Nfld. & Labrador

'It's time,' says first Inuk woman to become honorary colonel at 5 Wing Goose Bay

Sarah Leo has been named honorary colonel of the 444 Combat Support Squadron at 5 Wing Goose Bay.

Veteran, former Nunatsiavut president Sarah Leo makes history

Sarah Leo, a veteran of the Canadian Army and former president of Nunatsiavut, was invested as honorary colonel on National Indigenous Peoples Day. (Master Cpl. Krista Blizzard/Facebook)

An Indigenous woman has been named honorary colonel of a squadron based at 5 Wing Goose Bay for the first time.

Sarah Leo, a former president of Nunatsiavut and Canadian Army veteran, is taking on the civilian role, which bridges the divide between members of the 444 Combat Support Squadron and the general public in Labrador.

"I think it's exciting and I think it's time," said Leo.

"We're in an age where we recognize the importance of moving beyond your typical honorary colonel — no offence to any of those that have served — but you know, we're going beyond just the typical retired businessman." 

Honorary colonels, according to a Royal Canadian Air Force website, are "integral members of the Air Force family," who help foster community bonds and mentor members who may be unfamiliar with their new homes.

Leo sits with officials from 444 Combat Support Squadron at a ceremony on National Indigenous Peoples Day. (Master Cpl. Krista Blizzard/Facebook)

While the squadron's primary mandate is to support base operations and respond in case of military aircraft emergencies, 444 is also involved in search and rescue, an effort many Labradorians are familiar with.

Military rescuers have been tasked with finding overdue hunters, lost snowmobilers and errant outdoor enthusiasts, but that's not their only role.

Northern communities like Nain, where Leo resides, also rely on search and rescue to assist in medical airlifts when conditions become unsuitable for commercial aircraft.

If you are a female, if you are Indigenous, you can do whatever you want.- Sarah Leo

"If their work takes them into the communities for whatever reason, it's good for them to have an understanding of where they're going and the people they may be meeting," she said.

"And it's better for them to have that understanding before they're put in a situation where it's an emergency."

'Certainly well deserved'

Leo spent 21 years in the Canadian Armed Forces as a mobile support equipment operator, with deployments to Yugoslavia and the Balkans. Later, she became the first woman to be elected president of Nunatsiavut, the Inuit government which oversees parts of Labrador.

"I want to extend congratulations," said current president Johannes Lampe in a statement.

"It is certainly well deserved, and we look forward to working with her in building a stronger relationship between the Nunatsiavut government and the Canadian Forces."

Leo was invested at ceremony in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Friday, National Indigenous Peoples Day.   

"We're at a time now where if you are a female, if you are Indigenous, you can do whatever you want. It's always been there, but … in this day and age it's even more achievable," she said.

"The world is yours to grab and it's just a matter of you going out and grabbing it."  

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning