By Chevi Rabbit, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – The beautiful art on the cover of this month’s Alberta Native News is by Collette Cullen, a veteran who says that her “best weapon is a paintbrush.”
In a compelling illustration of strength, duty, and cultural pride for Two-Spirit Youth, 55-year-old Cullen, shares a remarkable journey from enlisting in the army at seventeen to evolving into an artist, stone carver, and grandparent. As we commemorated the contributions of Indigenous veterans in Canada on November 8, 2023, Cullen graciously shared her inspiring story with Alberta Native News readers.
Cullen’s military journey began in 1985, fueled by a deep sense of duty and the honour of being recognized as a warrior. Rooted in the teachings of her Indigenous heritage, she understood that being a warrior transcends making war or taking lives; it’s about safeguarding elders, children, and people of all backgrounds. She poignantly remarked, “Our traditional teachings show us that to be a warrior is not about making war or killing, but to protect our Elders, our children, all peoples – settler or Indigenous – and to protect our lands from harm.”
Two impactful tours in the former Yugoslavia, notably the 1993 battle of Medak with the 2nd battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, marked pivotal moments for Cullen. Tasked with halting ethnic cleansing and genocide, she found no glory in such endeavors. Reflecting on the irony of stopping ethnic cleansing as an Indigenous person, she shared, “The irony of stopping ethnic cleansing was not lost on me as an Indigenous person.”
Hailing from northern Alberta, Cullen expressed an unwavering commitment to duty, stating, “While serving I never felt oppressed or different than my comrades in arms beside me, and to this day those bonds as warriors hold strong.”
Amidst her military service, Cullen sought not medals or glory but aimed to uplift the oppressed. She explained, “I wanted to help those who were oppressed, beaten down and being wiped away by others. The faces of the children and elderly remain with me to this day. Those hidden scars are my honour to bear.”
Cullen’s journey extends beyond the military; currently attending the University of Alberta, she embraces her artistic side as a stone carver and revels in the joys of grandparenthood. Contemplating volunteering for the Canadian Rangers, an opportunity for Indigenous Peoples to protect and patrol the north, she continues her commitment to service, contributing to the preservation of their homelands.
Addressing the critical need for Indigenous role models, Cullen stresses the importance of challenging historical stereotypes and providing positive examples for all Indigenous Peoples. She acknowledges the role of the military in shaping her identity, highlighting programs like Bold Eagle as valuable initiatives contributing to reconciliation. “Being a soldier was an honour, a duty, and medals were not why I joined, or glory, there is no glory in war,” she emphasized.
Expressing openness to talks, Cullen recognizes the significance of role models in breaking stereotypes and fostering pride within Indigenous communities. As she paves the way for future generations, Cullen stands as a living testament to the resilience, strength, and multifaceted identities of Indigenous Peoples, dispelling outdated stereotypes.
If inspired by Collette Cullen’s story and considering a career in the Canadian Forces, explore opportunities on the official website: Canadian Forces – Apply Now. The site offers insights into the application process, career paths, and the benefits of serving in the Canadian Forces, presenting a comprehensive resource for those aspiring to a fulfilling and honourable military career.