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One-year military program pushes Indigenous youth to excel

Rayjean Palluq wanted a taste of the military.

He signed up for the Aboriginal Leadership Opportunity Year (ALOY), an offering at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., and received so much more.

Palluq, whose mother Gwendolyn Palluq is originally from Iglulik, graduated from the one-year course June 7.

Officer Cadet Rayjean Palluq, second right, speaks with Brigadier-General Joe Paul, Commander of 4th Canadian Division and Joint Task Force (Central) at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont. Palluq completed the Aboriginal Leadership Opportunity Year (ALOY) June 7.
photo courtesy Steven McQuaid /DND-MDN Canada

"Overall, it was an amazing year. You learn so much. There's crazy highs, and there's some hardships. You meet all kinds of people."

As Palluq tells it, attitude is all.

"You have to come wanting to change, wanting to put in the effort. The military is not easy, but if you come here wanting to change, wanting to better yourself, then that opportunity is here for you," he said.

The challenge for Palluq was in working as a team.

"We started out as 30 people this year. Everyone's here to get the job done. They really push you to your limits, but the reward afterward is completing it together," he said.

Palluq joined other Indigenous youth from across Canada.

"The benefit, for me, is that you get university credits. You get a full year of university, fully paid for by the military," said Palluq.

"Regardless of your high-school status, they’ll let you in. If you didn't get the best marks in high school … it's perfect. They'll give you a tutor. They'll give you every opportunity to excel. If your English is weak, or you're struggling in math, they'll find you a tutor."

The program is designed to provide students of Indigenous heritage with individual, group, and cultural experiences that will help build leadership and life skills, explained Second Lieutenant (2Lt) Mark Emmerson, assistant public affairs officer at the college.

"The ALOY program includes sports, field trips, leadership development, military training, cultural support activities and individual learning plans. Through these learning plans, participants take part in individual and small-group tutorials for pre-university (non-credit) and first-year university courses," Emmerson stated by e-mail.

Participants are enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces for one year as an Officer Cadet and receive free tuition and books.

Palluq said the one-year program taught him about self-motivation.

"Even if your goal isn't to join the military, it's an opportunity to better yourself as a person, to gain leadership skills, to get outside your comfort zone, to try something different," he said.

All the possible resources are available to the youth, including mental health supports.

"I had some friends here that are troubled with mental health, but you're a full member of the Canadian Armed Forces, and that comes with a lot of benefits – amazing mental health support. Within two or three days you get an appointment with a psychiatrist and you can talk with them about how you feel," said Palluq.

"If you decide this counsellor is not for me, you can go to another."

Palluq says there are even financial advisors to help learn about money matters, especially important since the youth get paid and may have no experience with managing it.

"You come here with a problem? They can help you out with it," he said.

Palluq's most treasured experience came at the end of the year.

"There's a big canoe trip that ALOY does, a canoe trip from Smith Falls to Kingston. It's around 110 km. You're out in the field. Everyone's helping each other. I know I can rely on my friend, and he can rely on me. We're family. We're going to do this together," he said.

The youth have the opportunity to use all the skills they've learned throughout the year, and each has the opportunity to lead their teams.

"I really want to get the message out there about this program, and to get more Inuit involved in this program," said Palluq, adding he knows it's a big change leaving Nunavut for the south.

"But it's such an amazing opportunity. Give it a try. University costs so much, especially from up North trying out university. And they really do want you to succeed."