How a culture-infused military program opens doors for Canada's Indigenous youth

Dylan Carrier-Henry wanted to be a police officer, but she lacked the self-worth and self-confidence to see herself wearing that badge with pride.

Bold Eagle program at CFB Wainwright helps show recruits 'the sky's the limit'

Pte. Dylan Carrier-Henry says the Bold Eagle program opened doors for her future career aspirations. (Cpl. Jay Ekin/Supplied)

Dylan Carrier-Henry wanted to be a police officer but lacked the self-confidence to see herself wearing the badge with pride.

Until the 17-year-old from Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan was accepted into the Canadian Armed Forces' Bold Eagle program.

"I feel like it's a huge honour, honestly," Carrier-Henry says. "I didn't know I could do stuff like this. I didn't believe in myself.

"It gave me a lot of confidence, being here."

Maj. Clint Schoepp, the commanding officer for the Bold Eagle company this year, says the cultural aspect is important for the recruits to reconnect with their culture. (Department of National Defence/Supplied)

Bold Eagle invites Indigenous youth from Western Canada and northwestern Ontario to a six-week program that fuses basic military training with a unique cultural learning experience at CFB Wainwright in Alberta.

Since 1990, the program has reinforced traditional learning practices and ceremonies with military training to help show recruits what they're capable of, as well as remind them of their roots.

"Literally, we hope they take away from this that the sky's the limit," says Maj. Clint Schoepp, the commanding officer for Bold Eagle.

The cultural aspect of the camp is taught by Indigenous members of the military, elders and other pillars of the local community. For some recruits, the pipe ceremonies, sweats and smudging is normal — but for others, it's an introduction.

"Even though they are all Indigenous, some come from the reserves, some from the cities, some are treaty, some aren't, some are Métis, and in a lot of cases may not know much about their culture," Schoepp says.

"[It's about] just helping them know their roots a little bit better."

Culture connection

James Ross lives in Yellowknife and says many people in his life are Dene. Being from Mikisew Cree Nation in northern Alberta, there are few people around him who share his Cree culture, which he's learning more about every day.

That all changed when he joined Bold Eagle.

"There's a little bit of a Cree population where I come from, but not too much," Ross says. "And then I come here and everyone's Cree."

He didn't know he was Cree until he was 12 years old — but since then has picked up a bit of the language. His favourite word is nohtehkatewin, which means the act of being hungry.

"That's most important," he says. "You need to know that one."

Pte. James Ross says speaking Cree with his fellow recruits has helped him reconnect with his heritage. (Cpl. Jay Ekin/Supplied)

Being around other recruits has given Ross the chance to practise his Cree and make friends.

"I didn't have too much connection to my culture before," he says. "I really like it so far."

'A better person'

A couple of Seth Wesloski's new friends had to leave due to injury — but the connection made with them and the rest of the cohort are enough to last.

"I've made some of my best friends already and I've only been here for a month," Wesloski says.

The 18-year-old Métis recruit from Langley, B.C., wants to be a firefighter, and he's using this experience to prepare himself for that.

He was particularly excited for what's called the gas hut, where members have to put on and activate a gas mask in nine seconds, decontaminate themselves with a special soap, change gas canisters and empty the mask, all without breathing in the CS gas (a component of tear gas) that irritates eyes, skin and sometimes makes people vomit.

Pte. Seth Wesloski, middle, wants to be a firefighter and hopes to use the training at Bold Eagle to help him get there. (Cpl. Jay Ekin/Supplied)

"It's really cool, because a lot of us have never had military training," Wesloski says. "You definitely get the full five weeks of hardcore training."

For some, the program offers the chance to learn self-discipline and basic military training. For others, like Carrier-Henry, it can show them they have options outside of the communities where they reside. She's considering joining the infantry or medic units in the Canadian military thanks to Bold Eagle.

"I've never had opportunities like this before, ever since I was a kid," Carrier-Henry says. "When I found out I got accepted into this, I felt so happy.

"It just makes me feel like a better person."