The Department of National Defence’s plan for its relationships with Indigenous Peoples for 2021-2022 states, “(b)ecause DND/CAF operations intersect with Indigenous interests and rights, we will continue to strengthen our relationship, contribute to government-wide reconciliation priorities, and review our policies and operational practices to ensure that they are consistent with reconciliation principles.” As the 2020 throne speech made clear, one of the federal government’s primary reconciliation priorities is to close infrastructure gaps and “make additional resiliency investments” in Indigenous communities.
How might the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) leverage its capabilities to address the priority on infrastructure gaps while strengthening its relationships with Indigenous communities and fulfilling essential training and operational-readiness objectives? Is it possible to achieve a win-win-win?
The longstanding Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme (AACAP) in Australia offers a model upon which to build. Since 1997, AACAP has worked with Indigenous communities across Australia to develop physical and human infrastructure. AACAP relies on the military’s unique ability to holistically deliver a range of services to a single project. The program focuses on one community (or two nearby communities) each year, with $7 million in annual funding provided by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, with the army delivering a similar value of in-kind support. The program has become a key pillar of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) Defence Reconciliation Action Plan, which calls for a consistent approach to “building respectful relations with Indigenous people, communities and organisations.”
As of 2020, 45 AACAP projects have been delivered in 43 communities in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Each mission involves three components: construction, health and civilian training. The health component generally provides medical, dental and veterinary services, health training and physical education programs. The training component delivers structured programming for community members to enhance job readiness and employment opportunities, including construction, welding, small-engine maintenance, cooking and business skills. The critical-infrastructure development component, which is AACAP’s central focus, has led to the construction of airfields, roads and barge landings; to health clinics, medical facilities and water and waste treatment plants; to housing, schools and recreational facilities.
A typical AACAP mission runs for three years. The community selection process begins roughly two years before deployment – a generous lead time to secure resources and undertake extensive community engagement and relationship-building through the project feasibility, planning and design stages.
In the delivery stage of the program, between 150 and 200 people – mostly engineers and logistics personnel – deploy for three to six months, with a further 150 to 300 cycling through on shorter rotations. AACAP missions often employ civilian contractors for infrastructure development to support local industry. Whenever possible, the missions include local Indigenous reservists from the army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSUs). These personnel assist with community engagement and communications, and serve as mentors to participating personnel and community members.
AACAP is a recognized name in Indigenous communities across Australia because of its positive socioeconomic and infrastructure contributions. Indigenous respondents to the 2017 AACAP review highlighted how the program provided new infrastructure and housing, improved living conditions, clean water, effective sanitation systems, educational opportunities and short-term access to round-the-clock health care.
Within the Australian Defence Force (ADF), AACAP builds cultural awareness and teaches community engagement and relationship-building skills that have proven useful on overseas deployments. These missions also provide experience with the preparation, deployment and sustainment of a military contingent to remote and often challenging locations for extended durations. Deployed personnel gain operational training opportunities and experience. According to the ADF, the program has improved personnel morale and retention, particularly among reservists.
Such an initiative would provide the CAF with opportunities to enhance its ability to project and sustain forces in challenging environments, as well as improve readiness through activities that leave enduring, positive legacies for Indigenous communities.
If modelled on the AACAP, a Canadian Armed Forces Indigenous community assistance program could provide community infrastructure development to remote and difficult-to-access Indigenous communities in Canada’s territorial and provincial norths. Such an initiative would provide the CAF with opportunities to enhance its ability to project and sustain forces in challenging environments, as well as improve readiness through activities that leave enduring, positive legacies for Indigenous communities.
It would also address longstanding challenges to Indigenous community infrastructure projects, including limited capital access, project management and engineering expertise, along with economies of scale because many projects are often too small to attract private industry.
While there will be challenges – including funding and jurisdictional issues and personnel constraints – the CAF has successfully performed similar, smaller-scale exercises in southern Canada in recent years. Most notably, Exercise NIHILO SAPPER, an annual training event led by 4 Engineer Support Regiment from 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown, has completed community construction projects in New Brunswick, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island.
The CAF is also developing the transportation capacity required to make this kind of civil-military operation easier to accomplish in northern coastal communities, particularly with the Harry DeWolf-class Arctic and offshore patrol vessels. Many communities also have Canadian Ranger patrols that can facilitate relationship-building in the same manner as the Indigenous members of Australia’s RSFUs.
Would Indigenous communities welcome a Canadian Armed Forces Indigenous community assistance program? While responses would differ from community to community, there are indications of some positive interest – particularly if the CAF were to adopt the multi-year partnerships and capacity-building approach embraced by AACAP missions.
In a 2010 submission to the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, for example, Charlie Lyall, speaking on behalf of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, emphasized that “an active military presence in the Arctic is vital and provides strong partnerships for its major projects,” which have “resulted in training, employment and contracting for Inuit.” Moving forward, Lyall suggested that “DND can continue to play a vital role in the … development process for Inuit.”
More recently, the CAF’s COVID-19 response has opened the door to new relationships and opportunities in Indigenous communities across the country. After a CAF contingent deployed to Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba in December, for instance, chief Eric Redhead explained, “In the past, the military was used against First Nations people. And right now, today, they’re used to help First Nations people. I think it’s a big step forward in terms of reconciliation between Canada and the First Nations people, so I’m really, really proud of that.”
Building off this goodwill, a Canadian Armed Forces Indigenous community assistance program could facilitate mutually beneficial deployments that directly contribute to community health, well-being and resilience while providing vital training experiences to a wide cross-section of military personnel.