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FORT McMURRAY AIR CADETS: Making a Difference in Our Community

Every Tuesday evening when school is in session in Fort McMurray, the cadets of 868 YMM Rotary Northstar Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron form up on parade. They march, play music, salute their officers, and then dismiss to classes, only to form up again at the end of the evening to repeat the drill (literally).

But who goes to Air Cadets? Why would somebody want to spend their Tuesday evenings marching around, taking orders, and attending classes of all things? Doesn’t your average teenager get their fill of classes during the school day? And what, if anything, do they contribute to the larger community they live in?

Air Cadets is a program offered jointly through the Air Cadet League of Canada, the Department of National Defence, parent committees and other local sponsors. Youth between the ages of 12 and 18 years are eligible to participate. The program follows a curriculum established by DND, with the young people themselves planning and delivering the lessons to their peers. Their officers consult with the cadets in order to oversee and resource the training year, in collaboration with the parent sponsoring committee and community sponsors. A typical training year includes weekends tailored to each level of experience a cadet has, roughly corresponding to years on the squadron; fitness and citizenship activities; marksmanship; camps; flight experiences; and specialized summer training. Cadets travel to sports, drill, and effective speaking competitions.

The Air Cadets are particularly visible at a few significant annual events in Fort McMurray. In particular, the cadets volunteer their time to help with the Wood Buffalo Timeraiser event, Legion poppy sales, and Remembrance Day ceremonies. During one-time events such as the Fort McMurray International Airshow, the cadets volunteered to help direct parking and provide information to patrons.

When the cadets themselves were polled about what they contribute to the community, about half pointed to this visible presence. The other half pointed out less visible but potentially even more valuable effects of Air Cadets in the community. Their responses fell into categories such as developing good citizenship and leadership skills; learning to mentor and be mentored; and getting to try activities they would never have access to otherwise. For some cadets, the thought of flying in a glider is far outside their comfort zone; for others, the most panic-inducing activity might be public speaking. The presence of a supportive group of peers who are all going through the same thing together helps the cadets take risks and realize that failure can be valuable. They learn that to strive for excellence does not mean to expect perfection, and that expecting perfection from others is also not realistic.

Within the 868 Squadron community, several cadets have recently aged out of the program but remain involved with the squadron as volunteers or civilian instructors. Cadets have also taken specialized training in survival and aircraft maintenance and are now able to teach the material to fellow cadets. One senior cadet has been elected president of the youth association of a provincial political party. Several cadets have earned their wings, travelled on international exchanges, and spent their summers teaching junior cadets at summer training camps. Others have graduated and moved on to university studies. As retired General Rick Hillier recently said of the Air and Army Cadets present at the Legion fundraising gala, “We’re going to be okay as a nation when we’ve got incredible young men and women like this who are our leaders now and leaders of the future.”