Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, good morning. I wish to acknowledge that today we meet on Algonquin territory, land that has never been ceded or surrendered. I once again thank the Algonquin Nation for the privilege to meet here and speak specifically regarding our indigenous warrior veterans, while acknowledging all of our veterans, as well as members of the armed forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Let me begin by offering sincere thanks to your committee for the announcement that you will be undertaking visits to some of our indigenous communities across a big part of Canada to gain knowledge and information regarding our distinguished indigenous veterans. This marks the first time that the Government of Canada has decided to seek first-hand information from our veterans, and we hope this will lead to a stronger understanding of the many issues faced by our veterans and in our communities.
AVA was hoping that the visits would have included more communities in all reaches of Canada—north, south, east, and west—but I also acknowledge this as being a very good starting point. I was just recently informed that later on this year you are undertaking plans to visit the north of Canada, which I think will be one of your biggest challenges. Again, meegwetch.
As president of the Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones, I once again appear here to represent the indigenous veterans from my organization and indigenous veterans from the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Assembly of First Nations through a memo of understanding. This presentation is one that I feel has great significance, as it deals directly with indigenous veterans.
History reveals that as of the War of 1812, which was long before Canada became its own country, indigenous support was essential to the ultimate success of Canada achieving nationhood. Had the outcome of that particular conflict favoured the United States, the geography of Canada would certainly be different. Given that there was indigenous support, why was there a disconnect between these allies and the rest of Canada?
After Confederation, the crown was intent on assimilating the natives of Canada into a more Eurocentric society and away from the spiritual and cultural norms and practices. Even when treaties were enacted, these actions continued. Treaties, by definition, are agreements between sovereign nations. What happened? Reserves were created, with government controls, through the development of the Indian Act. Residential schools were created to assimilate our children and youth, to outlaw native spirituality, and to replace it with Christian ideals. Included in this was the banning of all cultural practices by our peoples.
How does this actually have anything to do with our veterans? At the start of both world wars and the Korean War, indigenous warriors enrolled to fight for the crown. The number of indigenous people who enrolled and fought represented the highest percentage of any Canadian demographic. The reason for enrolment may have been as simple as getting three meals a day, a pair of boots, or a bed to sleep in. I tend to think the main reason was to show that indigenous people were willing to once again prove their steadfastness to Canada, while at the same time hoping that by serving, things would change and become better back home. In other words, it meant my service in exchange for the country recognizing my rights and respecting me as an equal.
I was honoured to be present at both the Italian campaign's and the Dieppe raid's 75th commemorations. At these, I spoke and listened to veterans who knew of indigenous warriors in their own units, some of whom are buried in these foreign lands, and some who returned after the fighting was over. At Dieppe, during a sunrise ceremony, I was witness to the emotional atmosphere of this terrible raid and the senseless loss of life suffered on that beach. On that beach, let it be known that there was a high number of first nations and Métis veterans, especially from the South Saskatchewan Regiment. Vast numbers were killed, and others were interned in POW camps until the end of the war.
Let's refer back to my earlier comments regarding residential schools. What about indigenous soldiers fighting overseas? How about the soldier fighting in Italy, while back at home the residential school director shows up with the police at his place and takes his five-year-old son away from his wife and takes that little boy to residential school? Think about you and your own children. What would you do? Where would you turn? In the case of that young woman, there was nowhere to turn; it was the law.
Also, on return after both wars, non-indigenous veterans were offered land grants, cut-rate loans, and other benefits, not to mention whatever Veterans Affairs had at that time for benefits. The Government of Canada used this time as another chance to disenfranchise returning indigenous veterans.
Also of note, Indian Affairs considered indigenous veterans as falling under their jurisdiction and not Veterans Affairs Canada's, with little or no benefits. I can only say that if you look, you will see that our warriors were equal in battle but discriminated against at home. This attitude has continued for many years, and even today with the recent media coverage, it still exists. In my notes, you'll see some of the most recent things that I've mentioned.
It is not the intention of our indigenous veterans to be classed alone; rather, we take pride in service to Canada and service with all Canadian veterans. With them, we stand united.
On previous appearances here at this committee, I advocated for our rural and isolated communities regarding veterans and establishing sound mechanisms for communicating with them with respect to those benefits and entitlements that they should have. The technology enjoyed by mainstream Canadians is not necessarily the norm in remote communities. Since my last appearance here over a year ago, there has been little traction towards addressing the issue of our veterans living in remote areas.
I take note that you will be looking for answers as to what the communities offer in a transition process. You must understand that in the case of first nations, the health care budgets on reserves are limited, and they cannot be expected to add care for our veterans without a direct and positive influence by the Government of Canada and in particular by Veterans Affairs. I can also say that the same issues exist in smaller communities where other indigenous veterans reside. You'll be visiting one of those on your trip.
Are the services that are being offered actually reaching out to remote communities? That is a question that is not easily answered. I have a great deal of concern regarding some of the excellent programs instituted recently by Veterans Affairs Canada, such as the education benefit and caregiver's entitlement. My concern is that communicating those benefits to remote areas or regions and offering up these incentives may very well not be reaching out far enough.
OSISS is an outstanding organization that has done excellent work. Does it, however, have the ability to do outreach to our indigenous veterans who are suffering from mental issues? Is there any way to provide outreach mental health services to rural communities too far away to access somebody in person, including the OSISS organization? What mechanisms can be instituted by Veterans Affairs Canada, in conjunction with the health care community professionals, specifically for veterans?
In other words, assuring care for entitled veterans should not become a financial burden on any community from the money received for the health of the community. Veterans Affairs must establish the same and equal support as for mainstream veterans, including any costs associated with that support.
I noted in your travel agenda that you wanted to know specific issues regarding veterans from all three of the indigenous groups in Canada.
The issue for some first nations veterans is that their military service may not have been with Canada but rather with the U.S. military, in other words, with an allied force. Although I understand and appreciate that the U.S. DVA holds responsibility for their benefits, there appears to be a disconnect concerning the way these veterans can access the benefits they are entitled to through the DVA hospital system.
I was informed four years ago by Chief Percy Joe from the Shackan Indian Band, a remote reserve near Merritt, B.C., that veterans had to pay out of their pockets the expenses to get from their community to the border; then they would be covered. I asked at that time whether there was a possibility of an agreement between DVA and VAC to address and resolve the issue of travel, in other words, whether there was a way that Veterans Affairs could pay that travel and be reimbursed by DVA, that is, through cross-border talks.
Concerning Inuit veterans, including veterans of the Canadian rangers, travel to remote northern communities is not included on your initial agenda. I know that the next leg of your journey will include northern Inuit communities, and this will be extremely important, for as we know, in Canada the highest suicide rates are among our indigenous peoples, and this is more the case within Inuit communities. With the announcement by VAC and DND of a suicide prevention strategy, I am hopeful that this will also include interaction with indigenous social workers, with the intention of reducing the numbers of suicide deaths, be they of veterans or not.
Regarding RCMP veterans who are receiving benefits and entitlements from VAC, my nephew, a first nations status Indian from Oromocto First Nation, has stated that he has not had any problems with Veterans Affairs or anyone he has been in contact with in that department.
Once again, I offer these words: effective communication is the cornerstone to success, for if you can communicate your message to everyone and it is understood, then you have achieved the most important step in providing care to veterans.
Mr. Chairman, committee members, and fellow veterans, thank you, meegwetch, marsi, merci, qujannamiik, all my relations.
That's a very good question to be brought up with DND, because to my knowledge there is nothing in that transition process. I'm not familiar with that. That transition period has, I think, just hit the ice now.
I know of one thing that happened in Afghanistan in terms of the ceremonies of our fallen who came back. I believe it was a young Mohawk woman from one of the reserves in Ontario who said that if she was to be killed overseas, she wanted to have her ceremony be the ceremony of her traditional people. That was marked down, and had this happened, it would have happened. I find DND very receptive to some of the ideas that we bring forward or that have been brought forward.
That stands to reason. I think if you talk to the army commander.... The army commander is the military's champion for indigenous peoples. The army has held that position for the last 10 or 15 years and they don't want to give it up because it's dear to their heart and it's part of... The majority of those people join the army. I think it's a very good question, because that forms another part of that transition.
The other thing I talked about on mental health is traditional healing. There are things that we do in our indigenous communities. I run culture camps for the military every summer, Black Bear and Raven, and for Bold Eagle I was the sergeant major for their camp in 2000 and...anyway, it was years ago.
That traditional healing aspect of things is something that I brought up and that I think is dear too. I'll give you an example: Debbie Eisan. If you've ever met Debbie Eisan from Halifax, ex-chief petty officer.... There was a problem with an individual on board ship. They had come to their wits' end and were ready to release him. They came to her, the adviser, and asked what they should do. She said to send him back to his community for two weeks and let the elders do their thing. They sent him back for two weeks of traditional therapy—the healing process—and he came back a changed individual. He stayed with the service and promoted himself through the service. There's a positive thing.
The big thing is to listen to some of the indigenous people who are in there and to veterans, elders, and all those other people. It makes a big difference.
Thank you very much, Mr. Thibeau, for your testimony, but also for your service. It's much appreciated.
Thank you as well, Mr. Bertrand, for being here as support and one who knows how business works here on the Hill.
I have a couple of comments to make before I go to questions.
The first one is that you made reference to the fact that indigenous people played a major role in Confederation. It's funny that you said that, because my knowledge of that was limited. However, I did spend a day in the War Museum last month. I'm sure you're aware of this, but if not, I want to share this with you. It was evident through the information provided—I was able to gather that information—but I had not been aware of the role they played and the number of indigenous people who enrolled and contributed in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. It's quite impressive. I wanted to underline that piece first of all.
The second piece I'd like to touch on is that I'm an Acadian from Nova Scotia—L'Acadie as it was known back in the 1700s, and the indigenous peoples in my area, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I., played a major role in helping Acadians survive: before deportation, during, and post. People don't talk about that, but I know that my Acadian colleagues and community often speak of that.
I want to thank you and your peoples again for helping us through a very difficult time—shelter, food, life, and risking your lives to help others: neighbours, colleagues and friends. That's very powerful. I want that on the record as well. I think it's very, very important.
The third one is a quick question. I have three or four questions, but this is a quick one. You mentioned how proud you were in knowing you had access to education programs up to four years, $80,000, and the caregivers allowance. Because it helps me understand, when did you find out that these programs existed, and how many people in your communities are aware of that?
I'll go back to my culture camps, because for some indigenous people—not all—there's a great deal of emphasis that they place on their culture.
You have somebody standing at the door going out from the military, somebody who spent 20 years, 25 years, or whatever, and he walks out the door. He may have had his wife at the SCAN seminar, but the SCAN seminar doesn't touch anything about culture.
The first time I ran a sweat lodge in Borden, I had two young infantry corporals from the RCR, and believe it or not, one was Palestinian and the other one was Iraqi. I couldn't believe it, but they were my storemen and they were looking after the troops. They had watched what was going on with the elders and the students, and the day the sweat lodge came, they came up to me and asked if they could do the sweat lodge, too. I said yes, by all means.
Those two guys were exposed to having their friends killed in Afghanistan. They were on the front lines in Afghanistan, and they had lost some close friends. The first guy got out of that sweat lodge and he had tears in his eyes when he came over, and he thanked me for allowing him to go in there. He said he had never experienced anything like it in his life.
The second guy came out, and he said he didn't know what was going on in there but before the door was closed, he felt people moving around him. And he said nobody was there. Everybody was inside. So I told him to go talk to the elder. I didn't want to get involved in that.
In Yakima, Washington, they have a week of culture camp, where they take veterans and their families. What my culture camp is designed for is to ground people back to mother earth. If somebody invites you to a sweat lodge and the sweat lodge is already built, what have you learned? Zero. The only thing you learned was what took place inside the sweat lodge. A veteran down in Washington state was having major problems with PTSD, and he went back to his community under the guidance of his elder. His elder had him for four days. They talked. He cut wood. He cut the wood that was going to be used to construct a sweat lodge. They went through the teachings, understood everything to do with the sweat lodge.
It's not the fact of going to a sweat lodge. It's the fact of going out, understanding what mother earth is all about, leaving the cellphones, leaving the computers, leaving all those things that are negative and that take away from what it is.
Is there a culture? A promising thing that can be done, if the will is there, is to have these indigenous people and their families...because the family has been side by side through everything that has gone on. Maybe there was only one family member deployed, maybe two were deployed. This includes the children. Everybody is affected by what that service was.
As was mentioned, I'm here on behalf of the commander of the Canadian Army, Lieutenant-General Wynnyk.
Lieutenant-General Wynnyk is the champion for indigenous peoples. In his role in the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence, he encourages indigenous peoples to consider pursuing a career with the department and the Canadian Armed Forces, or the CAF.
In order to achieve his mandate, the Commander of the Canadian Army invests himself in the employment equity cause, by fostering a representative and equitable workforce and a welcoming workplace for indigenous peoples. He contributes to the corporate culture change and promotes different indigenous programs offered by the Department of National Defence, or DND, and the CAF. To help him with his mandate, our commander is supported by an aboriginal advisory group. Two of those advisers are present with us today.
We noted the indigenous culture within the Canadian Armed Forces. To achieve our indigenous representation target of 3.5%, we are actively engaging indigenous communities where we know the population is much younger than the national average. In the context of an aging population, you have to keep in mind that for operational purposes this is extremely important for us.
Furthermore, we have developed over the last few years numerous training programs for our personnel. There are five different programs that were specifically created for the indigenous population of Canada. Our oldest program is the Canadian Forces aboriginal entry program, introduced in 1997. This is a pre-enrolment program that provides a limited experience of military service to the participants. It is essentially a pre-recruit training course that includes military training, physical fitness training, and career guidance. If successful, the candidates, the graduates, are offered the opportunity to enrol in the Canadian Armed Forces. This program is offered three times a year. Two serials are conducted in Saint-Jean, Quebec, and there's an additional one conducted at the naval fleet school in Halifax.
The second program is the aboriginal leadership opportunity year, known as ALOY.
we refer to it as the ALOY.
The ALOY was first offered in 2008 at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, Ontario. Participants are enrolled for one year as officer cadets and given a highly positive educational and leadership experience. The program is based on four pillars: academics, military, physical fitness, and culture. At the end of the year, ALOY officer cadets are granted the equivalent to basic military officer qualification and they may apply to continue at the college.
The Canadian Armed Forces have also implemented three summer programs at the end of which young indigenous people may join the army or the navy primary reserve. These programs are offered in the east, the west, and on the Pacific coast.
The first one and probably the most well known is Bold Eagle. It is designed for indigenous youth from western Canada and was first conducted in 1989. This course is offered every summer at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright in Alberta. The second summer program we offer was first conducted in 2003, and it is led by the Royal Canadian Navy. Named Raven, it is offered every year at the Naval Fleet School Pacific, in Esquimalt, British Columbia. The third summer program we have is named Black Bear. It was first conducted in 2009. This program is led by the Canadian Army, and it's being delivered every year during the summer at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick.
We have had so much success over the last few years with these three programs that the Canadian Army is planning on creating two new, similar programs in Quebec and Ontario. We're aiming at starting in 2019.
Now I'm going to talk a little more personally at this point.
Over the last 30 years, I've seen a lot of positive change in terms of indigenous cultural awareness within the Canadian Armed Forces and the department.
We can certainly look at indigenous communities as a pool of recruits, but they have so much more to offer, in terms of their potential and contribution.
Against the backdrop of an aging population, I see indigenous communities as a pool of recruits that the Canadian Armed Forces cannot ignore, especially given the serious economic and social challenges many communities face, remote ones in particular. To my mind, it is an extremely beneficial union, both for candidates and these young men and women.
When I am addressing the new graduates on any indigenous program, I always like to talk about how they will grow personally but also professionally by joining our institution. The personal, leadership, and technical skills they will be acquiring will enhance their communities when they go back to them.
The other idea I like to convey all the time is that when you join the Canadian Armed Forces you're gaining two extended families. Personally, I'm very closely tied to my family back on the reserve, but I do see that as a great opportunity to have the second family, the Royal 22nd Regiment family, the army family, the CAF family, that I can relate to. I can always tap into both, depending on my personal needs. Actually, I would offer to you that after close to 30 years of service, half my friends are the people back in the community and the other half are the people back in the CAF. It has been a privilege to serve in uniform.
For all of us here at the table, every single time we go to Saint-Jean or to Wainwright to address these young men and women who are going through these summer programs, we always like to give them a bit of encouragement. We like to showcase ourselves as a success story, if I can say that. Very often these young men and women only need that little additional push to join because, let's be honest, to join the CAF is something that can be a bit intimidating.
The other aspect I like very much about our indigenous program as well is the cultural aspect of it. A lot of our youth are struggling with their own personal identity. Who are they? Where do they fit? Many of these young men and women, even some of those who were born and raised on the reserve, do struggle with their personal identity. Built into this program we always have that cultural component.
A lot of our youth can sometimes have a real interaction with an elder, when they are signing up for the first time or when they are undergoing this program. A lot of our communities have been extremely Christianized. My community was Christianized three centuries ago. A lot of our traditional knowledge has disappeared over the last generations so very often our people are first introduced to traditional ideas and concepts when they go through these programs. In that regard, I would like to highlight that our elders are doing a fantastic job.
Another important aspect of this program relates to self-esteem. Earlier, I mentioned social and economic challenges, but challenges also exist around identity. Joining the ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces often helps give youth another view of their indigenous identity. It helps put a much more positive spin, if you will, on a potentially negative view of their identity.
I would also like to highlight for the committee members how diverse indigenous communities are. We hear a lot about how diverse Canada is, as a whole, but one-size-fits-all solutions and policies will not work for aboriginal communities.
Communities in eastern Canada were in contact with the first Europeans to come here more than 300 years ago. Communities in the Arctic met the first Canadians about 75 years ago. Some communities still commonly speak their aboriginal languages, while others have lost their languages completely.
Some communities live in urban settings. My community was in the middle of the forest when the Jesuits founded it some 300 years ago. Quebec City joined us, if you will recall. Communities became settlement-based about a half-century ago, and indigenous peoples started leaving their communities for cities. As you can appreciate, then, our communities are extremely diverse.
I would like to conclude by pointing out that all of the programs in place share the aim of building bridges between indigenous communities and the Canadian Armed Forces, so that indigenous peoples feel encouraged to pursue a career in the CAF.
Guided by the indigenous people in uniform, mentored by our elders, inspired by our ancestors who have always defended this country, and supported by all the members of the Canadian Armed Forces, we hope we can guide and reassure these young men and women who are about to embrace a unique and demanding career.
Thank you for inviting us to appear today. It's much appreciated. We are here to answer any questions you may have. I would like to highlight that any question specific to the ranger program should be directed to Colonel Mackay.
I'm going to offer you a general comment, and then maybe Master Warrant Officer Greyeyes can jump in.
Right now, we do have a lot of cultural awareness programs within the CAF. I don't think it's being offered to everybody; it's one aspect of it.
The other aspect that is extremely important is education on the other side; i.e., on many occasions I ended up sitting down with parents who were having doubts about letting their young men or young women join the service. Those of us in uniform who are aboriginal, when it comes down to recruiting, we can also educate many parents about what is waiting for their children who are about to sign up.
Yes, we do have some programs in place, and once again, Officer Greyeyes can expand on it.
The last point I would like to offer is that these programs were in existence when I signed up 30 years ago. I've seen huge progress. When I signed up, I wasn't really vocal about who I was. People knew I was a status Indian because I still lived on the reserve. The reserve is right next to Valcartier. But it's not something that I was speaking out loud about; let's be honest. Nowadays, it's much better perceived.
Every time we're running a Bold Eagle or a Black Bear program, there's a bunch of instructors. These instructors very often are non-aboriginal, so they themselves are being introduced to the aboriginal culture, and there's a domino effect. These instructors are very often sergeants, warrant officers, and captains, people who still have 15 to 20 years to go in their career. I like to see that as extremely positive. I've seen a bunch of Van Doos instructing in these programs who came out of it saying or thinking, that's not what they were thinking of. It was a discovery for them.
Yes, I understand. Thank you.
In previous testimony, an individual asked if there is a challenge for our first nations veterans as they transition back into northern Saskatchewan. We're discussing the role of transition and the building of a seamless transition from the Canadian Armed Forces to VAC.
The grand chief of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association, Steven Ross, gave his comments, and I would like you to comment if you have anything more to add. He said:
I believe the challenge is still there.
It also depends on how old the veteran is when they leave the armed forces. The older you are, the more experienced you are, and the more mature you are. You can assist your people, your first nation, in that manner, because they look at you differently now.
In that way, I think, you have earned the ability to invest more in your community. He continued:
With your experience—your global experience, I guess—you're a different person than you were when you left.
They want that kind of person to be counselling [our youth and] our young people. That's what I see.... [However]...the young...people are in a much different situation here, when some of them—and I think many more—are coming out with...PTSD [issues] as well.
That's something he didn't understand, but he said that he knows they're having problems adjusting, problems finding employment, and problems taking classes, and he said that those are the people who really need help right now.
When I left in 1968, I went directly from the armed forces to construction in Calgary and worked there for a while. After a couple of years, I went back to the reserve. I worked...for a while...as a labourer, until I finally saw the light and went back to school and to university. After university, it was a whole new world...for me.
I'm wondering about this. With what you're investing in these young people, is there that focus, too, that this may not be your entire life, and that if you're leaving early you don't get that long-term career? What kind of an investment is being made for them? Really, at some point, they're going to transition. He clearly saw that university broadened and opened up a new world for him. What role do you see in the longer picture?
When we are still in uniform, there are plenty of opportunities to get a degree.
Again, this is anecdotal, but when I first arrived at Third Van Doos as a subbie, I was the only guy in a 700-man battalion who had a master's degree. I was the only one. Nowadays, if you go back to any infantry battalion, you will realize that there are probably close to a hundred people who have a bachelor's degree, so it's not only about the aboriginals; it's about the army population in general. We are a way more educated force than we used to be. Obviously, I cannot comment on the specifics of Veterans Affairs programs, because I haven't made that transition here yet, but what I'm hearing is that the programs and those they are working on right now are very generous.
I know that a few of my former soldiers have been through the whole process. Nothing is perfect—right?—but so far, the comments I've heard from my men and women from Kandahar are very, very positive. The opportunities are there when you are in uniform, and when you are moving into Veterans Affairs programs, the programs are there. On top of it, if you are a status Indian you can get the funding from Indian Affairs to do your schooling as well.
I would offer to you that aboriginal veterans with status have two avenues of approach. They can tap into Veterans Affairs programs for schooling, as well as Indian Affairs. That's how I ended up doing a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. My father was a snowshoe-maker and a canoe-maker. I was the first one in my family to get an education. I had the privilege of becoming an officer, and it's because of the support I got from Indian Affairs. Otherwise, I would probably still be on the reserve, which is not bad in itself, but I....
There is a lot to say about it, but it's hard within a short time frame.
As part of my mandate, we are assisting the spiritual support of our members within the Canadian Armed Forces. We're looking at what is available for non-Indigenous members and different religions and then translating that into what could be available for Indigenous people in the military. As we're allowed to continue to wear our sense of cultural identity throughout our career, it facilitates our reintroduction to the community at the end of our military cycle.
Also, as a father of four children—I'm Abenaki, and my wife is Nuu-chah-nulth from British Columbia—I think it's really important that we don't take the culture aspect away from them, because when I retire, it's also going to be a big change for them, my wife and our children, to be able to go there. We want to make sure to use every tool possible to facilitate that for them.
Just to add quickly, to me a uniform is sacred. It may sound strange, but as we move from one area to another across Canada with all the postings, it's not always that welcoming for indigenous people in some of those areas, but when you wear a uniform in those areas, you get respect from average Canadians. It gives you the feeling that you do have a voice, and that's something that.... Again, I have not retired, and I still have long way in front of me, but when I do retire, I strongly believe I will carry on what I have learned from the military in terms of being able to speak up and having a voice that deserves to be heard.