British Columbia

Cadet ranks swell in Lower Mainland, boosted by Chinese, Indo-Canadian support

Gegan Kaur, 18, says her older sister Taseem was the first in the family to join the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. She couldn't wait to turn 12 so she could enrol too.

Wool socks and drills may not sound ‘appealing’ but Gegan Kaur says cadets gave her community

Warrant Officer First Class Gegan Kaur on her last night at 278 Cormorant, B.C.'s air cadet squadron that she helped establish in 2018. Kaur ages out of cadets on Nov. 23 when she turns 19. (Enzo Zanatta/CBC News)

Gegan Kaur couldn't wait to turn 12 so she could join the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.

"I was so intent on following in [my older sister's] footsteps," said Kaur, whose Sikh parents were "ecstatic" but never imagined she'd end up turning it into a career.

Kaur, 18, is one in a wave of hundreds of young and often female Canadians joining cadets in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, especially from communities where the number of Chinese and Indo-Canadian families is growing.

Program organizers credit swelling ranks, in part, to the strong support of Asian parents for the military-style youth program, especially in Surrey, Richmond and the Tri-Cities.

Both Corporal Omneet Kang, 14 (left) and Corporal Jennifer Shim, 13 (right) of Cormorant 278 Squadron say their parents forced them to join air cadets, but they found good friends and a close-knit community there. (Enzo Zanatta/CBC News)

Kaur's Sikh father served in the Singapore military as an aircraft mechanic before coming to Canada in 1989, so she said he was thrilled that she and her sibling were interested in aviation.

"The cadet program ... I think it entices a lot of immigrant parents by telling them that their children can have greater opportunities and that they belong as Canadians," Kaur said. 

Cadets do not officially tally the ethnicity of members, but leaders and participants confirm that newer Canadian families are attracted to the free program that offers training and opportunities. Surrey's membership has doubled in the past decade. In Richmond, enrolment increased 25 per cent, and it's up 64 per cent in the Tri-Cities.

"B.C. is really growing the most across Canada right now," said Major Nicole Shim, the officer in charge of the Lower Mainland for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Shim said newer Canadians find a sense of belonging and community in cadets.

'Canada's best kept secret'

Across Canada there are more than 53,000 cadets in the essentially free program for 12 to 18-year-olds, which is funded by the Department of National Defence (DND) and civilian support leagues.

Cadets participate in activities from glider flying to outdoor adventure training, and learn about the sea, army and air activities of the military. They can earn school credits for some of the advanced training and wages for some of the leadership jobs during summer training.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan speaks to Flight Corporal Parmpreet Ghuman during the grand opening parade of 278 Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron in Newton, B.C., on November 24, 2018. (Capt. Cheryl Major, PAO, RCSU (Pac))

Growth last year was strongest in B.C., where units in hot spots like Richmond have up to 200 cadets.

The number of female cadets also increased, with females now making up more than one-third of most units.

'I didn't want to wear boots. I didn't want to put my hair up in a bun'

Some B.C. units are now so large they struggle to find enough instructors and space to parade.

There are some recruits who are forced to join by their parents. Shim admits even she balked at joining years ago.

"I didn't want to wear boots. I didn't want to put my hair up in a bun. I didn't want to march. Those are all the things that I hated doing and I ended up loving it," said Shim.

She believes there's a new openness to the program and a realization that it's not simply a recruitment tool.

"We just want cadets to be good citizens in our country," she said.

Richmond cadets strong

Shim said Richmond has a particularly strong number of new cadets. There are three full squadrons, and 900 cadets overall, adding up navy, army and air.

There is so much support from the Chinese community that they have offered parent newsletters in Cantonese and Mandarin.

Surrey has B.C.'s newest squadron

Surrey is also expanding, with a new 160-member unit: 278 Cormorant Squadron established in 2018 in Surrey-Newton.

"Both Surrey units are incredibly well supported by the Indo-Canadian community," said Shim.

Cadets from Coquitlam's Squadron 808 prepare for the parade on Nov. 11, 2019. (Curt Petrovich)

Warrant Officer First Class Gegan Kaur helped open the new unit.

"For most youth nowadays the idea of standing around in a parade wearing wool socks and having to gel your hair on a Tuesday night doesn't sound very appealing. But having gone through the program there's been nothing more essential to creating my sense of community," she said.

Kaur will age out of cadets on her 19th birthday this weekend. She and her 22-year-old sister Taseem are heading into a career at the cadet instructor cadre, a branch of DND.

Cadets are on the rise in Canada, but numbers are strongest in B.C. where the average squadron has 70 members, compared to 30 to 50 in the rest of Canada. (National Defence/Government of Canada)

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend