Reconciliation Ally: Col Gwen Bourque
- Betty Ann Adam
As the highest-ranking army officer between Thunder Bay and Saskatchewan, Colonel Gwen Bourque is pleased that the number of Indigenous members in her brigade has increased in the three years since she took leadership.
Across Canada, Indigenous people make up about five per cent of the population. At a time when numbers in the military are dropping because of the pandemic, in Bourque’s 38 Canadian Brigade Group, about 9 per cent are indigenous, up from eight per cent last year and seven the year before that.
“I was a little surprised because I didn’t know the stats and I am very, very happy and super proud,” she said in a recent interview.
“I feel like people obviously like the culture and the lifestyle… It tells me there is hope that we’ll see more because obviously people must be enjoying it if the numbers are going up.”
Bourque credits her team, especially Indigenous advisor, Joel Pedersen, for connecting her with the community.
“He really helps me. He educates me,” she said.
Soldiers are required to take a one-day Indigenous awareness training course, but upon taking the lead, Bourque created a Diversity, Inclusion and Aboriginal Committee. It is planning an online Indigenous speaker’s series, which they hope will include someone from Cowessess First Nation, to talk about the 750 unmarked graves at the residential school site there.
Bourque has also implemented land acknowledgements at meetings and opportunities to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies. On September 30, members of the Brigade wore orange shirts and were encouraged to attend local events. When the Command Council, comprised of the heads of every army unit from Thunder Bay to Saskatchewan met in Winnipeg in October, all 50 of them participated in a smudging ceremony.
“We’re trying to have that Indigenous component to all of our meetings,” she said.
Bourque thinks all these practices are making Indigenous awareness and inclusion a normal part of being in the army reserves.
“It was important to me with everything that was happening with residential schools. I know everyone’s lives, especially our Indigenous members’, lives were affected by this. I really wanted them to start feeling more a part of our team, knowing that we understood where they’re coming from, because they have tons of challenges and it’s a big part of Canada.”
In her civilian life, Bourque is the Director of Information Technology at Sask Polytechnique in Saskatoon, where she took Indigenous awareness training, which led to a growing understanding of the need for Canadians to recognize and work with Indigenous people around them.
“I had a couple of folks who worked for me there who I get along with quite fondly and just the more I learned, the more interested I became.”
She knew of soldiers who were struggling with trauma from the past, often in the form of alcohol abuse and poverty.
“I thought it’s so important for people in the military to understand where these folks are coming from, so we can figure out how best to support them.”