A Life in Uniform: Beverly Pitawanakwat Learns To Serve, Protect and Inspire
“It was always my passion to reach Indigenous youth,” explains Beverly Pitawanakwat. She is Ojibwe, born and raised on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Growing up on her island reserve, she would stand on the beach wondering what was out there. Her eyes were later opened to all the available opportunities available to her and she remembers how many mistakes she made and decisions she regretted. Regardless of how she feels about those choices now, it all worked out in the end.
“There were things I wish I did differently. But it all got me to where I am today.”
A shy introvert in residential school, she rarely raised her hand in class and didn’t excel. She graduated because she wanted to spend time with her school friends. If she could give any advice to today’s youth, it would be to finish high school. It opened so many doors for her professionally and she didn’t need high marks. Her employers only cared that she finished school.
When she graduated, she moved to the states and started her family, but it didn’t work out. She moved back home with her one year old son and tried to find work. Someone she recognized from powwows offered her a temporary clerical job at the airport and she accepted immediately, motivated by her son and wanting to give him a better childhood than she had, in and out of foster care. The job became permanent and she stayed there four years before going back to school. She loved her job but felt there had to be something more to life.
Pitawanakwat took a machinist course because she was tired of the boxes Indigenous people were being put into. The only woman in the course, she passed and applied for different apprenticeships. At a certain point, she walked into Sudbury’s military recruiting center.
An aptitude test she took placed her as suitable for a job as a marine engineer. She went to bootcamp, determined not to be poor anymore. “I did the scary things that I needed to do in order to move forward,” she recalls. Pitawanakwatwas posted to a ship in the Navy on the West coast. She sailed to Hawaii many times, saw dolphins and took part in training exercises at sea.
Fascinated by rescues at sea, she trained hard to join the dive team, even after being turned down due to her gender. Going around the chain of command, she asked for the chance to prove herself. She got into the training, “the hardest thing I've ever done in my life”, Pitawanakwatwas recalls, with just one other woman training alongside her.
Out of the 24 who began the training, only 13 finished. There were times she wondered why she hadn’t stayed with her clerical job. Ultimately, the experiences and opportunities she had, the places she saw and people she met made her job the most rewarding thing she had ever done. While Pitawanakwatwas was tired training for the dive team and her body ached from the experiences, she refused to give others the satisfaction of seeing her quit. “Our people didn’t quit,” she declared.
For over a decade her Navy job was somewhere she excelled, had room for advancement and was respected. One day, at a BBQ, someone suggested she join the RCMP, something she didn’t think she was good enough to do. When she found officers work in Indigenous communities and she would be able to share her journey with Indigenous kids, Pitawanakwat decided to go for it.
After a couple years, she received a job offer and debated if she should take it. She declined once, was offered again and decided to make the change, heading to Regina for training. After dive training and bootcamp, police training wasn’t as hard.
“What I found was if you treat people well, they treat you well back.”
Her posting was at the end of a gravel road, four hours away from groceries, in a community that could be quite violent. She did her job thinking about how she was sometimes treated poorly for being Native and decided to approach people with compassion. Sharing her story and listening to the stories of the toughest criminals, she showed the community who she was. Pitawanakwat also joined the RCMP dive team.
One of the benefits of her chosen career paths was all the travel. Other than Hawaii, Pitawanakwat got to go to Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, and the Panama Canal. Back then, it was really hard to be a First Nations person and she wishes she could tell her younger self to keep believing in herself and that she is good enough. It’s a message she shared with Indigenous youth as an Indigenous recruiter for the RCMP and she will never forget the day a young girl shared that she had been suicidal until she heard those words.
To take care of her own mental health, Pitawanakwat got professional help for her PTSD from policing and body recovery as part of the dive team. She saw a psychologist annually and continued after she left policing. She saw trauma every day, things people aren’t meant to see or experience and she has to talk about it to stay well, carrying those memories for the rest of her life. Being in calm, quiet surroundings, being out on the land, and connecting with family and friends helps a lot to keep her healthy.
From residential school, to the Navy and the RCMP, she spent her life in uniform. In retirement, with no uniform, she wondered who she would be. Now, she’s nesting to improve her home, joined a sewing guild, learned to make a jingle dress and spends time cooking for her husband and son who love to eat. Pitawanakwat now lives by a beautiful beach and loves going for walks and motorcycle rides. After recently relocating to Nova Scotia, she’s learning how to give back in her new neighbourhood. They moved there to be near the ocean, where seafood is plentiful, in a way they couldn’t afford on the west coast.
It was always her passion to reach Indigenous youth and Pitawnakwat did just that as a police officer and recruiter in Indigenous communities. With discipline from the military and compassion in her heart, she found a way to build a career that made a difference in the world. Diving deep in the ocean and into her love for her people, she surfaced with the wisdom of her people and hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this story.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.