Remembrance Day 2022: Interview with Nathaniel Sukhdeo
This week, our authors have been commemorating the actions of Indigenous Veterans including the significant contributions of the Cree Code talkers, and examining through a lens of reconciliation the additional sacrifice these soldiers made through their loss of status and benefits.
Today is Remembrance Day. A day for all Canadians to remember the (ongoing) price of freedom. Today not only do we take a moment of silence to observe and honour those who have fallen in the service of Canada, we also acknowledge the courage of those who continue to serve. Today for my article, I wanted to share with our readers the chance to get to know a current Indigenous member of the Canadian Armed Forces, my amazing friend, Nathaniel Sukhdeo. Nathaniel is someone who I both deeply admire and respect. He is a member of the Canadian Armed Forces as well as a 3rd-year law student in the Joint Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders (JID) program at the University of Victoria. Nathan’s commitment to the security and freedom of Canada is a family affair, serving alongside his wife and in-laws, and is the grandson of veterans who served in the world wars.
Reconcili-Action YEG: First, thank you for serving with the Canadian Armed forces. Can you tell me a little bit about your family history and what led to your enrollment in the JD/JID program?
Nataniel: Thanks for taking the time to interview me, and for writing this blog.
My name is Nathaniel, I’m a mixed-ancestry Canadian, and have served in the Royal Canadian Navy as a Part-Time and Full-Time Reservist since 2015. My mother’s family is mixed English-Canadian and Mohawk. My father and his family immigrated to Canada from Guyana in 1969.
My family does not have any connection remaining to the Mohawk community, as that connection disappeared after my Great-Grandfather returned from World War II. That lack of connection has been a major driver for me in my own reconciliation journey. My desire to reconnect with my roots has existed since I was very young spending time with my Great-Grandfather. What made sense in my heart, to begin this personal journey, was to start with honouring his service by joining the Canadian Armed Forces while I was pursuing my undergrad at Western (UWO). That decision ended up bringing me to Victoria, and ultimately led me to where I am today. After working for a few years full-time with the Navy, I chose to attend Law School in 2020 at the University of Victoria pursuing the dual Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Laws (JD/JID) program. I am currently in my third year, out of four, and went down this legal education pathway with the hope of learning about my Mohawk roots and the land where my family comes from, some of the laws and teachings of the Haudenosaunee, and how to help advance the Nation-to-Nation level of reconciliation in some aspect.
Outside of the CAF, I work for Canada’s Department of Justice as a Law Student, within the Reconciliation Secretariat. Our team is tasked with developing the Indigenous Justice Strategy, and supporting the Permanent Bilateral Mechanisms that the Government of Canada has established with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation leaders to identify joint priorities, co-develop policy, and monitor progress.
R: One thing I admire about you is your career with the Navy. Can you share with our readers your role within the Canadian Armed Forces?
N: My trade within the Navy is Naval Warfare Officer, and in short, we spend our career working towards the position of Commanding Officer of a Canadian Warship. Leading up to this point, you fill a variety of positions on board a Canadian Warship to build competencies such as: Bridge Watchkeeper, Warfare Director, Operations Officer, and Executive Officer. Depending on if you are Part-Time or Full-Time, ashore or at-sea, there are a variety of other jobs that you could be carrying out at any given time, domestically or abroad. As an example, this past summer, I was a member of the Canadian Staff that went to RIMPAC 2022, serving as one of two Current Operations Directors under the Combined Forces Maritime Component Commander. RIMPAC is the largest multinational maritime warfare exercise in the world, and my first time attending RIMPAC was in 2018 aboard HMCS Whitehorse as the Deck Officer, focusing on Mine Warfare. Upon graduation from Law School next year, before focusing on my legal career, I intend to return to the Pacific Fleet to complete a posting as an Executive Officer of a Kingston-Class Canadian Warship. The Kingston-Class is primarily used in Coastal Defence, Mine Warfare, and Maritime Interdiction Operations in the Caribbean. I hope to subsequently be selected, in a few years, by the Navy to serve as the Commanding Officer of a Kingston-Class or Harry DeWolf-Class Warship.
R: Can you tell me a little bit about your family's history with the Canadian Armed Forces?
N: My Great-Great Grandfather served in World War I, and my Great-Grandfather served in World War II for Canada. From the stories that were passed down by my Grandfather and Mom, my Great-Grandfather was Mohawk and was the last generation of our family to grow up in community. I was told that after his service in World War II, he did not return to his community in Eastern Ontario. This was primarily due to enfranchisement and the laws of the Government of Canada at the time around Indigenous people serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. My Great-Grandmother, his wife, was a Radar Operator for the British Army during World War II. My grandparents and parents did not serve, but I have had cousins, extended family, and close family friends that served in the Canadian Armed Forces. I’m the only one amongst my siblings. My wife is also a Naval Warfare Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, her sister and brother-in-law are in the Canadian Army, and her little brother previously served in the Canadian Army.
R: Do you know anything about your great-grandfather’s experience serving in the Armed Forces? Do you know where he was sent?
N: I only know a few details, but my Mom has his service records. I know that he was a member of the Canadian Army, deployed to Italy, and served in the battle to liberate Ortona. He met my Great-Grandmother while he was training in England during the War, while she was serving in the British Army as a Radar Operator. He returned to Canada after the War with my Great-Grandmother, and my Grandfather who was born at the end of the War, and they settled down in Orillia, Ontario.
R: You come from a family with a multi-generational history of serving with Canada’s Armed Forces, including with your great-grandfather who gave up his status to fight for Canada. What do you think compels your family to serve?
N: I can’t speak for the decisions of previous generations, but for myself, it was a sense of debt owed to previous generations of my family that fought for Canadian freedoms in various conflicts. Regardless of the actions that previous Governments undertook with the Indian Act, the creation of Reserves, etc, for me, it was just about being ready to do my part if Canada ever had to go to war again. It was also about trying to connect with my ancestral ties in some capacity. The benefits of seeing the world, personal growth, and meeting lifelong friends became an added bonus.
R: You met your wife through the Navy and I know that you already convinced my son to enlist, but do you think you will encourage your kids to serve?
N: Yes, I do think so. Despite the challenges the Canadian Armed Forces has faced over the past couple of years, I still believe that it’s a great opportunity for every young Canadian to learn what putting service before self means, and to be able to grow in personal confidence, learn some new skills, be paid to travel, and to support Canadian National Security efforts. Even in peace times, the skills you learn in your trade, whether in the Reserves or Regular Force, enable you to be ready to help defend the freedoms and rights that so many Canadians have fought and died for, especially if international threats to our way of life and security arose. I believe that service in the CAF, regardless of what trade you’re in, reinforces a sense of patriotism, shapes a strong work ethic, and helps individuals build resilience for the challenges life will put in front of them.
R: Nathan, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your personal journey through reconciliation, your family's story, and your personal experience serving with the Canadian Armed Forces. From everyone at Reconcili-ACTION YEG and on behalf of our readers, thank you to you, your wife and all the members, current and past, of the Armed Forces for having the courage to serve and protect our country.
Until next time,
Caption: Nathaniel at the 2022 Vancouver Military Dinner (far left) with his wife (left), the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy (center), along with some friends that he served in the Navy with (right).