Soaring Bird leadership camp partners army personnel with Manitoulin First Nations youth

ZHIIBAAHAASING—Pride and emotion could be heard in the voice of Zhiibaahaasing First Nation Chief Irene Kells as she spoke about the moment 24 young men and women marched up a road in the community toward the powwow grounds to the cheers and encouragement of families, friends and community members last Friday. The 24 young people had spent a week being led by a handful of Canadian military personnel in the Soaring Bird Aboriginal Youth Leadership Camp, in conjunction with the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCMM).

“I want to say thank you to all the participants and also give a welcome to the Canadian army representatives and government representatives,” stated Chief Kells. “When I saw our young people coming up the road, my heart was so happy, I wanted to scream and yell encouragement to them. I’m so happy they have had this experience, and now have another option they can consider for their future.”

“I would also like to thank all the Canadian Army men and women for training our young people in this camp, and holding the camp in our communities, Zhiibaahaasing and M’Chigeeng.”

The Soaring Bird Aboriginal Youth Leadership Camp is a pilot program developed by the Canadian Army with the overarching goals of inspiring aboriginal youth and sharing aboriginal culture, values and history with Canadian soldiers. The five-day long camp introduced participants to basic military skills and discipline in a non-competitive, educational environment. Soldiers and military vehicles from 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, located at Petawawa, were on Manitoulin Island from July 6 to 12.

Captain Sally-Ann Cyr, public affairs officer with the Canadian Army, welcomed the Thunder Earth drum group who presented the welcoming song at graduation ceremonies where students were presented with certificates for having completing the leadership camp. “We are honoured to be here in Zhiibaahaasing for this camp, and we are privileged to have David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, who is the Reviewing Officer, and the 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, Zhiibaahaasing Chief Irene Kells, and M’Chigeeng Chief Joe Hare.”

The certificates were presented to the 24 students, including 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, Zackry Migwans-Bayer, Justine Beatrice Mitchell, Robert Junior Osawabine, Avery Pelletier, Adam Frederick Roy, Erica Sampson, Bradley Darren Vincent Shawanda, and Phoenix Towers. As well, Mr. Devlin presented four Commander of the Canadian Army coins to four participants for exceptional service, those being Jessica Aguonie, Malcolm Blue, Sarah Debassige and Robert Junior Osawabine.

As well, two UCCMM councillors, Bobbi-Sue Kells and Leonard Generoux, were honoured for the exceptional guidance and support they provided during the week.

“I would just like to say what a privilege it is for me to be here today, along with my wife,” said Mr. Onley, who noted, “this is my first trip to Manitoulin Island although I’ve wanted to visit since 2007. I would like to thank all the community leaders, chief and band council efforts, and the parents and community members who provided the support and encouragement for all the young people who participated. And speaking to the young graduates of the program, my sincere congratulations, you have made your family and community proud.”

“The sincere applause from everyone here today was directed to you, our future leaders,” Mr. Onley said of the young participants. “This will be a day we all remember for a very long time.”

Mr. Devlin stated, “this is a very, very special day for the Canadian Army. We have witnessed the great potential, energy, and spirit of the local aboriginal youth. What is most exciting is that it tied friendships and the skills that you have learned and demonstrated. I would like to thank the community for its participation and support.”

Chief Hare said, “I would like to express my sincere appreciation to all the organizers, the army personnel, the 24 youth who took part and the communities for their efforts. My escort for today’s gathering is Victor Migwans, who served in the Canadian Armed services for a number of years. We were talking earlier about how glad we are to be here.”

This past spring the UCCMM chiefs were approached and presented with the idea of this program being run for the young people. He said it is appropriate the graduation program was taking place in the community where support of the program was given by the chiefs.

“I would like to thank Chief Irene Kells and her community for hosting this event,” continued Chief Hare. “I would like to mention the fact that earlier this summer all First Nations had been invited to Ottawa to receive symbols of the War of 1812, commemorating this conflict.” He explained that 6,000 warriors, including many from the Manitoulin region, joined the resistance fight for Canada against the US. “It is particularly important to understand the history our forefathers played in the development of Canada.”

CWO Chris Young, who is originally from Big Lake, coordinates all the aboriginal programs for the Canadian Forces, including the Soaring Bird Camp. “We have several programs for aboriginal youth including the Aboriginal Leadership Opportunities Year at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, and three, six-week-long summer training programs including Bold Eagle, Raven and Black Bear. All of these allowed youth the opportunity to go through training, without having to commit to the military forces.

The Soaring Bird camp program was the result of working with the New Zealand military five years ago and using it as a template to develop this program, said Mr. Young. “A total of 24 students are graduating from the program, which has shown overall to be a huge success.” He explained the students learned basic infantry skills, navigation skills, orienteering, First Aid and survival skills, as well as repelling, marksmanship, scouting, camouflage, building survival structures and how to build a fire.

On their last day of the camp, the young participants took a challenge which incorporated all their skills they had learned through the week. “We ran through the challenge in 20 minutes,” said Lieutenant Dixon. “The students did it quicker,” he added.

One of the participants, Avery Pelletier, told the Recorder, “it was a great week. For me the best part was repelling exercises and shooting, and the challenge we did this (Friday) morning. “I made a lot of new friends,” he said, noting the experience may lead him to a career in the military. “I would definitely encourage other young people to take part in this program if they have the same opportunity.”

 Tom Sasvari