Robin Cote’s Journey: Navy to Hollywood and Back
- NC Raine | November 16, 2023
Veteran Robin Cote’s service in the United States Navy took her across North America, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, followed by a short but memorable stay in Los Angeles and finally back home to Regina. Initially, she set out to see the world to expand her understanding of those around her, and to create a life for herself.
During her travels, Cote realized the more she shared of herself, the more she appreciated home. “Everywhere I went, I dove into the local community,” she said. “With people often not being familiar with my culture or where I’m from, I always made an effort to understand the culture of the people in their homeland.”
From the Cote First Nation in Treaty 4, Cote began her military life in a rather unorthodox way.
Her desire for a fresh start led her first to Alaska.
Cote then learned about the Jay Treaty and more about how she could utilize it.
The Jay Treaty was signed between Great Britain and the United States in 1794. As part of the agreement, the U.S. recognizes First Nations born in Canada as having the right to freely enter the U.S. for the purpose of employment, study, retirement, investing and or immigration.
This allowed Cote to join the U.S. Navy, which she did in 2006.
“I felt like it would be a good stepping stone,” she said. “I didn’t know I would be there for more than four years. I didn’t think I would enjoy it so much.”
She took an aptitude test and although she scored high in mechanics, she decided to serve as a hospital corpsman. In that role she worked at military treatment facilities, hospitals, and research units.
“I didn’t see myself as a mechanic, but I do know what a voltage regulator is,” said Cote.
That knowledge led to several opportunities around the world.
It started with bootcamp and training in Chicago, Ill. before being stationed in Florida.
Then, as part of the U.S. government’s War in Afghanistan also known as Operation Enduring Freedom, she was deployed to Kuwait.
Her next stop was Naples, Italy, where she served as a split unit for a year, and a dental assistant for a second year.
From Italy, she was sent to the small tropical island of Guam. During her three-year stint, she was deployed as part of the 2012 Pacific Partnership to Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Indonesia.
I learned so much about other cultures and ethnicities,” said Cote. “And being in the military, you’re family with everyone around you – you’re sacrificing your lives together. There’s a camaraderie unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
While making lifelong connections, she also discovered very few had any idea about her Indigenous culture or about her homelands.
“That hit me the hardest,” said Cote. “At home, you’re surrounded by First Nations people. But I looked around in those spaces and I was often the only First Nations person. With people not knowing who we are, it made me feel like we were non-existent in those spaces.”
As a way to combat that erasure, she chose to share about who she was and where she came from with the people she met during her travels.
After eight years of active duty, and two years in the reserves, Cote out-processed from the U.S. Navy in base in San Diego, Cali.
“Essentially, it was a weight issue that pushed me out,” she said. “We were required to be under a certain weight, but these standards are from like the 1940s or 50s, and they didn’t update them until I got out. They didn’t incorporate women of different body sizes, women of colour. It felt discriminative…I was the fittest I had ever been in my life. I was doing cross-fit, working out twice a day. But being five pounds over-weight caused issues.”
A military trial in San Diego over her minor weight issue ultimately went in her favour, and Cote was able to keep her severance pay.
She refused to let the trial dampen her spirits and decided to pursue another passion – makeup artistry.
Cote enrolled in the Paul Mitchell Hair & Beauty School, studying cosmetology for a year. During that time, while attending workshops, she met celebrity hair guru, William Williams, who connected her in the industry.
Her first celebrity client was Hollywood actor John Leguizamo, who Cote provided makeup for during the press junket for a movie.
“I had the opportunity to meet famous people, to collaborate with other artists,” she said. “That’s when I realized this is what I should be doing.”
While freelancing in LA, Cote enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
Then the pandemic hit.
“It made me realize that tomorrow is never promised,” said Cote. “I wanted to be closer to my family, to reconnect with them and my community.”
After a long journey that took her to war torn regions on the other side of the globe to rubbing elbows with the rich and famous in LA, she returned to Saskatchewan in April.
Reconnecting with her cultural roots, while embracing her military experience, Cote decided to run for the South Branch President of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association (SFNVA).
After a brief campaign, an election was held on October 27.
Cote was successful and became the first female to hold the position.
“I think the most important thing out of this opportunity is letting my community know I’m here,” she said.
Cote often hears people saying there are no veterans in the community, and she wants to change that misconception because there are others like her out there.
“We’re here,” she said. “If I’m showing up, then I hope it’ll inspire other veterans to come out and represent their communities. It’s time we step into this role.”
Also elected during the October SFNVA elections was Grand Chief Robin Dawatsare from the English River Dene Nation.