Looking back over the summer – Military training programs make a difference for Aboriginal youth

Article / October 29, 2015 / Project number: 15-0168

Ordinary Seaman Christian Garnons-Williams is now immersed in his first semester of science studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, but for him and many other Aboriginal youth, higher education started this summer.

Raven allowed me to learn new things about myself,” said OS Garnons-Williams. “It’s allowed me to develop a huge amount of self-confidence in many ways.

Garnons-Williams was part of the Raven Aboriginal summer program based out of the Royal Canadian Navy Fleet School in Esquimalt, British Columbia. The program, currently in its 12th year, is part of a suite of three such initiatives offered by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Raven, Black Bear and Bold Eagle are unique summer programs that combine Aboriginal culture and teachings with military training.

Black Bear is a program which originated in Borden, Ontario in 2008 but has called Gagetown, New Brunswick its home since 2013. Bold Eagle, an Army program operating for 26 years out of Wainright, Alberta, is the largest of the three, graduating upwards of 90 candidates annually.

Through these programs, Aboriginal youth from across Canada get a first-hand look at potential military careers through a taste of military training, complete with field exercises and exposure to equipment and vehicles used by the CAF.

Though he currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario, OS Garnons-Williams’s heritage is Plains Cree of Moosomin First Nation in Saskatchewan. He particularly enjoyed the day sail aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Brandon, a West Coast Kingston-class patrol vessel; although, it did not come without  challenges. OS Garnons-Williams was the platoon senior for that day, carrying the responsibility of overseeing everyone’s whereabouts and duties. Despite the hectic schedule, “it was still an enjoyable experience, nonetheless,” he said. 

Over the course of a summer, participants challenge themselves through hard work and reliance on others as they develop their physical fitness and learn valuable skills such as self-confidence, self-discipline, time management, respectfulness and teamwork.

Participants have no obligation to join the military and can use their experience with any of the three programs to prepare themselves for the future – wherever it may take them. Upon completion of any of the programs, graduates receive a basic military qualification and can choose to join a Reserve unit in their community, or return to civilian life.

Lieutenant-General Marquis Hainse, Commander of the Canadian Army and the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Champion for Aboriginal Peoples, is a strong supporter of the summer programs.

We work closely with Aboriginal communities across Canada to enable these programs. These initiatives help showcase the strong bond between these communities and the military family,” said LGen Hainse. “The proud history of Aboriginal people in Canada’s military is an important pillar of these programs. Whether the graduates choose the military or pursue a civilian career path upon graduation, the mutual learning is invaluable.

Each of the three programs begins with a culture camp. The camp is designed to ease the transition from civilian to military lifestyle and focuses on common Aboriginal spiritual beliefs. Youth from different backgrounds and circumstances, such as those coming from remote or rural areas and those living in urban centres, come together to share their histories and sometimes even to reconnect with their traditions. All culture camps are conducted by Elders of different Aboriginal backgrounds, which may include First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives. Non-military Aboriginal counselors are also on site and available to participants throughout the six weeks of training.

Black Bear counselor and educational trainer Tammy Williams, whose maternal roots connect her to the Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia, explained that her team provides traditional means of counselling. “We use things such as talking circles; we use traditional medicines. Participants get smudged using sweetgrass, sage and cedar; sometimes tobacco will be mixed into it. One or more of these four sacred medicines are burned in the smudging process.

We offer the youth encouragement and guidance, not only helping them to complete the program, but providing them with a comfortable landing place when they just need to talk to somebody familiar and get help with other things,” Ms. Williams said. “So it’s kind of a combination of emotional, spiritual, educational and mental health support.

Ms. Williams also underscores the fact that the unique make-up of the programs and their traditional modes of interaction help to not only foster bonds among participants, but also benefit military instructors as well. Staff members regularly partake in the talking circles, often coming away with positive experiences and greater familiarity with Aboriginal customs and traditions. 

Ordinary Seaman Coral Fenner, who hails from the Chatham-Kent area of Southwestern Ontario, values the fact that the programs offer a space where young Aboriginal Canadians can come together to share their stories, find commonalities, and balance their differences. She advises participants to come in with a respectful attitude and a sense of responsibility. “That goes a long way and if you have that, you’re pretty much set.

OS Fenner, whose heritage connects her to the Oneida of the Thames First Nations community near London, Ontario, is currently studying to become a police officer at the Chatham, Ontario campus of St. Claire College and is pondering whether she will join the RCMP or the Military Police.

Major Bruce Hanbidge, administrative coordinator for Bold Eagle, is very proud of the exemplary graduates that come out of the programs, but noted that the programs are often victims of their own success as demand for placements often exceeds supply.  He urges potential participants to apply early.

For Lyndon Linklater, a civilian member of the management committee for Bold Eagle, this is a sign that the programs speak to Aboriginal youth across the country. Mr. Linklater, who is of Cree and Ojibway descent, and who participated in a military summer program as a youth himself, hopes that the programs remain a priority for the military, given that “at the heart of everything are these young people.

What Bold Eagle does for Aboriginal youth is just tremendous in terms of building character and giving them skills that basically help them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “So, that’s what I just love being a part of. And that’s what we’re all there for.

By Natalie Flynn, Army Public Affairs

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