Wanderlust and perseverance led Cpl. Bev Pitawanakwat from an impoverished Indigenous reserve in Northern Ontario to a 10-year career with the military, where she became the first female Navy diver in Canadian history. Patricia Vasylchuk talked to the former marine engineer about why she gave it up to become an Indigenous recruiter for the RCMP.
Where does your story begin?
Growing up, I had no real role models as a young Indigenous person. I thought there was nothing outside of that reserve. I didn't know we had oceans or even the rest of the country. But there was always something in my heart that said, "You're capable of something more."
Why did you join the military?
I was walking by a recruiting centre and I felt compelled to go in. I took an aptitude test and it printed out a bunch of options and one of them was a marine engineer. I didn't have a clue what that was. But within a month, I was in boot camp.
Describe your military career.
It opened my eyes to a world I would never have seen otherwise — sailing to countries like Russia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Guam and the Philippines. But I was part of the transition when women first started working in the military, and we had to work harder to prove ourselves.
How did you succeed?
Perseverance. I didn't like being put in a box and I didn't accept being told I couldn't do something.
Why become a Navy diver?
They were cool as cucumbers, and I thought , I want to be that cucumber! But, I was repeatedly told that I couldn't do it. So, I waited for the chief engineer outside of his room and I said, Chief, please give me a chance to prove myself. And he got me on the course.
Why did you leave?
I was treated well and was moving up in the ranks, but I wanted to share these amazing experiences, trials and tribulations with Indigenous youth. I thought, "I really have to not think of myself and instead get into these communities and tell these kids that there's no such thing as can't. And that it's OK to be scared."
What happened next?
I graduated Depot in 2000, at age 38. And I said to the staffing people, "You have to send me to your hardest spot and it has to be Indigenous." I think the guy fell out of his chair. Now, I've got nearly 19 years as a proud Mountie and all my service has been working with First Nations communities. I've been an Indigenous recruiter for three years.
What does an Indigenous recruiter do?
I travel extensively to First Nations communities — tournaments, schools, career fairs — sharing my story of tenacity, encouraging our youth and mentoring them to opportunities they might never have considered.
What do you tell them?
That when I was where they are today, the only person that could get me out of the hole was me. I tell them, If you have a dream, believe in that dream; if somebody tells you no, don't settle for that.
How do you mentor the young people you meet?
I connect with them over email or my work cell, which they can call any time. I show them how to get themselves ready for the application process. I encourage them to get their driver's licence and do online practice testing. I promote Indigenous programs that build up their self-confidence, and marry them up with a local Indigenous police officer in their community who can mentor them one on one.
Another thing is, I find that some of our Indigenous applicants who live more remotely don't have a good foundation in math and English, which is on the RCMP exam. So, when they're young, I give them the exam and have them write it, and tell them to pay attention to their Grade 12 math and English.
What's your approach?
I want to make sure we get quality applicants, but I don't want to push them in case they're not suited for that type of work. All I do is open a door; it's up to them if they walk through. I know I've been successful when I see the people that I've sent through the process at Depot. I've had quite a few.