Military training programs make a difference for Aboriginal youth

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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.”

OS Garnons-Williams was part of the Raven Aboriginal summer program based out of the Royal Canadian Navy Fleet School in Esquimalt, B.C. 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.

Over the course of a summer, participants challenged themselves through hard work and reliance on others as they developed their physical fitness and learned 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.

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.

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.

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