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Cadets adapting to virtual drills during pandemic

‘It’s tough but they’re resilient,’ commanding officer says; teen cadets motivating each other
155 Borden Gray GC Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron cadets at a ceremony held at the Sault Ste. Marie Armoury, May 6, 2017. Darren Taylor/SooToday

In these days of COVID-19 restrictions, how do groups of army, sea and air cadets assemble for indoor and outdoor parades, produce the stirring sounds of pipes, drums, marching feet and barking of military commands as family, friends and supporters proudly look on?

Sadly and simply put, as pandemic restrictions continue, they don’t, cadets and commanding officers waiting for restrictions to lift.

In the meantime, 155 Borden Gray GC Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron cadets (12 to 18 years of age) and their adult instructors are meeting virtually through the use of tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

“The restrictions that have been put on are in the interest of public health…(senior authorities governing cadet operations across Canada) are very adamant the cadet program does not become a vector of transmission of this virus. They have been very, very careful about in-person activities. That directive came down even prior to the first lockdown,” said Captain Kenneth Floyd, 155 Borden Gray GC Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron commanding officer.

Floyd, along with three of the squadron’s cadets - Warrant Officer 1st Class Zachary Nott and Flight Sergeant Daniel Gravel of the Sault, joined by Sergeant Indiana Lou Imperatori of Wawa - spoke to SooToday via Zoom this week.

“It’s put quite a dampener on what we’ve been able to do. All of our activities have been done virtually through Zoom and Microsoft Teams but we’ve had very good attendance by the cadets. They all are still looking for things to do and virtual’s better than nothing,” Floyd said.

Classes for cadets are still held virtually one night a week, those classes covering topics such as leadership skills, good citizenship, the importance of physical fitness and healthy living. 

“The classes I’ve sat in on have been very engaging for the cadets and I think it’s given them an opportunity to experience learning from a different angle,” Floyd said.

Pandemic restrictions aside, are the cadets still in full uniform during virtual classes?

“No, not always,” Floyd chuckled.

“We’ve been away for so long and at the age these young people are at, they tend to need to get new uniforms often at a larger size (as they grow from children to young adults).”

Floyd said no cadet will suffer in his/her education with the squadron, to be granted waivers in areas of study which are currently not possible, such as glider pilot training.

Floyd said it’s difficult as an instructor and squadron commanding officer to see young cadets go through pandemic restrictions and miss out on certain cadet experiences.

“It’s tough, it really is tough…(but) the positive attitudes all these young people are showing over the last year, it’s amazing to me that young people are as resilient as they are.”

There are currently 55 members in the 155 Borden Gray GC Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron, Floyd said.

He expressed his appreciation that three of those cadets, such as Imperatori, have been willing to make the drive with parents from their outlying Algoma region homes to the Sault Ste. Marie Armoury to attend squadron activities pre-COVID.

How are the cadets keeping up their morale during the on-again, off-again lockdowns?

“I try to see the positive in it for me,” Imperatori said, noting her appreciation of the ability to connect with her fellow cadets virtually.

“I miss the social aspect but I always keep telling myself ‘it’s okay, it’ll be over soon.’”  

“The pandemic has put a lot of pressure on us. It’s hard at times to stay motivated, to want to show up for cadets, to want to show up for school, but it’s a matter of looking at the positive and staying optimistic, knowing this is only temporary and that we’ll get through it,” Nott said.

Being senior cadets, the three members we spoke to keep motivated by motivating younger cadets, encouraging them to show up for weekly, virtual squadron meetings.

“Once you’re a senior you’re already dedicated, and as a junior, joining cadets, it’s a little difficult to be motivated wanting to do something you’ve never done with other people, so we call every week to check in on them (as a reminder of meetings and to encourage them),” Gravel said.

The squadron is holding themed events, such as Netflix nights, in their weekly virtual meetings as a ‘cheer up’ initiative.

“The roles of our senior cadets have definitely changed (as virtual mentors to junior cadets, rather than in person) but we’re making do,” Nott said.

During this period, Nott and Gravel have recently made the squadron proud with their public speaking skills at an area competition, placing first and second respectively.

Nott spoke of Sault native Dr. Roberta Bondar (astronaut, neurologist and public speaker) as his STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) hero.

Gravel spoke of what heroism, bravery and courage mean to him.

Describing a true story, Gravel said “I was driving by and I saw a senior citizen asking for work. To me that’s a big thing, to have courage to ask for help. Some people are too proud and want to do it all on their own, they don’t want any help. Everyone’s brave, but it’s a matter of getting over the hurdles of life.”

“It was pretty enticing, exciting, to be able to prepare a speech to be presented and to be judged by officials who have seen many, many speeches and to get good feedback from them,” Gravel said. 

The cadets have done some virtual standing drills as instruction for junior cadets throughout the pandemic.

They are still running band practices (the squadron’s band has won provincial championships many times over the years), but again, all through Zoom.

Pipers and drummers do it all virtually these days.

“(With virtual) it’s difficult to get the timing together,” commanding officer Floyd said, while still appreciating the cadets efforts.

Imperatori said she wants to join the military as a dog trainer after finishing off her cadet days. 

Nott turns 19 later this year, and will therefore leave the cadets. He is currently in his second year of university (studying with McMaster University remotely, with a desire to go into medicine, specifically radiology), but expressed his desire to stay with the cadets as an adult officer/instructor.

Gravel said he would like to be a pilot, but is carefully keeping an eye on the aviation industry as it hopes to recover from the battering it has taken from pandemic travel restrictions.

As the pandemic continues, the cadets still need funding to operate.

Each year, the cadets are issued books of tickets to sell within the community to raise money for the squadron.

Fundraising has gone virtual this year, the squadron encouraging the public to go online to buy tickets for the Air Cadet League of Canada Ontario Annual Lottery.

When purchasing a ticket, locals are asked to select ‘Sault Ste Marie 155’ in the organization field.

Funds raised go directly to the local squadron, a portion of the money raised to go to the cadet program across Ontario (tickets available only to Ontario residents, Floyd said).

The first air cadet squadrons were established in 1941.

The purpose of air cadet squadrons is to teach good citizenship, leadership skills, physical fitness, general aviation (such as glider training) and arouse a general interest in the Canadian Forces.

Pre-COVID (and hopefully post-COVID), the Air Cadet League of Canada, with the Department of National Defence as a partner, operated the Glider Flying Program across Canada. Air cadets, during summer months, can earn their glider pilots license and go on to earn their power pilots licence.

The 155 Borden Gray GC Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron meets at the Pine Street Armoury.

The squadron and its program are free to join, with no cost for uniforms or regular training.

Established in Sault Ste. Marie in 1941, in 1990 the squadron name was dedicated to the memory of local Second World War hero Borden Gray. 

The squadron officially marked its 75th anniversary in 2017.

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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