Meet the Indigenous Advisor to the Chaplain General

Article / October 16, 2017 / Project number: 17-0173

By Grant Cree, The Western Sentinel (Edmonton)

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This is the first of a two-part series about the Canadian Armed Forces’ first-ever Indigenous Advisor to the Chaplain General. In this part, Sergeant Moogly Tetrault-Hamel is interviewed by Grant Cree in the Western Sentinel (Edmonton) about his new role. In the second part, Sgt Tetrault-Hamel reflects on what he has accomplished during his first year in the position. See Related Links to read the second instalment.

Ottawa, Ontario — “A large part of my job is to create awareness within the Chaplain’s Branch and across the Canadian Armed Forces,” said Sergeant Moogly Tetrault-Hamel, the Indigenous Advisor to the Chaplain General. Appointed to the newly established position in Ottawa in August 2016, Sgt Tetrault-Hamel is busy with a variety of tasks. His priority these days is to help military members understand what he does and why it’s important.

“It’s important so that when our Indigenous soldiers go through the chain of command or to their chaplain, they have an idea of what the member is talking about. I am very much not a padre,” he laughed. “There are many different First Nations, so nobody can claim they know or understand all of the different Indigenous cultures. To speak on behalf of all of them would be impossible.”

As the Indigenous Advisor, Sgt Tetrault-Hamel responds to requests from Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and provides them with current sources of information.

“If it's a question concerning a territory near a base, we can reach the local Elders or organization. If it's for the member’s home community, then we can reach the Elders’ Knowledge Keeper.”

The Royal Canadian Chaplain Service added the position of Indigenous Advisor to help Indigenous CAF members receive the same level of spiritual support as other military personnel. Sgt Tetrault-Hamel has participated in several gatherings with CAF chaplains, and is working on creating a new policy for the chaplain’s manual.

“It’s to explain how their mandate is to support Indigenous people like other cultures and religions,” he said. “To have it on paper in a military context is a move forward. An obstacle to that is our oral tradition, because it’s so extremely important, and there are things we will not write down so it gets passed on the right way.”

Sgt Tetrault-Hamel acknowledged that from a military perspective, it can be difficult to understand those cultural differences. “But that's just an opportunity to build more awareness into why oral traditions are so important,” he said. “We can give a very basic overview, just enough without going in depth so we don't violate the oral tradition rules.”

As examples, Sgt Tetrault-Hamel cited the smudging ceremony and the sweat lodge. He pointed out that if a member’s chain of command isn’t familiar with either, a policy will soon exist to explain their significance from a traditional perspective. “When I go to a sweat lodge, it's like recharging my battery,” he said. “There are so many teachings about it, but it's my way to reconnect with my family while being away.”

Sgt Tetrault-Hamel is originally from Abenaki First Nation in Odanak, Quebec, and joined the CAF in 2001. He was inspired by his father who served with the Royal 22e Régiment for 42 years, and stood up for Indigenous Peoples to gain equal rights. “That’s something I grew up acknowledging and respecting from early in my career,” he said.

Sgt Tetrault-Hamel began his military career as a Supply Technician and served overseas, including two years onboard HMCS Vancouver and HMCS Regina. “It was interesting. I'm glad I did it but I'm Army, not Navy,” he laughed. “But I made many friends and collected interesting stories.”

Soon after enrolling in the CAF, he became involved with the Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group (DAAG) to advocate for Indigenous members. “The DAAG literally became my new family,” he said. “Everyone in the military comes from different parts of the country, so of course you will have a reflex that you want to feel at home sometimes when you're away.”

Relationship building at all levels is a vital factor to success, and Sgt Tetrault-Hamel emphasized the importance of confronting sensitive topics. “Sometimes all that’s needed is to allow people to be in the same room and have a genuine conversation to build awareness,” he said. “Simple things like that can change mountains.”

He credited Indigenous Veterans for serving as role models. “In a way, they’re our Knowledge Keepers and Elders, so it's important to stay connected because we learn a lot from them,” said Sgt Tetrault-Hamel. “They went through a lot of things that we’re going through; they’re fountains of knowledge and experience.”

Sgt Tetrault-Hamel also spoke about youth programs like Bold Eagle. “Those programs are immensely important to expose [youth] to the military lifestyle,” he said. In addition to the participants gaining valuable experience over the summer during their basic military training, the CAF instructors learn new perspectives about Indigenous youth. “And we’re building a relationship, which is what we need as a country to move forward,” he said. “It's extremely important.”

Speaking about his role as Indigenous Advisor to the Chaplain General, Sgt Tetrault-Hamel emphasized, “It's not just a Canadian Armed Forces situation; it's more of a Canadian situation. We build understanding between our Indigenous cultures and our non-Indigenous Canadians.”

He is concerned that many Indigenous people don't know their traditional culture or history, and is determined to do something about that. “I think it's our responsibility as Indigenous people in the military to gain as much knowledge as possible so that we can fill the gap with understanding.”

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