Aboriginal soliders honoured for service

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Historic first, says ex-senator

Not rain nor snow nor the complete absence of the recipients could stop Edmonton Garrison officials from granting two Alberta aboriginal soldiers a historic honour.

Bombardier Kisha Potts and Master Cpl. Melissa Whitegrass were presented with an eagle feather and Métis sash on May 21 in a ceremony at the Edmonton Garrison, amidst freezing winds, rain and snow. Neither was able to attend, so base commander Lt.-Col. Gary Blenkinsop accepted the honours on their behalf.

The two women were recognized for their contributions to the Canadian Forces as part of Aboriginal Awareness Week at the garrison. They were originally scheduled to receive the awards as part of International Women’s Day in March. That ceremony was called off due to a snowstorm.

Aboriginal women have long worked in defence of Canada, said former senator Thelma Chalifoux, one of the organizers of the awards, and should be recognized. These two women were dedicated to their country, she said, and were role models for all women. “We recognize you as a proud warrior.”

Historic day

This was the first time in Canadian history that two active servicewomen had been presented with both of these honours, Chalifoux said. “It’s a wonderful historic day for all of us.”

The sash is one of the main symbols of the Métis, Chalifoux said, along with the fiddle and the Red River Jig. “It is composed of many interwoven threads, many strands and colours together,” reflecting the multicultural origins of the Métis.

The eagle feather is a sacred healing tool amongst the First Nations, said Joyce Beaver, a volunteer with the Michif Institute at the ceremony. “The eagle represents a state of grace achieved through hard work and understanding.”

Two tours in Afghanistan

Potts, a 23-year-old reservist from the Piikani Nation west of Lethbridge, said she couldn’t believe it when she heard she had been given this recognition. “When I heard it was an eagle feather and a sash, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a big deal.'”

Potts has served two tours in Afghanistan as a member of the 18th Air Defence Regiment, RCA, based in Lethbridge. Her sister, Whitegrass, is now training for her first mission in Afghanistan with the Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, in Manitoba. Whitegrass could not be reached for an interview.

Potts said she was eager to see the world outside southern Alberta when the chance for her first tour came up in 2005. “I just jumped on it and asked questions later!” She put her university degree on hold, got her orientation in Edmonton, and was soon manning radios at Afghanistan’s Camp Nathan Smith.

It was Potts’ first time in the field and her first time overseas. “What really stood out to me the most was how similar the Pashtun people were to the Blackfoot of about 100 years ago,” she said, noting that both shared the same pride and will to survive. “It was neat seeing my own people in a totally foreign people.”

Her second tour in 2008 saw her launching unmanned aerial recon vehicles while braving rocket attacks and the occasional roadside bomb. She was never in any real danger, she insists.

As one of the few aboriginal women in her unit in a combat role, Potts said she tends to stick out in the crowd. Her time in the military has been mostly free of racism and sexism, she said — contrary to her expectations. “If you get the job done, you’re good to go. If you can’t, then you deserve to be picked on, since it’s a real simple job.”

She said she doesn’t see herself as a role model. “Everyone else tells me I am, but I went [overseas]because I wanted to … I go wherever my mind takes me.”

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.