A lot fewer white people

Macleans August 02, 2005

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A lot fewer white people'

Once male and pale, the cadet corps is diversifying

THULASI SRIKANTHAN

It's the sound of Cantonese in the midst of a summer training camp at CFB Borden that signals how much change has come to Canada's cadet forces. Alan Cheung and his cousin Warren Tsang fire remarks back and forth in their native tongue as they fill their water bottles. "We talk all the time to each other in Cantonese," says Cheung. This is the 14-year-old's first year at Blackdown, the summer training camp at CFB Borden near Barrie, Ont., and 15-year-old Tsang's second. The two Torontonians have been busy crossing rope bridges, perfecting their marching drills and teaching other cadets some Cantonese. Ask them about race or feeling different and they shake their heads in bewilderment. In their world, race just isn't a big issue.

Cheung and Tsang are the new faces of Cadets Canada. After decades as a predominantly Caucasian male-dominated institution, the youth organization is evolving with the times and diversifying. With its non-denominational chaplains, religion-appropriate cuisine and anti-harassment counsellors, Cadets Canada is attracting, and retaining, more visible minorities, Aboriginal boys and girls.

Designed for youth from 12 to 18, the cadets, an institution more than a 125 years old, hold weekly meetings throughout the year. Each summer, cadets are selected from local sea, army or air units to participate in two- or six-week training sessions, mainly at military bases, across the country. Their instructors are civilians and reserve officers, but the cadets are not technically part of the Canadian Forces. In fact, officials say, the federally funded program does not focus on recruiting new members for the Forces. Rather, it teaches youth about citizenship, teamwork and physical fitness. Oh, and some rifle skills and marching drills for good measure.

At Borden, nearly 50 per cent of the 2,300 cadets are girls, and approximately 40 per cent come from the ethnically diverse Greater Toronto Area. "We are just a reflection of how Canadian society has changed," says Lt.-Col. Allan Campbell, the camp's commanding officer. Though Cadets Canada doesn't keep official track of visible minorities, numbers have increased noticeably in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, where thriving economies and established ethnic enclaves have attracted thousands of immigrants. These three provinces account for 80 per cent of Cadets Canada's growth, from 48,600 in 1995 to 54,700 in 2004.

Although Richmond, B.C.'s cadets go by the name Irish Fusiliers, you'd be hard-pressed to find an Irishman among them. Based in a Chinese-dominated area, the unit is more than 80-per-cent Asian. It's led by Maj. Gary Law, a Chinese-Canadian reserve officer who injects cultural lessons into regular cadet programming. His cadets not only learn first aid, drill and marksmanship, but they also visit Sikh temples and join Chinese New Year festivities. "We want to teach them to respect and interact with each other," says Law.

Lt.-Cmdr. Gerry Pash, a spokesperson for the cadet program in British Columbia, says it offers immigrant families an opportunity to become part of Canadian society and tradition. "Some parents see it as a way to 'Canadianize' their children," he says. Officer Cadet Saad Syed, a 19-year-old Pakistani-born Canadian, agrees. A former cadet and now an engineering student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Syed is a member of the Cadets Instructors Cadre that supervises and teaches youngsters. Syed says the organization helps many first-generation Canadians and new arrivals feel more comfortable in their new country. "It gives cadets a sense of belonging, confidence and a chance to make friends," he says.

It is not just visible-minority immigrants who are helping fuel diversity in the cadet ranks. Increased interest from Aboriginal communities is also drawing more native youth into Cadets Canada. Taylia Robson, 14, from Owen Sound, Ont., and Amanda Montreuil, 13, from Hamilton, for instance, are in their second year at Blackdown camp, where they have become friends. "You get a lot of opportunities here," says Robson, explaining why she joined up.

It's the same in Terrace, B.C., where 35 of the 40 air cadets are from local Tsimshian tribes. Melodie Johnson, a cultural teacher with the Kitsumkalum band, says Aboriginal youth get a lot of experiences with the cadets they wouldn't get anywhere else. "They are not always exposed to cultural learning at home," says Johnson, who designs the cultural programming for the Terrace air cadet unit. "We try to teach them about our way of life." Students learn the histories of their bands, about the matriarchal nature of Aboriginal societies and what their Indian names mean.

"For years, native people were shunted off into a corner because no one promoted the cadet program to them," says Capt. Ken MacKenzie, head of the Terrace unit. "And there was also a reluctance on their part to get involved with organizations outside their culture." But that's changing. By adopting native culture into the regular cadet programming, MacKenzie says, the Terrace cadets have succeeded in slowly bringing native groups into the fold.

Multiculturalism aside, the cadets have also become more gender-balanced over the last three decades. Anywhere you look at the Blackdown camp, you see young women marching, climbing over rope bridges, learning first aid and doing a host of activities associated with the program. Capt. Stephen Roberts, 59, says this level of female participation couldn't have happened without a change in Canadian values. "When I was a cadet almost 50 years ago, I didn't see any females," says Roberts, the cadets' spokesman at Borden. "Women now have more freedom to do what they want, and that is why you are seeing more of them in the military, flying commercial jets, becoming firefighters."

For 14-year-old Amy Kalita, there's no mystery about what draws girls like her to the cadets -- the adventure of rock climbing, rappelling and canoeing. On this day, Kalita, a two-year Borden veteran from West Lorne, Ont., has been out in the sun for more than two hours building a raft with rope, logs and plastic barrels. "It's a lot of fun," she says. "My friends are jealous when I tell them what I do at camp." This kind of word-of-mouth advertising has been invaluable to Cadets Canada, says Roberts. "We have a lot of girls who learn about the program from their girlfriends." Add some cadet brochures with pictures of smiling women performing CPR, aiming a rifle and skiing, and you get a winning formula, he says.

Still, Michelle-Ann Hall, a 17-year-old warrant officer from Brampton, Ont., is somewhat of a rarity at this camp. Not only is she a squadron leader, she's also female and black. Hall says she has noticed tremendous change in her five years with the cadets. "My group is more dominated by East Asians and blacks," she says. "There are a lot fewer white people than there used to be." Hall is also seeing more women in the senior ranks of the cadets. Asked if she has encountered any problems as a minority woman, she shakes her head. "This is a merit-based system," she affirms.

As for Cheung and Tsang, the question of diversity doesn't seem to matter in this world where everyone dresses in the same faded green cargo pants and T-shirts, eats in the same mess halls, and sweats under the same hot sun. What matters, Cheung says, is that "everyone has been nice."