People & Culture

As the RCAF turns 100, Cyle Daniels begins their own journey with the storied service

 A century after its creation, the RCAF is evolving to create space for Indigenous youth

Cyle Daniels hopes to join the RCAF to pursue their dream of working on plane engines.
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On a warm afternoon in the summer of 2021, Cyle Daniels flew over Long Plain First Nation, nestled on the banks of the Assiniboine River in Manitoba, and peered down at the crowd gathered below. It was his first time flying since he was a child — only this time, he was in the pilot’s seat. His cousins and siblings whooped and hollered as he circled around his grandmother’s house for a third time. It’s a moment none of them will ever forget — the day Miskwaa-Bineshiinh-Ikwe (Anishnaabemowin for “Red Bird Woman,” although Cyle goes by “Red Bird”) spread his wings and soared through the skies.

That afternoon, Daniels piloted a small two-seater plane. “It was very, very scary,” admits the 20-year-old Two-Spirit youth from Long Plain First Nation, but also “very thrilling.”

Daniels is a graduate of the Eagle’s Wings Flight School in Portage La Prairie, Man., just a five-minute flight northeast of his nation. Sitting next to Daniels on that first flight was the school’s founder, Royal Canadian Air Force Captain Josh Cordery, who runs the summer aviation program for Indigenous youth from southern Manitoba.

Eagle’s Wings students spend the first couple of days learning the basics of aircraft control and the remainder of the two-week programme in the air. Cordery wants each student to come away knowing what they’re capable of.

Some students “have never been in an airplane, are scared to fly, scared of heights,” says Cordery. “I want to show these young people what they can do that they don’t know — that they can dream a little bigger.”

Daniels (who uses the pronouns he/him and they/them interchangeably) never imagined that a month-long program he heard about in his final year of high school would change his life. Their goal is now to work on plane engines as a technician for the RCAF, which celebrates its centennial this April. Daniels’ story could be seen as part of an evolving legacy of the RCAF as it creates spaces people like them can aspire to and thrive in.

Josh Cordery (right) mentored Cyle Daniels as part of the Eagle’s Wings Flight School.
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When Josh Cordery joined the RCAF in 2005 after completing his civilian flight training, he had no family in the military nor any prior knowledge about it. What he did know was he wanted to work in aviation. Living in Portage la Prairie, where around half of high school students are Indigenous, he also wanted to help his neighbours. That was the inspiration behind Eagle’s Wings: a volunteer-led non-profit that came alive through Cordery’s work with Dakota Ojibwe Child & Family Services.

The flight school, a registered charity, is funded in part by Dakota Ojibwe Child & Family Services, as well as corporate sponsorship and other funding sources, and takes on six to seven students each summer from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, Canupawakpa Dakota Nation, and from Roseau River, Long Plain, Dakota Tipi, Birdtail Sioux, Dakota Plains and Swan Lake First Nations. Of the 25 youth who have graduated since the school’s inception, only a few have pursued further aviation education. But Cordery’s goal isn’t to turn participants into pilots: he’s helping them build confidence and life skills. 

Daniels and his dog, Abby.
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“I always had, what I would say, a God-given dream on my heart — to give back, but to teach people how to fly who wouldn’t have the opportunity,” says Cordery, who also teaches at the 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School. “There’s never a day where I don’t try and actively recall how fortunate and blessed I am that I call this my work.”

Cordery recalls Cyle Daniels as being bold, courageous and always up for a challenge. That courage, Daniels says, comes from the woman who raised him: his grandmother Jacqueline Daniels.

Jacqueline’s father, Private George Daniels, was a Second World War veteran who fought on D-Day — and a residential school survivor, who instilled an appreciation for the value of education in his children. He inspired some of Jacqueline’s cousins and nephews to join the military.

“In Anishnaabe[mowin] there’s a word we have for warrior, and that word is ogichidaa. It’s kind of a universal word on Turtle Island with all the tribes. They all know that when a warrior passed onto somebody’s territory, all they had to say was ‘ogichidaa’ for safe passage — it was like a warrior peacekeeper,” says Jacqueline.

Her grandchild is now carrying this role. “That’s why I talked to Cyle about that: that it’s also a very honourable thing to be a protector and a peacekeeper amongst our nation. That whole concept of ogichidaa is part of reconciliation but also of decolonizing ourselves and taking back those teachings. We’ve always had that warrior spirit.”

Jacqueline is the one who encouraged Daniels to enrol in Eagle’s Wings. “She pushed me to graduate high school, even when I wanted to drop out, and told me not many Indigenous students actually graduate and make it into the military,” Daniels says. “She’s just trying to help her grandchildren achieve things that we did not think we were going to achieve.”

Both of Jacqueline’s sons graduated from post-secondary school and have successful careers. And with his grandmother leading the way, Daniels was the first of several grandchildren to receive his high school diploma.

Jacqueline has another special connection with Daniels—they share the same spirit name, Misko-Bineshinh, “Red Bird.” (Spirit names are given by an Elder or Medicine Person during a pipe ceremony that welcomes weeks-old Anishinaabe babies to the world). Daniels’ spirit name came to his grandmother in a dream one week before the ceremony.

“Sounds like the ancestors had something planned for me,” quips Daniels.

Misko-Bineshiinh is a name Jacqueline also lives up to. “The red bird is a messenger,” she says, and her message for her kids and grandkids has always been the same. “I told Cyle, and my boys, that you got the odds stacked up against you not to succeed. So you’ve got to be out there and prove them wrong.”

Jacqueline and Cyle Daniels at their home in Long Plains.
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For 100 years, the RCAF has upheld a heroic reputation, mainly associated with heavy bomber crews and the Allied victory of the Second World War. Although most Indigenous people could not vote in Canada until 1960, at least 3,000 First Nations, and an unknown number of Inuit and Métis enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces during the war — including at least 72 women. Grace Poulin, author of WWII Aboriginal Servicewomen in Canada, writes that Indigenous “women warriors” felt the call to sign up, some following in the footsteps of uncles or brothers. Others relished the opportunity to leave home, have a steady income and further their education. Some Indigenous men and women who enlisted felt something they didn’t experience while living under the Indian Act.

Dorothy Asquith, a Métis woman who served in the RCAF women’s auxiliary during the Second World War, did not remember experiencing any discrimination during the years she served. “Everybody was so involved in what was happening with the war that nobody was involved in such pettiness,” she recalled in Our Women in Uniform by P. Gayle McKenzie, Ginny Belcourt Todd and Muriel Stanley Venne. “I don’t think you bothered to look at the colour of your buddies’ skin.”

This sentiment was echoed by army veteran Howard Sinclair Anderson of Punnichy, Sask., who also served in the Second World War. “There was no discrimination, really…. We were right in there, as a soldier, and that’s how we were treated,” Anderson told the Memory Project, a volunteer speakers bureau where veterans and forces members share their stories. “It was terrible to come back and find out you [were being treated differently].” 

“Sounds like the ancestors had something planned for me.”

Still, Indigenous experiences in the RCAF weren’t always so positive. Prior to 1942, racially based recruitment policies required recruits to be British or of “pure” European descent. Most Indigenous volunteers ended up in the army. The RCAF changed its enlistment policy in 1939 to accept Indigenous recruits but required education levels that disqualified many Indigenous candidates. A federal report for 1942-43 said only 29 Indigenous people had enlisted in the air force.

The RCAF’s uneasy relationship with Indigenous Peoples goes beyond enlistment. In the ’40s up to the early 1950s, RCAF Wing Commander Dr. Frederick Tisdall — who earned the Order of the British Empire for providing nutrition advice to the RCAF and creating nourishment packages for prisoners of war during the Second World War — conducted a series of unethical nutrition tests, during which children in Indigenous communities and residential schools in northern Manitoba, northern Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Alberta, were denied adequate nutrition without their knowledge or consent. At least one of these research experiments was sponsored in part by the RCAF, according to research by food historian Ian Mosby. 

Cyle Daniels at the Long Plain First Nation cenotaph, which carries the name of Cyle’s great-grandfather and their relatives.
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In more recent decades, the RCAF has acknowledged past discriminatory and culturally appropriative practices. It has renamed units that had appropriated Indigenous terms and suspended RCAF heraldic crests that used Indigenous images and symbols without consultation. By 2019, there were 2,742 Indigenous members in the Canadian Armed Forces, (according to self-reported data) and the RCAF had 2.4 per cent Indigenous representation, according to the Department of National Defence 

In its darker past, the RCAF discriminated against Two-Spirit individuals like Daniels on a second front. The Canadian Armed Forces, like many organizations in Canada and across the world, haven’t traditionally been a safe space to express diverse gender identities, expressions or sexual orientations. From the 1950s to 1990s, 2SLGBTQI+members were expelled from service in the Canadian Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police in what became known as the LGBT Purge. The Purge affected an estimated 9,000 military veterans, including Sharp Dopler, a Two-Spirit navy veteran who served for 14 years as a cadet instructors officer.

Dopler (who uses he/him, she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably) comes from a long line of military veterans, including their father and grandfather. It was inevitable that they would one day don a uniform. After being purged from the navy, Dopler still struggles with the grief of losing a career he loved and the number of lives the policy has affected. 

Dopler is now on the board of Rainbow Veterans Canada, an LGBT Purge non-profit. The organization formed following the successful class action lawsuit against the federal government in 2018, which saw Purge survivors compensated from a fund of up to $110 million.

“When we create the space for people to be who they are, that’s when people thrive.”

In the summer of 2017, Dopler was working as a traditional counsellor at the Raven program — which introduces military careers to Indigenous youth — when they saw something that made them drop to their knees. Just outside the barracks, a pride flag was flying at the top of the masthead. “My little traumatized brain, who watched so many people around them when I was serving hide the fact that they were gay — I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Since 2018, the RCAF has run Positive Space Programs at operational wings across the country to encourage 2SLGBTQI+ members to bring any issues forward to leadership and create “a place where people feel like they belong,” says Major Michelle Backhouse of their work at Wing 14. Backhouse is a professional conduct and culture officer who, after 21 years with the RCAF presenting as male, came out as bigender and, more recently, as male-to-female transgender, while still retaining a bigender sense of self. Each wing’s professional conduct and culture officer is the central point of contact to coordinate Department of National Defence advisory groups for women, Indigenous, visible minority and 2SLGTBQI+ members.

“They basically have had an open-door policy that says, if you ever have any difficulty, just come see me,” says Backhouse about their work at Wing 14 Greenwood. “My motto is ‘be the change, lead by example’ — and part of that was stepping out of the shadows fully. And the air force fully supports that. We want the best and the brightest, and we want you to be your authentic self.”

Dopler acknowledges the forces are now heading in a relatively better direction. When Daniels applied to an RCAF program, they were able to tell the force they were non-binary and apply under their chosen name.

Dopler’s advice to 2SLGBTQI+ service members is to “build a network of support that is outside of the military. Reach out to people like Rainbow Veterans Canada, like Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones, because in one direction or the other, we’ve been there,” they say. “Knowing that history is really important.”

Jacqueline and Cyle drum together. The drums were passed on from Jacqueline’s mother.
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Cordery isn’t the only RCAF member committed to creative and inclusive programs to encourage more Indigenous participation in the RCAF. Some of the force’s Indigenous members are leading the way to build a culture of acceptance from within.

For example, Sergeant Devin Beaudry from the Red River Métis community in Manitoba introduced a sweat lodge onto the base in Winnipeg in 2017 after a 35-year career with the RCAF. And Master Corporal Windy Lafreniere, a member of the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne and mobile support equipment operator for the Royal Canadian Air Force at 16 Wing, is supporting Indigenous members and their families through organizing sharing circles and other cultural activities. Then there’s Sarah Leo — the former president of Nunatsiavut and a Canadian Army veteran — who made history just five years ago in 2019 as the first Inuk woman to become an honorary colonel at 5 Wing Goose Bay in Labrador. 

“When we create the space for people to be who they are, that’s when people thrive. And that’s when people want to stick around a little bit,” says Cordery. He has also witnessed the cultural shifts that have taken place over the past several years throughout air bases — from the addition of sweat lodges to sacred fire ceremonies — and says the military would like to add more Indigenous people to its ranks. That’s why he makes it his mission to not only teach his students how to fly but to educate them on all the possibilities.

“I tell them about my career. I tell them about the opportunities,” says Cordery. “Even if you do choose to serve 10, 12 years and walk away, you’re going to walk into your next job really easily, because of the path you’ve walked. I’m excited because I know what lies ahead. It’s a tremendously rewarding career, in my opinion.”

At Eagle’s Wings, Daniels wanted to learn more about the mechanics of flying. Nine months after completing flight school, he applied for the gas turbine technician program at Neeginan College of Applied Technology in Winnipeg. “I’ve always been a hands-on person,” says Daniels. “Halfway through, I was like: I want to do this for a living.”

After the course, Daniels — encouraged by Cordery — decided the RCAF would be his next step. They’ve set their sights on the Indigenous Leadership Opportunity Year, a paid one-year program for Indigenous youth at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., that’s a possible pathway to becoming an RCAF officer. In September, Daniels hopes to board another plane to Kingston, this time as a passenger, to pursue his dream.

As an educator herself, Jacqueline Daniels is aware of the challenges Indigenous youth face in post-secondary institutions. But her grandchild has reassured her he’ll be in good hands: the program has an Indigenous support program, including access to Elders.

“I’m headed in a good direction, setting a good example for my younger cousins. One also said he wants to join the military when he’s older now,” says Cyle Daniels. “I hope young Indigenous people read this and are inspired to do what they want to do with their life.”

To learn more about the RCAF’s dedication, innovation, triumphs and sacrifices over the past 100 years, visit wingsofhonour.ca

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