Learning and sharing a part of Indigenous Awareness Week

Reflecting on the importance of connection and the tradition of the Eagle Staff

PO1 Katerina Stewart is seen carrying the Eagle Staff in June 2019 at commemoration ceremonies in France to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy.

By Joanie Veitch,
Trident Staff

While in-person gatherings are not possible for this year’s Indigenous Awareness Week, PO1 Katerina Stewart plans to look for ways to celebrate and connect with other Indigenous members virtually.

“I like to learn about other Nations and their cultures, to connect with other Indigenous people and share time together, said PO1 Stewart, who grew up in northern British Columbia in a Nisga’a community called Gitlaxt’aamiks (formerly New Aiyansh).

Due to current restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19, events to mark Indigenous Awareness Week — celebrated each year in the week following Victoria Day — will be held online only. A different experience but one that still offers the opportunity to connect with other Indigenous people from different regions.

“I know my own community and our traditions, but I always like to share and learn from others, that has always been important to me,” said P01 Stewart.

A 19-year member of the Royal Canadian Navy, P01 Stewart joined through the Aboriginal Pre-Recruit Training Course and works as Senior Demolition Instructor with Bedford Rifle Range/Naval Fleet School Atlantic. She has taught in the RCN’s Raven Program — held at CFB Esquimalt, in BC — and from 2017 to 2019 was a recruiter for the Canadian Forces Aboriginal Entry Program (CFAEP), a program where young people learn about the different job and training opportunities available to them in the military.

“I really enjoyed my time with that program. I liked meeting the young people and showing them that an Indigenous person is able to make it through and get to a senior rank. When you come from a small community — as many young Indigenous people do — you don’t know about the opportunities that are available and what the military has to offer,” said PO1 Stewart.

PO1 Stewart’s career has already taken her across the country and around the world, most recently on deployment with HMCS Toronto, but she views her highest honour as the times she has carried the DND/CAF Eagle Staff for different ceremonial events.

The Eagle Staff, which was created in 2002 as a result of a vision shared by CPO2 (ret’d) Debbie Eisan and PO2 Chris Innes, is the travelling symbol of unity for Indigenous people in the military, representing Indigenous traditions and reinforcing the values of respect and inclusivity for all members of the defence community, past and present.

“It is so humbling to carry it,” said PO1 Stewart. “It gives a feeling of great pride, not only in the current serving members but those in the past that have paved our way. It is an overwhelming feeling.”

To carry the Eagle Staff is a significant honour that involves first being chosen and then receiving teachings and guidance “to understand and respect” the tradition, explained PO1 Stewart, who received her teaching in 2016 from Moogly Tetrault-Hamel, Indigenous Advisor to the Chaplain General.

PO1 Stewart had hoped to carry the staff when CPO2 (Ret’d) Eisan was commissioned as Honorary Captain of HMCS Margaret Brooke, the second Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship, last November. This wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, which was especially disappointing as CPO2 Eisan was one of the creators of the DND/CAF Eagle Staff, she said.

“It would have been so significant,” said PO1 Stewart. “Debbie Eisan is a wealth of knowledge. I really love learning from her; she has taught me a lot.”