When Leading Seaman Erwin Alexander was 18 years old and a recent high school graduate, his grandmother asked him what he planned to do with the rest of his life.
There weren’t a lot of options available to the aboriginal teenager at his Greenville home within the Nisga’a Nation in northern B.C.
“For myself, I would have just sat around or played baseball,” said Alexander, one of about 40 aboriginal people at CFB Esquimalt.
Fast forward 11 years later, and Alexander, who serves as a steward onboard HMCS Vancouver at CFB Esquimalt, has travelled the world. He has also attended events to speak with First Nations youth about career opportunities in the Canadian Forces.
“I have nothing bad to say to aboriginal youth about experiences I would never have done back home,” said Alexander, among several past and present aboriginal CFB Esquimalt personnel recognized during the 14th annual National Aboriginal Day festivities at the base last Thursday.
Earlier in the day, a canoe, carved for the navy’s centennial last year, was blessed in its new home at the officer’s wardroom at the base. The event drew B.C.’s first aboriginal lieutenant-governor, Steven Point, who helped carve the canoe and chose its new home.
The canoe signifies “that we need to start travelling together,” Point told Esquimalt and Songhees Nations elders, and several military leaders, including Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk.
First Nations youth can achieve new beginnings through education and the military, Point said, noting that suicide rates among First Nations people are six times the national average.
The military actively recruits aboriginals through several employment programs. About two per cent of Canadian Forces personnel are aboriginal, but the goal is to raise that to three-and-a-half per cent by 2014, in keeping with the Employment Equity Act.
The military provides First Nations people with options.
“What has happened to Aboriginal people is that they’ve been outside of the mainstream for so long on reservations, and a way out of those communities is a way out of poverty sometimes,” said Point.