Indigenous Awareness Week an opportunity to “open and learn”

Article / May 15, 2020 / Project number: 20-0063

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are once again marking Indigenous Awareness Week (IAW) and the 2020 edition arrives along with a milestone: the 25th anniversary of the CAF’s Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group (DAAG).

DAAG is a national body, and part of a wider network of advisory groups at the local and regional levels, offering guidance to CAF leadership on matters relating to Indigenous members, civilian and military. Each group has military and civilian co-chairs who volunteer their time along with members-at-large.

The Canadian Army Commander, Lieutenant General Wayne Eyre, also holds the title of Defence Team Champion for Indigenous Peoples.

Though events to mark this year’s IAW (which takes place May 15-22) will be small-scale and virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, DAAG national co-chairs are urging all of their colleagues, and all Canadians, to make time to increase their knowledge of Indigenous Peoples.

Civilian Co-Chair Lisa deWit, from Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia, joined the National DAAG in 2018. Including her time as a member of the local DAAG at Canadian Force Base Esquimalt in British Columbia, she has been involved in CAF Indigenous matters for nearly 10 years.

“Over the last nine years I have seen growth in a willingness to understand our cultures, our ways of knowledge and how Indigenous people hold constitutionally protected rights and title,” she said. “The improvement in engagement has now birthed a new challenge in capacity. Will the DAAG continue as a volunteer network? Will positions be embedded in the organization? What a great challenge to have, as we are in a new phase of growth, and seeing how the institution will respond.”

Military co-chair Warrant Officer Simon Linklater is Anishinaabe Ojibwe, from Couchiching First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. He has followed a similar trajectory, taking on the role in 2017 after gaining experience at the local and regional levels.

“It was a wonderful experience working with different people, getting different exposures and seeing change come in,” he recalled. “We’ve had a lot of different interactions with people in the chain of command over different issues. Seeing we now have an Indigenous advisor to the Chaplain General is fantastic. More and more people are reaching out for answers, information, and consultation.”

Ms. deWit said the 25th anniversary is a good reminder of the considerable work of her predecessors in moving CAF forward on Indigenous issues and a reflection of the resilience that has defined the Indigenous experience throughout history. The theme of this year’s IAW is “The enduring spirit of Indigenous Peoples – 25 Years of the DAAG.”

“I am proud to be a part of this resilient web of amazing Indigenous people within the Department of National Defence and CAF,” she said. “Its current growth was made inch by inch, by those before us who started the conversation. They stood up to ensure people knew we existed in this institution. They faced discrimination and racism, and felt alienated in an environment that did not yet respect Indigenous ways of being. I raise my hands to all of them, in gratitude, as they passed on the task and we continue, through these challenges, to make our ancestors proud.”

The DAAG anniversary, WO Linklater added, is a good opportunity to consider not only Indigenous peoples’ resilience, but also how differently they and Canadians of European descent view our shared history.

“Ever since contact, North America, Turtle Island, has changed. It’s changed at different points and different speeds for different people. It is said women in Canada won the vote in 1917, yet Indigenous people were not allowed to vote federally until 1960, so the true answer to that question is 1960.”

“If you take a look at when the last residential school closed,” he added, “it was 1996. People seem to have an idea of what First Nations are, what Indigenous is, and oftentimes it’s tied in to people long ago, and a different time. But these are current issues, and we are living, breathing peoples across Turtle Island, and across the CAF. And throughout it all, we believe that Indigenous people have shown enduring spirit to survive, to live, to try to foster the relationships, to try to walk the good path and live the good life.”

WO Linklater agreed that, while many Defence Team members show a sincere desire to listen and learn, challenges and negative attitudes still persist. Nonetheless, he added, education is one way forward, and he urged those with questions during IAW to begin by doing some of the work on their own.

“One time when I walked into the gym someone asked if they could ask me a question. And I said, ‘Read this, look at this, listen to this person.’ I gave them some resources and next time I walked in, they started asking follow-up questions, and it was quite refreshing. I think the whole purpose of things like this is to encourage people to open and learn.”

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