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Talking the Kids out of Soldiering

A mother resists the military's push to recruit aboriginals.

By Mordecai Briemberg 2 May 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Mordecai Briemberg interviewed Laura Holland on the Redeye radio program March 17th. Redeye is an interview based public affairs and cultural program broadcasting every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to noon on Vancouver Cooperative Radio 102.7 FM. The program also is streamed live and interviews are posted on Rabble podcasts. Checkout the options at www.coopradio.org/redeye.

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'Bold Eagle' program participants, 2006.

The Canadian military is offering $3,000 and the promise of a "cultural program" to attract recruits among native youth as young as 16 into a summer program in Wainwright, Alberta. Most of the focus is on teens in Western Canada and northwestern Ontario. The program, named Bold Eagle, is said in promotional materials to offer "participants a taste of military life, with the option -- but no commitment -- to pursue part-time employment with the Canadian Forces."

When Laura Holland's two sons wanted to sign-up, she convinced them otherwise.

Holland comes from the Wet'suwet'en Nation near Smithers, B.C., where she was born and raised, and she has lived in Vancouver since 1986. She was active in the formation of the Aboriginal Women's Action Network, does volunteer work in the Downtown Eastside, mainly with women and children, and is a member of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter collective. She assisted, at a community school, with forming and co-facilitating "Girlz Group" to address the realities of violence directed against girls.

In a recent interview on Vancouver's Co-op Radio this is what Laura Holland had to say...

On where the military looks for aboriginal recruits:

"It was actually through the kids that I first heard about the military recruitment campaign. About two years ago. My sons and several of their friends had been approached at a community center and they'd also been approached at aboriginal day.

"I didn't hear about the program through the school itself until just recently. One of the employees at the school ... had been given some recruiting pamphlets and was convinced this was a good idea and started to distribute them to First Nations families."

On the powerful but skewed message in recruiting materials:

"I have a really difficult time just looking at the pamphlet because of the way it's set up. It's offering children as young as 16 money, of course. At the end of a two month summer camp you get paid $3,000 -- that's $1,500 a month. It offers military training, offers to teach young people how to handle artillery, military life. The program's called "Bold Eagle" and the cultural component starts in the first week, for four days. It teaches a lot of things many of us don't believe in. Multicultural killing is still killing!

"The way those pamphlets read there's very little that would stop any child as young as 16 from actually going into this program. All that's required is Grade 10. The kid needs to be physically fit and a Canadian citizen, have a high school transcript, social insurance card and a birth certificate. What they're offered is transportation to Wainwright, Alberta, and when they're there they're offered military clothing, required equipment, meals, accommodation. It does say you don't have to commit to the military, but they strongly encourage graduates to continue with the Canadian forces."

On pressures at home faced by teens:

"A couple years ago our community started to really feel a lot of the cutbacks, started to feel the pressures of not having any money. We saw many programs that were disappearing from the community. There was not a lot of training that was being offered to First Nations youth, and there weren't any programs specifically geared to First Nations that were free and accessible.

"A lot of the kids were hiding themselves, feeling more and more destitute; as they were getting older, hitting their teens and their late teens many kids were becoming homeless, many First Nations youth were beginning to hit the streets because they had no where else to go. A lot of these children also were just beginning to [leave] group homes and the foster care system."

On talking her sons out of it:

"At first I was really quite depressed. I was really afraid. I had to sit with my sons and have a conversation and ask them why they wanted to join the military. And of course they told me why. And it was out of desperation. What they were informed was they could get an education, have some training, have a job, have somewhere to be, somewhere to go.

"At the same time I had to say: 'Listen my son, this is who you are: You are a first Nations Youth and you have to understand why you were feeling so desperate and so destitute. You have to understand who put you in this situation in the first place. You have to understand your history.'

"So I needed to sit with my sons and explain to them things like the Indian Act. I had to explain to them this was used as a tool to control First Nations people, that this was meant to be a temporary tool to assimilate First Nations people. I also had to let them know there were very few rights that we had because of this Indian Act.

"So there is a whole history and a lot of information I needed to tell my kids so they could understand that what they were choosing was not the right thing and not for the right reasons. I had to explain that an education, housing and work -- those are the kinds of things the Canadian government has promised people in the first place. They shouldn't have to promise to go to war, they shouldn't have to kill or to die, in order to have housing or an education and a job."

On connecting dots with past service, and resistance:

"Because of their age, they at first hadn't really thought all that much about the role the military plays in Canada. What they remember because of their age is Gustafson Lake and they remember Oka. Those are the most recent events that they can recall. I had to talk to them about what roles the RCMP played there, and what role the Canadian Forces have played there also. So it was not just a matter of talking about war and the Canadian Forces. It was also talking about consciousness raising, about who they were, what side of the fence they're actually on.

"I also needed to remind them we have a long history of First Nations veterans that we honour as elders, who had gone to wars. But when they came back they didn't enjoy the same benefits as other war veterans. In fact, they had lost whatever rights they had had under the Indian Act.

"There were a couple of different things in play in the early 1900s. There was a war that was happening in South Africa. In the early 1900s there were men returning from that war -- the Boer war vets were returning. They were given different things like land and pensions and taken care of. At that same time First Nations people were being put on reserves and whatever rights they had was completely governed by the Indian Act. They didn't really have any rights.

"By the time the Second World War was happening, if a First Nations person was to go to war what they had to do first was enfranchise themselves as a Canadian citizen, because at that time First Nations people weren't considered Canadians. We weren't considered citizens. So if a man or a woman wanted to enlist that meant giving up whatever Indian rights that they were entitled to.

"Upon their return they didn't enjoy the same benefits, they didn't get pensions, or compensation, they didn't have land rights and they also weren't reinstated the Indian rights they had given up before they left. This had a profound effect on the women and children who were left behind because if a man had given up his status as an Indian in Canada it meant the whole family lost their status. And this had a profound effect on many of the following generations."

On life in an 'occupied country':

"The first thing that I want to do with my sons is explain our position here in Canada and what our reality is, what our lived experience is. I explain to them that this is an occupied country. So we don't want to contribute to the violence and oppression of women and children in other occupied countries -- because women and children are who are affected first and foremost."

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