Soaring Bird camp instills confidence and skills in First Nations youth

[new_royalslider id=”5″]
ZHIIBBAAHAASING—A strong sense of community pride could be felt last Friday in Zhiibaahaasing First Nation at the closing ceremony of the inaugural Soaring Bird Aboriginal Youth Leadership Camp.

Twenty-four Island youth marched to the Zhiibaahaasing powwow grounds last Friday, their path lined with family and community members applauding and taking photos. They had just returned from a week-long wilderness experience where they learned military skills such as orienteering, survival skill and first aAid.

Once in formation, the youth were honoured with a welcome song from Thunder Earth and presented with certificates of achievement for completing the five-day leadership camp run by the Canadian Forces in partnership with the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCMM).

Presenting the certificates were the Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Commander of the Canadian Army Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Michael Wernick, Command Chief Warrant Officer (CCWO) Michael Hornbrook and Zhiibaahaasing Chief Irene Kells.

Camp participants, including 24 youth that were selected through applications reviewed by the UCCMM from First Nation communities across Manitoulin Island and Birch Island, were Austin Cheyenne, Carl Antoine, Brandon Antoine, Chelsea Antoine, Jazmyn Antoine, Jessica Aguonie, Faith Beaudin, Shannon Behm, Malcolm Blue, Tristen Cada, Nathan Debassige, Sarah Debassige, Tyler Debassige, Curtis Endanawas, Riley Justice Feir, Clayton Limin, Dylan J. Malley, Zachary Migwans-Bayer, Justine Beatrice Mitchell, Robert Junior Osawabine, Avery Pelletier, Adam Frederick Roy, Erica Sampson, Bradley Darren, Vincent Shawanda and Phoenix Towers.

Lieutenant-General Devlin also presented Commander of the Canadian Army coins to Jessica Aguonie, Malcolm Clue, Sarah Debassige and Robert Junior Osawabine for exceptional service, and for the leadership and skills they exhibited. He also presented coins to UCCMM Councillors Bobbi-Sue Kells and Leonard Genereux for their work in to helping facilitate the program.

“This is a special day for the Canadian Army to be able to share with you here,” said Lieutenant-General Devlin. “I would like to thank the community for your active participation and support. Your level of encouragement inspired both the youth and us.”

“I would like to extend my sincere congratulations for what you have done this week,” announced Lieutenant Governor Onley. “This is a special day that my wife and I will remember for a very long time.”

UCCMM Tribal Chair Chief Joe Hare explained how the Canadian Forces first approached the UCCMM about the program and reminded the audience of the history of First Nations partnership with the forces, including the War of 1812, sharing a commemorative coin and flag.

“The army approached the UCCMM at a meeting here in the spring proposing this program,” said Chief Hare. “We all supported the idea and today is the culmination of a lot of planning and hard work.”

Chief Hare told The Expositor that he felt the skills the youth learned during the program were important because, “everything you learn builds on lessons and teachings from elders. What they take away from this week will help them build up their sense of who they are.”

Chief Kells was supported during her address by Chief Hare, as Chief Kells began welling up as she spoke of the pride she felt in seeing the youth assembled.

“When I saw you all coming up the road, my heart was so happy,” said Chief Kells. “So happy that you had the chance to experience this; try something new and something else you could decide for your future. We are all so grateful for this to have happened in our community. This has been so good for all the youth in the community and the Island.”

The Expositor was able to speak with the Lieutenant Governor following the ceremony about his visit to Manitoulin and the importance of aboriginal youth programming such as the Soaring Bird Aboriginal Leadership Camp.

“This is myself and my wife’s first visit to Manitoulin and we have really enjoyed it. We already have received an invitation to return,” shared the Lieutenant Governor.

“The Canadian military takes pride in providing an opportunity for all youth to learn about our county and a career in the military,” he continued. “The role that aboriginal people have played in the Canadian military is fundamental and goes a long way back to the War of 1812, as Chief Hare mentioned earlier. It is a deep and rich history and a partnership that youth can identify with and be a part of that tradition, building on programs such as this.”

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes was on hand to extend her congratulations to the community and youth as well.

“This has been a very positive experience and an opportunity to young people to learn about their potential,” said Ms. Hughes. “Chris Young (CWO with the Canadian Defense Academy) spoke with me a few months back, sharing with me the vision for this program and it is so rewarding to be able to be here today to see it come to fruition. This is a proud day for First Nations and these young people. They say it takes a community to build our children and this is true here today by the First Nations, Canadian Forces and community members that have worked together on this program for these youth.”

The Expositor also had the opportunity to speak with CWO Chris Young who oversees all the aboriginal programs for the Canadian Forces and is the man behind the Soaring Bird camp.

“We have many programs for aboriginal youth including the Aboriginal Leadership Opportunities Year (ALOY) at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston and three, six-week long summer training programs including Bold Eagle, Raven and Black Bear,” explained CWO Young. “With the above three summer programs, youth have the opportunity to test drive the military through training, but have no commitment to join the Canadian Forces after.”

CWO Young explained that the idea for the Soaring Bird pilot program came from working with the New Zealand military five years ago on an aboriginal community initiative.

“We took the program and used it as a template to develop this program,” he continued. “The Canadian Forces decided to try the program because they felt it was a unique opportunity to give back to Canadian communities.”

Though CWO Young is from Big Lake on Manitoulin Island, he said that Manitoulin being chosen was “happenstance.” Other members of the forces commented throughout the day that Zhiibbaahaasing and Manitoulin was chosen for its wilderness, unique terrain and water access.

Lieutenant Dixon, who was in charge of training throughout the week, explained some of the activities that the youth took part in.

“They learned basic infantry skills, navigation, First Aid and survival skills,” the lieutenant told The Expositor. “They spent a day in M’Chigeeng repelling and used knot skills they learned. They also learned field skills, such as scouting, camouflage and building a survival structure and fire. Yesterday they learned how to flip and reflip a assault boat and this morning they completed a challenge incorporating all the skills they had learned. They did really well, completing it faster than us (the instructors).”

CWO Young added that due to the success of the program, conversations are already taking place with Aboriginal Affairs and other government departments to expand the program across Canada in the future.

If the praises from organizers, government officials and community members wasn’t evidence enough of the program’s success, the participants themselves had nothing but positive messages to relay.

“I have always wanted to be a paramedic, but after the program I think I would like to be a paramedic in the military,” said 18-year-old Erica Sampson of Sheshegwaning First Nation. “It was challenging, but I had a lot of fun.”

“It was a last minute decision for me to apply for the program,” added 17-year-old Faith Beaudin of M’Chigeeng First Nation, ?but I am really happy I did. It really pushed me and was a great experience.”

For more information on aboriginal programs with the Canadian Forces visit

Robin Burridge