Military service taught chiefs leadership skills
- Angela Hill | November 25, 2018
Wolfe was elected chief of Muskeg Lake in February this year, and Taypotat was voted in as chief of Kahkewistahaw in 2017.
“For me, serving is in the blood and following in the footsteps of the grandfathers and grandmothers that served the country, I wanted to come home and serve our people,” said Wolfe. “I believe I gained, as well as enhanced, a lot of leadership skills and qualities though the military to come home and do that.”
Wolfe’s military career began in 2008 and he retired in March 2015. During that time, he was deployed once to Afghanistan.
“There is a strong history of people serving from our community, so there was an honor to following in their footsteps while overseas,” he said.
The military helped Wolfe grow to where he felt he could consider leading his community.
“It opens your eyes to the personal capabilities.”
Taypotat was also deployed to Afghanistan during his career with the Canadian Forces. He said leadership in the military is similar to what is needed to be a good leader back home.
“You lead by example and if you don’t lead by example you are no longer leading anybody,” he said, adding you have you make sure your people are taken care of before you are.
“We’re taught to do the right thing. Morals and ethics mean something,” Taypotat said. “At the end of the day I feel like the Creator is watching. If I use my leadership skills that I attained over a nice career in the military and if I follow those I think, 99.9 per cent of the time, I will be doing the right thing and the people will benefit from it.”
Steven Ross is the Grand Chief of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association. He was a Canadian soldier and a peacekeeper in Cyprus in the 60s. Ross went on to serve his community of Montreal Lake Cree Nation as a band councilor for 28 years.
“One of the things I learned was teamwork. Team work is so critical and important in any government institution and organization,” he said. “Everyone must know what they want and work together aggressively to attain their goal. The goal must be the same.”
While the situation is improving for Indigenous veterans, it has not always been an easy road, Ross said.
He said those who fought in earlier wars, like the First and Second World War were not considered citizens when they signed up and when they came back they were still not treated equally.
“It was a hard climb to reestablish yourself in civilian life for all veterans after the war, but it was a lot harder for Status Indian veterans. It was definitely not equal,” said Scott Sheffield, associate professor of history at the University of Fraser Valley.
Sheffield researches the wartime experiences of Indigenous People in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He said programs were set up as a one-size-fits-all, which didn’t fit Indigenous veterans, who often missed out on being able to get further education, or land to farm when they returned from combat.
It was particularly difficult because while inside the military, Indigenous men and women felt equal, Sheffield said.
“A lot of First Nations veterans speak to that in the stories I’ve heard over the years. That racism seemed to go away in the forces,” he said. “For First Nations soldiers they felt very much respected for who they were; their skills, their character, not for their background.”
That was Wolfe’s experience during his training in Canada and deployment to Afghanistan.
“When I served, I served with members from all over Canada, almost every province, different religions, different races, and we were all brothers, we all considered each other brothers regardless of what your race was, regardless of what religion you followed,” Wolfe said. “We all fought under the same flag.”
It wasn’t just that the Canadian Forces left an impact on Indigenous veterans like Wolfe, Ross and Taypotat, Sheffield said the involvement of Indigenous men and women in the forces began to change how the wider public viewed Indigenous People.
“There is actually lots of press coverage about Indigenous contributions during the Second World War,” he said. “Indigenous military service and contributions during the war really did make a big impact on Canadians.”
While it didn’t instantly change the underlying racism and inequity, it did start a path forward.
Taypotat sees the military as a way for communities to continue to be strengthened.
“A lot of our young warriors, men and ladies alike, I recommend going to the military and just getting out there, seeing the world, getting put in those tough situations in training, those tough situations in life,” he said.
“When they leave the army hopefully they go back to their community and put some of those lessons learned to use in their community and if they do that, we will be better a whole.”
In communities like Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, serving in the military is part of the collective history. Wolfe says it goes back to a strong sense of pride.
“It’s continued to be passed on through family members.”
While there is much that can be gained from military service, there can be loss. Taypotat talks about the soldiers that didn’t come back from Afghanistan and those who came back with wounds “that could be seen and some that can’t.”
“The boys that went to war gave us that freedom, to be able to walk in this country free,” Ross said, adding that the contributions of Indigenous veterans need to be recognized. “We want it a little more visible in our communities, but also in mainstream society, we want to be visible…If you see a veteran talk to them. They can tell you stories … talk to them, give them thanks, be grateful.”