Gagetown Indigenous elder making an impact

Article / July 20, 2020 / Project number: 20-0097

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By Stéphanie Duchesne, 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown Public Affairs

Oromocto, New Brunswick — An Indigenous elder is not necessarily elderly. 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown (5 CDSB) is fortunate to have an elder-in-residence who is only in his 40s. His name is Charles Sewell.

5 CDSB, located in Oromocto, New Brunswick, is very much a community, and Elder Sewell has been a positive force within it. For that, he recently received the Deputy Minister and Chief of Defence Staff Team Impact Award. It recognizes those who distinguish themselves in the areas of people management, diversity and inclusion, and total health and wellness.

Each year, during National Public Service Week, the Department of National Defence hosts the Celebrating Excellence Awards. They are the highest expression of recognition within the department to highlight the accomplishments of members of the Defence team.

This year, Mr. Sewell was one of 11 recipients of the award. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the proceedings took place virtually, from June 15-19.

Mr. Sewell’s journey to becoming an elder in Oromocto’s First Nations community, and then to sharing his teachings and experience with base personnel, is unique.

Originally from Red Bank (Metepenagiag) in Miramichi, New Brunswick, Mr. Sewell has been a resident of Oromocto for almost 30 years, and more recently became an official member of it. He describes his family roots in terms of his father totem being Beaver and his mother totem being Salmon, and says his spiritual journey began about 15 years ago.

“That’s when I started walking the red road of spirituality,” he explains.

The term elder refers to someone who has attained a high degree of understanding of First Nations, Métis, or Inuit history, traditional teachings, ceremonies, and healing practices. Mr. Sewell’s road to becoming one culminated with four days of sweat-lodge ceremonies, followed by a feast, before four days of fasting in nature. That was to earn his spirit name The One Who Helps All. It is a big name that carries a certain duty, and Mr. Sewell takes that responsibility very seriously.

“Those first years of the red road were about working on myself, grounding myself. It was learning about all the different medicines, our traditions, our ceremonies. It was seven years of what I call On the Land University. It’s like traditional schooling but not in a building — it takes place on the land.”

Now, with nearly a decade of serving as an elder behind him, Mr. Sewell says his role and purpose is “to give back the beautiful gift that was given to me.”

He credits these successes to his teacher, Elder Harry Laporte. Elder Laporte, who joined the spirit world last fall, was from St. Mary’s First Nation, a vibrant community in the heart of Fredericton.

The people of both St. Mary’s First Nation and Oromocto First Nation are Wolastoqiyik, meaning “People of the beautiful and bountiful river.” All their skicinuwi (Indigenous) communities are located along the beautiful Wolastoq River, which was renamed initially by Samuel Champlain as le Fleuve Saint-Jean, and later renamed Saint John River by English colonial authorities.

Mr. Sewell works at 5 CDSB as a heavy-equipment operator in winter, and in food services during the summer. He was invited one day to attend the base’s annual Aboriginal Awareness Day (since renamed Indigenous Persons Awareness Week).

That is how Mr. Sewell ultimately became involved in the base’s Defence Aboriginal Awareness Group (DAAG) and began fulfilling an advisory role to the base’s leadership teams on Indigenous matters.

It was during Colonel Keith Osmond’s tenure as base commander, from 2017 to 2020, that Indigenous awareness really took shape here, starting with Elder Sewell’s recommendation that a good first step was to begin a smudging bundle (sacred herbs burned in spiritual ceremonies) for the DAAG.

That eventually led to the gifting of an Eagle Staff to Col Osmond during a pow wow. The Eagle is the totem of all people, and a significant gift that will remain at Base Gagetown for years to come. After Colonel Osmond’s departure on July 2, a feather was added to the Eagle Staff.

 “I am extremely happy and very proud to see one of our own being recognized nationally by our Deputy Minister and Chief of Defence Staff, for his outstanding contributions to Base Gagetown,” says Col Osmond.

“I have known Elder Chuck personally since my arrival, and he continues to be a mentor and guide through my personal journey of our First Nations culture, traditions and beliefs. He is an incredibly knowledgeable and caring gentlemen who is devoted to Indigenous Awareness and helping people throughout his community.”

Indeed, Mr. Sewell’s efforts, passion, and knowledge as an elder and advisor to the chain of command have served to strengthen 5 CDSB’s relationships with local Indigenous communities. Thanks to his work with a team of dedicated Indigenous civilian employees and military members, the base is now home to regular sharing circles, drum and shaker workshops, and unit briefs focused on Indigenous resources and discussion.

It also has its very own sweat lodge and a Wolastoq Conference Room in its New Brunswick Military History Museum. Mr. Sewell has directly contributed to a positive workplace environment and has enriched the lives of Defence team members within 5th Canadian Division, the Canadian Army presence in Atlantic Canada.

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