will earn two high school credits for completing the training. They will also receive a regular recruit-level paycheque for completing the Primary Reserve military qualification. Upon graduating from the program, students will have an opportunity for further employment with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Mr. Seeseequasis served with the CAF for 14 years and understands firsthand the challenges that young Indigenous people often face. He acknowledges that getting to this point involved the students overcoming some obstacles, including meeting the military’s physical fitness requirements and going through an intensive application process.

“They've been able to clear those hurdles and see it through to today,” he said. “It fills me with so much pride to see them accepting that challenge. To see [the students] walking in the same footsteps as some of their relatives ... it’s just so heartwarming and reassuring to know they're being responsible, that they're making good decisions.”

LCol Engelberts is able to watch the student’s progression first-hand as they train at the Hugh Cairns VC Armoury. “Each and every time I talk to the new soldiers, I focus on their place with us after the training and how they can become part of our community as well,” he said, noting that the students are welcome to continue as members of the Primary Reserve Force, if they so choose.

The Canadian Army is continually seeking to better align its programs for Indigenous people who are interested in joining the Primary Reserve and Regular Force, or the Canadian Rangers for those located in more remote communities. New incentives and programs that will further showcase the opportunities for Indigenous people within the CAF are in development, demonstrating the CA’s commitment to building a positive future together with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

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