Understanding identities: a talk with Brigadier-General Jocelyn Paul

Article / May 23, 2018 / Project number: 18-0045

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By Major Nicole Meszaros, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — Being an Indigenous member of the Canadian Army has brought many advantages to one of Canada’s most senior officers.

Brigadier-General Jocelyn Paul, who is the most senior First Nations member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), is currently serving in Ottawa at Canadian Forces Intelligence Command as the Chief of Staff. This decorated Veteran attributes much of his success as a leader to his Indigenous upbringing as a member of Huron-Wendat First Nation in Quebec.

Indeed a success, it was announced in March 2018 that he will be appointed Commander 4th Canadian Division (Ontario) as of June 22.

“Proud of my heritage, attracted by the traditional way of life, and growing up on a reserve allowed me to spend a lot of time in the bush,” said BGen Paul.   He explained that this enabled him to be comfortable during infantry training with Royal 22e Régiment, where he and his fellow infanteers spent many days and nights living and surviving in Canada’s great outdoors.

Knowing how to survive out-of-doors was not the only skill he acquired that would lead to his enduring success in the military.

“Living in the community of Wendake as a youth meant I spent lot of time speaking with our Elders, learning about our identity and the way other cultures view their respective identities. I learned that there are multiple layers of identity for all people, but in our community, the Aboriginal identity was always first,” said BGen Paul.

“We all have multiple layers of identity. Being Canadians is our common denominator. Many of us see ourselves as Canadians, others may feel like they have a dual identity such as Canadians of Scottish descent. The important point is that human beings have multiple layers that are deeply rooted in our personality and education. It is an extremely personal thing,” said BGen Paul.

“We need to understand the layers of all people with whom we become involved. Moreover, to know where we are going, we must look to the past. To know who we are, we must understand the layers of our identity.”

His wife and family members have a variety of backgrounds from Quebec. His mother was French-Canadian and under the old Indian Act, she became a status Indian by marrying his father. The Paul family of Wendake are members of the Huron-Wendat First Nation, but their ancestor was a Maliseet Tribal member. Finally, BGen Paul’s spouse is an Innu (Montagnais) from the Betsiamites First Nation.

BGen Paul explained that, with this mixed upbringing and diversity in his own family, he was “armed to be a chameleon,” which gave him significant advantages as an officer.

This awareness helped him when he deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 in the role of 2nd Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment Battle Group Commander. 

“In conflict, there are always issues rooted in finance and politics but there are always cultural layers at play, deep-rooted layers that have to be considered,” said BGen Paul.

Before deploying to Kandahar, he spoke to his soldiers about the Afghan cultural fabric, the Pashtun identity and the political intricacies so that they were savvy about the Pashtun culture, enabling them to be aware of “what we were going into.” Pashtun people represent the largest ethnic group of the people of Afghanistan.

Wisely, he told them not to see things only in terms of black and white, that they would make mistakes if they did so. The vast majority of the Pashtuns living in Kandahar wanted peace and education for their children, very much the same thing that Canadians want for their own families. So when there was a demonstrated need to apply force, his soldiers were sensitized to apply it in a graduated manner.

He stressed, “If we didn’t understand the complexity of Afghanistan and Kandahar, the numerous factors at play, including identity, force would be misapplied, so it all came down to education.”

“My fixation on this understanding of identity all goes back to my youth. I was always intrigued by our heritage, our community, and understanding culture,” he said. “Some Elders still have this knowledge but we need to get youth speaking to them. In this regard, the Canadian Armed Forces can do a lot.”

Many Indigenous youth live in cities and only visit Indigenous communities. “Even if you live in a native community, you can get disconnected from your own heritage if you do not have the opportunity to learn about your roots,” he noted.

CAF Indigenous summer programs like Bold Eagle, BGen Paul explained, connect youth to their roots with the added benefit of giving them a military skill set at the same time.

For Indigenous people, there is a military layer to their identity that may have been forgotten, noted BGen Paul.

“Indian Agents in Lower Canada wrote fascinating reports detailing such things as how many fighting-age males could be called upon to fight when need be. Aboriginals were essential to the defence of Canada during such historic events as the War of 1812,” said BGen Paul. “We defended the colonies, we were like a standing militia.”

By applying his deep understanding of people and their cultures to his military career, BGen Paul has found it has helped him become a successful officer and commander. He believes his knowledge and experience about having layers of identity is a large part of what has made his military career so successful.

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