Indigenous sailor embraces Navy lifestyle

June 17, 2022 - Royal Canadian Navy


The Haida, an Indigenous group that has traditionally called Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) home for over 12,000 years. Haida Gwaii is an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia.

It’s a long way from Haida Gwaii, B.C., to Halifax – both in distance and culture.

Sailor 3rd Class (S3) Jesse Ryan is a member of the Haida, an Indigenous group that has traditionally called Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) home for over 12,000 years. Haida Gwaii is an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia.

Haida Gwaii means “Islands of the People” in the Haida language, and S3 Ryan comes from a proud family of Haidas who have made it their home for generations. His decision to join the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) took him away from his ancestral home, but also opened up a world of new possibilities.

“Our family’s livelihood comes from living off the land and embracing what nature has provided,” he says. “I was a commercial fisherman before I joined the Navy, much like the rest of my immediate family.”

But he says that fishing has always been a tough way to make a steady income, from off seasons to territorial disputes. Once he started a family he made the tough decision to reach for a different future.

“I knew I needed a more reliable income, but I didn’t want to stop working on the water.”

S3 Ryan joined the RCN just over a year ago and is training as a Weapons Engineering Technician in Halifax. He chose the trade thinking it would be a good mix of hands-on training and classroom studies.

“I was looking for a trade that would expand my knowledge, and being 29 years old almost anything that involved a classroom setting was going to be a change of pace for me.”

Leaving his 450-person home village of Skidegate in Haida Gwaii, where Indigenous people make up most of the community, was a culture shock.

“I have to remind myself that a lot of Canada didn’t grow up working alongside or interacting with Indigenous people so sometimes they don’t know how to approach someone of a visible minority or ask a question about their culture in an appropriate manner. It’s nice that so many fellow members of the Navy are interested in my culture and would like to know more about it.”

Although he didn’t participate in it himself, S3 Ryan is aware of the unique Raven Program, hosted by the RCN for Indigenous youth from across Canada. This national program is designed to build bridges with Indigenous communities throughout the country and offer youth the potential for part-time or full-time employment with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) upon completion.

Whether or not graduates choose to continue on with a career in the CAF, Raven offers Indigenous culture and teachings along with military training that help develop skills such as self-confidence, self-discipline, teamwork, time management, respect and physical fitness.

“One of my instructors during Basic Training was part of the Raven Program,” says S3 Ryan. “Master Corporal Brendan Ryan-Lewis was a lot of help during my basic training, printing off drill commands in Haida for me and informing me about the Raven Program. Needless to say I was very excited to hear about that program.”

S3 Ryan has some ideas about how to improve the recruitment of Indigenous people into the military.

“There needs to be more education about the Raven Program in smaller populated areas, whether it be ads on social media or actual recruiters going to smaller locations. There is always an event of some type being held in a village and if there was a knowledgeable military person there to promote the CAF I’m sure the recruitment rate would be much higher. I think a lot of Indigenous shy away from the thought of joining the military because they feel like there wouldn’t be a place for them to fit in, and that’s far from the truth.”

He would definitely recommend the Navy to his friends and family.

“Sure the basic training is tough, but once you start working on your career and you show up to work every day with people who have the same goals career-wise, it becomes a lot more enjoyable.” 

S3 Ryan is currently undergoing his trade training and will be posted back to the West Coast this summer.

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