Honorary Captain Debbie Eisan raises Indigenous voices

Article / May 20, 2021 / Project number: 21-0030

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Halifax, Nova Scotia — Finding her own voice was Honorary Captain (Navy) Debbie Eisan’s first step in becoming a vocal advocate for other Indigenous soldiers and veterans.

Her career with the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) began in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, not far from the Batchewana First Nation where she grew up. 

By the time of her medical release 36 years later at the rank of Chief Petty Officer 2nd class, Hon Capt (N) Eisan had become a valued advisor to senior military leaders on Indigenous matters. And her work alongside of her colleagues on the Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group (DAAG) had resulted in what she now describes as “huge steps forward” for Indigenous soldiers and veterans.

Late last year, the RCN recognized her work with an appointment to the rank of Honorary Captain (Navy) affiliated with Her Majesty's Canadian Ship Margaret Brooke. In a recent interview, Hon Capt (N) Eisan looked back at her career struggles and triumphs, how the Canadian Armed Forces has become “more open” to Indigenous culture, and how her new rank is a new opportunity to continue amplifying Indigenous voices.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What drew you to the Canadian Armed Forces?

My story is a bit of a funny one. When I was working as the National Aboriginal Recruiting Advisor, I was asked to go to Toronto to be on TV Ontario for Remembrance Day one year. There was myself, a sergeant, and a colonel. When the interviewer asked the colonel why he joined, he said it had been a longstanding tradition in his family. The sergeant said he was six years old when his family came to Canada and his mother said to him, ‘What a wonderful thing to join the military of the country that has given us so much.’ While they were talking I was thinking, ‘What do I say about my story?’ My mother has always taught me to tell the truth so, when it came to my turn, I said I was 17 years old working as a waitress in Sault Ste. Marie. During the lunch hour rush I slipped on a tomato on the floor and spilled a BLT and some chicken soup on a businessman. I thought I was going to get fired so I quit. I wandered over to the unemployment office and off to my left was a recruiting kiosk. Two months later I was on my way to basic training in Cornwallis [Nova Scotia]. That’s how I joined. My father was a fisherman and a stoker on tugboats in the Great Lakes, so it was just kind of in my blood, I guess. 

You’ve been open about some of the negative experiences you have had. 

I experienced racism and discrimination. Back then there weren’t mechanisms in place to deal with it. Probably the hardest time for me was when a supervisor I had would say things like, ‘Aren’t Indian women supposed to be at home looking after their husbands and kids?’ He sent me home crying more times than I can remember. My husband, David, is my rock. One time he said, ‘Why are you letting him do this to you? You know you’re better than that.’

After that I vowed I would never let anyone send me home in tears like that ever again. We talk about sexual harassment and it did happen to me, but I guess I found my voice. I was able to stand up for myself and do what I had to do to protect myself as a junior rank. And when I got into the position of being a supervisor, I said I would use my voice to speak up for those who couldn’t.

What were some of the good times for you?

There were so many. I had the opportunity to go on a 10-day trip to New Zealand to be introduced to the Maori culture in their military. That was something I’ll always remember because I love to learn about different cultures - the different ways that people do things and the similarities. Their spirituality is different but we still have the same passions.

As a kid my dream was to be a nurse. I wanted to go to Africa and help children there. I didn’t become a nurse but when I worked with 3 Canadian Support Group I served in Rwanda, helping to close out the UN base there. One day a group of us took a ride up into the hills. As we pulled over to the side of the road to have lunch, out of the tall grass came all these little children. I was looking at this one little fellow – he must’ve been about three. He had a dusty face and tear tracks on his cheeks. I coaxed him over, wiped his face off and fed him my lunch. He was a little hesitant at first but I gave him some chocolate and he got a big smile on his face. Maybe I wasn’t a nurse, but I was in Africa and helping children. I say that because even if you have dreams and they don’t come out as you expected, they can come true in other forms.

How was the experience of being DAAG co-chair?

It was a very passionate group. We worked together to have the dress regulations changed to allow Aboriginal members to wear their hair in a braid. Anyone in uniform is entitled to practice their own spirituality. Everyone thought the braid was cultural but in actuality it’s spiritual to us. It’s an intertwining of the mind, body, and spirit. So that was a huge step forward for us. We were allowed to wear our Aboriginal veterans’ medallions when attending Indigenous events and Métis members could wear their sashes with the uniform as well. These were huge steps forward to allow us to be who we are as Indigenous veterans.

How did your Honorary appointment happen?

Before becoming the Navy Commander, Vice-Admiral Baines was the Admiral at Maritime Forces Atlantic, and he asked me if I would consider it. I accepted because it would help me to use my voice within the military more than I was already doing.

One of my favourite people is Senator Murray Sinclair, one of the commissioners for Truth and Reconciliation. He said, ‘Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.’ It’s about sharing the culture, getting people to understand the Indigenous people in Canada and how we got to where we are today. I’m finding that the military is becoming more and more open and wanting to do better.

It’s so new to me right now but I don’t find it’s any different than what I was doing before. I was a non-commissioned member before and now I’m wearing an honorary officer’s uniform and I’m having a little bit of difficulty adjusting to that. But it’s something that I take very seriously and something I do with pride. Not for myself but for military members and those veterans out there. That’s why I do this: to use my voice. And if I can use my voice to help streamline things or to help educate people, that’s something I’m willing to do any time.

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