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Debbie Eisan

Debbie Eisan

Debbie spent much of her 36-year career in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as a Chief Petty Officer and supply technician.

Transcript: Debbie Eisan

Debbie Eisan: [00:00:00] I took my sea boots off on a Friday, and I put moccasins on on the Monday here at the Friendship Center, and I've been here ever since.

[00:00:10] I retired from the military as a Chief Petty Officer of 36 years. My trade was supply technician. Was, still is, supply technician. [00:00:20] But the latter part of my career, I worked as Aboriginal adviser to the leadership within the military.

When I was in the military, it was difficult [00:00:30] for me at first as a junior person because I never really identified as an Indigenous person. I just kind of went about my business and [00:00:40] did the things that I had to do and tried to keep a low profile. And as I progressed through my rank, I started to have an emptiness, that I wasn't complete. [00:00:50] I felt that something was missing. I talked to the elders back in my community and what I found was missing was my [00:01:00] connection to my grassroots. Who I was as Anishinaabekwe, a native woman. When I started to go back to the practice of smudging, [00:01:10] and to follow that path and be proud of who I was, I started to feel things come more together for me. And the better I felt that way, [00:01:20] the better it was for me all around.

Chris Innes: I was probably the first guy on this coast to wear a braid while in uniform. [00:01:30] And of course, that didn't always go well in different ships. I made a complaint to the Human Rights Commission and won about a discrimination I [00:01:40] experienced over the Aboriginal hair dress policy. It was noteworthy enough that the Canadian Human Rights Commission of the day saw that [00:01:50] I was correct after a big investigation. And a lady there, I can't remember her name, brought Debbie along to establish a Defense [00:02:00] Aboriginal Advisory Group here in Halifax.

Debbie: I was so very proud to be part of the Defense Aboriginal Advisory Group that helped to bring forward the change in the [00:02:10] dress for Aboriginal members to allow the men to wear their hair in a braid, and to be able to share their culture, both internally [00:02:20] and visibly, and to understand that the braid is not culture for us, it's spiritual. And that is so important for people to understand that everyone, no matter who you are, [00:02:30] you are entitled to practice your own spirituality.

Debbie: [00:02:50] In my work onboard ship, there are only so many times that you can slam your knees against steel bulkheads, and they tend to give away, so [00:03:00] I had to have a medical release.

My transition was very smooth. I had the support from the leadership, I had support from Veterans [00:03:10] Affairs to make that transition, but also, I had the support from Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre. Being new to this territory when I came here, [00:03:20] the friendship centre was where I came to get that cultural connection, and I had started over the years to develop many friends here.

Chris: Debbie, after the Navy, [00:03:30] is everywhere. Everything that the community needs in regards to a confidant, an elder, an adviser, [00:03:40] somebody who is, you know, cooking up dinners. Debbie right now is peeling potatoes and deboning turkeys for a dinner [00:03:50] tomorrow here at the Friendship Centre. And that dinner is available to anybody that comes. Not just indigenous folks, but non-indigenous folks too.

Debbie: I love it here. It's a [00:04:00] second family to me. My capacity as an elder here, I'm able to still advise down in the dock yard, and I'm able to still advise [00:04:10] indigenous students over at Dalhousie and Saint Mary's University. So really, I'm one of those very lucky people who have the best of both worlds. [00:04:20] Even though I'm retired from the military, I still have that connection. The only sad part is, is when I see a ship leaving the harbor, I so want [00:04:30] to be on it. I get that kind of longing because I enjoyed sailing and I enjoyed the work that I did when I went to sea with the Navy.

My name is Debbie Elsan. [00:04:40] I am an Anishinaabekwe, originally from Batchewana First Nations by Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. [00:04:50]

[00:04:52] [END OF AUDIO]

Finding a place of her own

Debbie spent much of her 36-year career in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as a Chief Petty Officer and supply technician. She took immense pride in her service. It was only the rigours of life aboard ship that caused her medical discharge and her transition out of military life. “There are only so many times you can slam your knees against steel bulkheads before your knees give way,” Debbie says.

But she wasn’t simply a leader in her regular career. Even in her post-service life, Debbie has shaped the military experience for all Indigenous people in Canada.

Big things in small packages

You might not understand what a force of nature Debbie is right away even if you met her. She is short in stature, deceptively soft-spoken, and quick with a hug for everyone she meets.

For many who know her, Debbie takes on the vital role of “grandmother”—a title that carries profound meaning in Indigenous cultures. This honorific also reflects the influence Debbie has had over the CAF as a whole.

For more than two decades now, Debbie has helped influence the Canadian military on Indigenous and human rights concerns. She sits on advisory boards to offer guidance to government ministers and military leadership alike.

She comes by it naturally, yet this is not a path Debbie saw for herself earlier in her life or career.

Debbie Eisan

Working to improve the lives of others

Early in her service, Debbie explored her heritage and spirituality to find something she felt was missing in her life. But the navy did not always respond with open arms.

“Many times I would face a superior and get comments like, ‘Shouldn't a good Indian woman be home looking after her husband?” Debbie says. “One of those times sent me home in tears.”

Debbie says her family was the foundation that gave her the motivation to keep going. “My husband is my rock. He’d ask me, ‘Why are you letting this person get to you? You know that you're better than that,’” she says. “He's the one who grounds me and he supports me, and he’s non-Native. Once he said that to me, it made me determined that no one was ever going to send me home crying again. From that point on, I became stronger and became an advocate for Aboriginal members in the CAF. For people who didn't have someone to guide them and mentor them and be there for them when they needed it.”

Human rights as her life’s work

Once she discovered this new path as a mentor and a voice for Indigenous people in the military, it provided Debbie with a new energy and purpose.

As she learned more about her heritage, she saw how large a role ignorance played in the institutional racism she encountered in her service.

“People are not born with discrimination and racism. It's a learned thing,” Debbie says. “I’ve made it my mission to help people understand Indigenous culture—our ceremonies, our communication, our ways of life.”

She quickly found others who shared this view—some in very high places. “My favorite person is Senator Murray Sinclair. He was one of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Debbie recalls. “He said, ‘Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.’'

Teaching others to accept diversity

Debbie has been helping to educate people at all levels of the Canadian military for years now. She sits on the Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group, giving guidance to commanders on issues affecting the lives of Aboriginal people working at the Department of National Defence and serving in the CAF. Her work has been indispensable for many in her community.

Chris Innes, a fellow Indigenous member of the military, met Debbie through her advisory work. He had recently won a human rights complaint awarding him the right to wear a traditional Aboriginal braid while in uniform.

“I can't explain her in one word,” Chris says. “If you can think of everything that a community needs in a confidant, an Elder, somebody who's cooking up dinners, that’s Debbie. She's an old comrade-in-arms, but she's a good Native woman also.”

Debbie Eisan

Building a stronger community

Since her transition out of the CAF, Debbie has become a fixture at the Mi’kmaw Friendship Centre in Halifax, where she was stationed. Her immense impact on the lives around her continues there.

“Debbie is a dynamo,” says Dave Ladouceur, an ironworker at the Halifax shipyards and recently-elected board member of the Friendship Centre. “She’s the glue that holds the Friendship Centre together. If she asked me to move a mountain, I'd pick it up and I'd move it. She's a big inspiration for me. She’s helped me reach my goals and be a better person.”

Debbie is applying the work she has done in teaching people about Indigenous heritage and culture to life beyond the military, but the CAF is where she has helped achieve the greatest progress.

And in her eyes, things are improving.

“In the earlier part of my career, it was difficult,” Debbie says. “In the latter part of my career, the military embraced Indigenous people and Indigenous culture. And if what I’ve done to help people understand who we are has helped that level of discrimination and ignorance go away—if I'm there to be able to help and share the culture with people and educate them—then maybe I can help make life that much easier for the young Aboriginal people who are joining the military now.”

Date published: 2021-03-01

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