November 8 is Indigenous Veterans Day. For this occasion we are bringing you a series of 3 interviews with Indigenous individuals who have served—or continue to serve—in the Canadian Armed Forces.
In the third part of our miniseries on Indigenous military service, we interview Sarah Leo, an Inuk woman from a small, isolated community of Nunatsiavut, Labrador.
Annie Leblond 0:06
For our episode on Indigenous veterans, we wanted to explore the Inuit perspective. We spoke on the phone with Sarah Leo, an Inuk from Nunatsiavut, who continues to serve today as an honorary colonel. Let's hear what she has to say.
Sarah Leo, thank you for accepting to chat with us. Before we get into our interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sarah Leo 0:35
Certainly. I was born and raised in Nunatsiavut, the Inuit territory in Labrador. I was educated here in Nain, and raised by my wonderful parents. After high school, I decided to take a career in the military, and that got me throughout Canada and a little bit of overseas exposure. I have to 2 adult children and a granddaughter.
Annie Leblond 1:04
There could be many reasons for someone to join: a call to adventure; for some people, it’s the regular paycheck that's attracting; you could want to follow in friends and family footsteps. What were yours? I'm particularly interested in your reasons as an Inuk woman from Labrador, that might be so foreign from what you've known.
Sarah Leo 1:25
Being in the military, you know, I've had different family members from my extended family be part of the military. My uncle Doug had joined the military very young in the 40s, and 50s, and I've had other members go and join in later, but they never really set to it. When I was in high school, the Canadian Forces recruiting team came to our school, and at that point, I had thought of going on and becoming a social worker or a teacher, the typical things. but after they came through, I thought, well, that would be an exciting career! They made it look very exciting, they made it look very interesting and they made it look very challenging. After they had come through, I decided that, that's what I wanted to try. When I went to school here in Newfoundland, we graduated out of grade 11, there was no grade 12, or level 3, as they call it right now. So, I was not yet 18 when I had finished school, and if you had joined before you were 18, you had to get your parents consent. Or, they had to sign the papers off, so you could join up. My parents weren’t prepared to do that for me. I think they have preferred that I waited, maybe made a different choice in what I wanted to do. As soon as I turned 18, then I decided no, I still want to do it and signed up.
Annie Leblond 2:51
So you had time to think about it. What was your trade or your expertise in the military?
Sarah Leo 2:58
I was an MSE Op by trade, which is Mobile Support Equipment Operator. I guess in layman’s terms, you were a driver, you drove everything—anything from just plain cars, to buses, to the military 10-tonne trucks. Then you could go on and do heavy equipment. It was a very diverse trade where you could operate all sorts of different pieces of equipment. It was quite interesting. And on top of that, depending on what base you were posted to, you get to sort of branch out into different things. Like [on] an air force base, you could do the snow clearing on the runways, you could do the refuelling of the aircraft. When you're on an army base, there was, again, a totally different lifestyle: not only did you do the driving of the equipment, supporting the different army trades, but you also took part in what I call the “army training.” You did the sitting in the foxholes and doing the target shooting and all of that interesting stuff.
Annie Leblond 4:11
Was it as fun as you thought it would be when you first enlisted?
Sarah Leo 4:15
I thoroughly enjoyed my career in the military. I think it was a great experience. I wouldn't trade the experience as a whole, though there are some days that were quite challenging. Obviously, coming from a small isolated community in Labrador, and moving to different parts of the country, you certainly miss your family: you certainly wish you could spend more time at home or visit home more often. But for the most part, once you get into the military environment, you gain a whole new family. It's not the same, but it certainly eases some of that homesickness.
Annie Leblond 4:58
So the teenage version of you was right: it was fun.
Sarah Leo 5:02
It was. It was interesting. It was exciting. It was certainly a challenge. I got to see things that I would never normally have gotten to see.
Annie Leblond 5:12
Assuming that you’re used to a colder climate, were you sent to places where it was just too hot for you and you had to adapt?
Sarah Leo 5:23
Well, I might be an anomaly, but I much prefer the warmer weather. Like I said, I grew up here in Northern Labrador, in Nunatsiavut, where it's winter for 8 months of the year And when it's summer, it's just like a cool fall kind of thing. But I actually spent some time in the former Yugoslavia in the height of summer and, on average, you would be sitting in the shade and it would be 43 degrees, and I absolutely loved it! When you talk about being in the cold, and being in warm parts, I think it sort of goes the other way too: one of the things that we do during our training is sort of a cold weather survival course, where you go… In my case, we went into Kananaskis Country, and spend some time in there and then done some survival training, sleeping in a tent, and whatnot. We're fortunate, being in Calgary: we had that accessibility. But here in in Labrador, and a lot of places, most of the places throughout the North, they have the Canadian Rangers that often host soldiers that come in and they help them train in our climate in the cold weather. That's rather interesting as well.
Annie Leblond 6:36
Well, I'm glad that you get to be prepared for all situations.
Continuing into this military path, last June, so in June 2019—according to my research at least—you were appointed as the first Indigenous woman to serve as an honorary colonel. This position is with the air force, right?
Sarah Leo 7:00
Yes. Actually, it’s the first Indigenous woman to serve as the honorary colonel for Triple Force Squadron, which is the helicopter Combat Support Squadron in Goose Bay.
Annie Leblond 7:11
What does an honorary colonel do exactly?
Sarah Leo 7:15
Well, and honorary colonel, first of all, is an honorary appointment. You're there basically to develop and promote a relationship between the unit and the community in which it operates. You assist with hosting different events that are happening, that the squadron may be hosting. You're basically a liaison between the unit and the community.
Annie Leblond 7:41
And in this case, the community is Goose Bay?
Sarah Leo 7:44
Well it would normally but because I live in Nain, which is obviously quite far away from Goose Bay, it's more the Labrador community that I would be helping the squadron liaise with Annie Leblond 7:59
And it's a large territory, Labrador.
Sarah Leo 8:02
It's a fair size.
Annie Leblond 8:04
Then I also read that you were the first woman to be elected president of Nunatsiavut, the Inuit government, which oversees parts of Labrador. How did you work in the Canadian Forces prepared you for politics? Did it help?
Sarah Leo 8:17
I think maybe if I had been in politics first, then joining the military, it would have worked better [laughter]. I don't know. I certainly think that my career in the politics certainly taught me patience, for 1 thing, and it taught me to work with a diverse community. When you're in the military, you deal with all kinds of people, and I think once you get into politics, you have this… sort of maintain that ability to be able to deal with different people. And I think, in the military, you gain so much leadership skills, either through formal leadership training or just by the environment that you’re in. That certainly helped as well.
Annie Leblond 9:03
I don't know if you know, this singer from Québec, Florent Vollant: he was born in Labrador. I just saw him last week in a concert here, and he was saying that, in the Innu communities, the women were the leaders; the women made the decisions; they decided where you were going, with who you were going and when you were going.
Is it similar with the Inuit? With the Inuk community?
Sarah Leo 9:30
I think, in our communities, and in our culture, the women have always been very strong. They've been leaders, not in the formal sense, but the families were very, very much held together by the women. And the women did so much of their own, like you heard of the women's boats, and women having their own boats, but when you look at how we were as a culture, really, the men went out, and they had to do the hunting, they had to do the providing. But at the end of the day, it was the women who were making the clothes that gave the men the ability to go out and hunt. And they were the ones that were left at home to tend and care for everything and make sure everything ran while the men were hunting. So I think, overall, maybe in the same sense, women were very strong, and still are very strong in our communities and very much our leaders. But people don't stand there and say “I'm a leader.” It’s sort of understood that women are able to lead very well.
Annie Leblond 10:41
Then there's a parallel to be made with the army where you are working towards the same goal: each have their role. Some are in the back, or might not be as visible, but are very important to the work. So as a strong Inuk woman that was not foreign to you.
Sarah Leo 11:00
No, not at all. I mean, when you live in an isolated community, you understand the necessity of everyone having to work together to make things happen. You understand very much that everybody can't just go and do their own thing: it has to be sort of unified when you do it. You have to do it in a way that works for everyone, and that everyone does their own share of what they can, but you're all following someone in how you get it done. I had very little difficulty transitioning into the whole military environment, culture of it. I didn't find that a difficult transition for me, there were parts of it that I found difficult physically, and just sort of getting used to a different sort of culture. But the whole sense of how things ran, I think I certainly adjusted to quite well.
Annie Leblond 12:03
Since I've been working on in this team at the School, Indigenous Learning, I have “a-ha!” moments all the time, because the outside perspective is that Indigenous stuff, whether its First Nations, Inuit or Métis, it's old, traditional stuff. The values are really the same, working hard, working together. If there's a time where those values are important, now is one, right? They've always been important, but faced with all sorts of challenges, I think those values are taking the forefront, if that makes sense.
Sarah Leo 12:41
And, you know, they’re values and mindsets, I guess you could call it, that are just ways of living that have kept the Indigenous people, more specifically in Canada and in the more remote Northern regions, alive. When you look at where we live, and how—before money and conveniences of today—people lived and to have to survive, there had to be something there and has worked for generations, and generations, and generations. That's why we're able to still be here today.
Annie Leblond 13:21
Coming back a little bit about your role as a female in the family or your role as a sister in the Canadian Forces. Because we hear that you're all brothers and sisters… In a CBC interview, you said, and I quote: “We're at a time now where if you are a female, if you are Indigenous, you can do whatever you want. It's always been there, but … in this day and age it's even more achievable.” End of quote. It's a profound message to all women, and to all Indigenous women in particular. Why was it important for you to send that message out?
Sarah Leo 14:01
I think when I said it at the time, I didn't realize I was…
Annie Leblond 14:06
A feminist? [Laughter]
Sarah Leo 14:09
Well, not a feminist, [Laughter] but I didn't realize—it's only after somebody repeats it back that you realize what a strong statement it is. But it's just something I think—in this day and age, and living here in Nunatsiavut and through my experiences, and the different roles and positions that I've taken on—that you sit back and you say, “You know what? You can do it.” It's there. I think we're at a time and a place where people realize that; they don't look at somebody and say, “Well, you're just an Inuk woman;” they look at somebody and say, “You've got it, and you can do it.” All you have to do is work a little at it, and it's there for you. I really think a lot of the barriers that women or Inuit women may have faced are certainly not there. As a people, women, like I said, I've always been really strong. I think now the acceptance of that strength of us is there and there are no barriers. I've been very fortunate that in my family, I'm surrounded by strong women, I was surrounded by strong women in our community. And even today, and in the environment that I am in, there are so many strong women around me that sometimes you don't even think about the fact that you're a woman or that you're in this position. It's just sort of, you almost take it for granted.
Annie Leblond 15:36
When your parents hesitated, when you were 17, to sign the papers, was there any sense of “Oh, you're a girl, you shouldn't do this”?
Sarah Leo 15:44
No, no, it was never about that. It was more, you know, I was young. The military was such a foreign concept. They knew about family members that had gone to war. My parents were much older, because I was fortunate enough to be adopted by them. But they were much older. The whole idea of being in the military was quite foreign to them. It was more of a concern for me going off to war kind of thing that added to the reluctance of me joining the military. And the fact that once you join the military, you're moving away, and you might not come back…
Annie Leblond 16:33
As often as you would like. Or they would like.
Sarah Leo 16:37
Annie Leblond 16:39
The last question I'm going to ask is a question we're asking all of the great people who are generously offering their time to answer our questions. What is the one thing that you want public servants or the general public to know that we might not know about the contribution of Inuit men and women to the military?
Sarah Leo 17:02
I would like to think that in this day and age there’s very little that people don't know. But one of the bigger things is, I guess, the sacrifice they made in the sense that—especially, if you think of during the World War I and World War II and how people lived—to have a man leave the home and go and join the military, the army, the air force, whatever; and leaving his family at home, that was a big thing because there was so much that men needed to do at home. To have that taken away from that environment, for one, was a big sacrifice not only for the individual, but for the families themselves. The other thing is the skills that they brought in, they still bring today. Just who we are, the people: we offer so much, not only in our physical skills, but in who we are as the people and what we're able to bring into the military environment.
Annie Leblond 18:03
And the first portion goes back to those shared roles and very distinct responsibilities of the men and the women in the family. There's a whole capacity within the family unit that's gone if the man goes to war, right? That’s what you’re referring to?
Sarah Leo 18:19
That's right. And that's in previous years; in today's day and age, obviously, that is not so much of a challenge. But we're still Inuit, we still have our own Inuk-ness about us—I don’t what else you would call it, but I'm sure there's a proper word for it—we have our own inner sense about it. There's a way that we live and we were raised, and that we are bringing that into today's military certainly has a lot to offer.
Annie Leblond 18:56
Sarah Leo, thank you for your time to chat with us. I know you're a busy lady. I want to thank you. I also want to thank you and brothers and sisters in arms for your service to this country. Thank you so much.
Sarah Leo 19:09
Well, thank you for giving me the chance to speak about this and to, certainly, share my experiences.
Annie Leblond 19:16
Annie Leblond 19:23
This podcast is a production of the Canada School of Public Service. To learn more about the School’s offerings in its Indigenous Learning Series, please visit our website at csps-efpc.gc.ca. This is Annie Leblond, and on behalf of the School, thank you for listening.