Rev. Capt. Catherine Askew distinctly remembers the moment when she knew she wanted to be a military chaplain to the Canadian Forces.
She was 17 years old and an undergraduate student at university. She had been thinking that a job as an administration clerk would give her a useful skill and some pocket money. Then she met a military chaplain who introduced her to the work of the chaplains’ corps.
“This was during the time of [the] Oka [crisis] and the Persian Gulf War,” she recalls. “The chaplains were…taking an active role in people’s everyday lives.” Capt. Askew was inspired, especially when she realized that military chaplains “could talk to anyone, regardless of language or creed.”
It was not until Sept. 11, 2001 that she mailed her application for military chaplaincy. “I came back to the house, turned on the TV and saw two planes crashing into the World Trade Center,” she remembers. “Despite the horror of what I was seeing, I still felt that I made the right decision.”
Eight months later, she underwent 14 weeks of basic training and the chaplaincy course at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden, Ont., becoming the first native military chaplain in the regular forces. Later, Capt. Askew was deployed to Afghanistan, during the height of operations involving American, British and Canadian troops. She stayed at a support base for six months.
She calls her seven years as a padre “enriching, renewing, invigorating, constantly changing and demanding.” After returning to Ontario and CFB Trenton, she found herself standing on the tarmac too often as fallen Canadian soldiers were taken off transport planes. “It’s heartbreaking, but it’s where I had to be,” she says of her five-year stint. (Since 2002, 131 Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan.)
Capt. Askew is currently deployed to the Canadian Forces Support Unit in Ottawa, where her work is akin to parish ministry. She responds to the pastoral needs of the soldiers and their families, visits people in their workplace, performs marriage counseling, prepares members for deployment overseas, and responds to their needs when they come home. She also takes part in Sunday services at an ecumenical chapel with chaplains from different denominations.
Like other chaplains, Capt. Askew ministers to soldiers of all faiths. As a military chaplain who is also an indigenous woman, Capt. Askew is well aware that she carries the additional responsibility of helping to ensure equity in the Canadian Forces. She is part of the Defense Aboriginal Advisory Group as well as provincial co-chair for all military members in Ontario. The work involves advocacy, recruitment, retention of members and awareness of aboriginal culture and events.
Advocacy will be focused on increasing the number of aboriginal officers. At present there are about 200 aboriginal officers out of 150,000 full-time and part-time military members in the Canadian Forces. “It’s very low. That’s been a historical problem because at one time, aboriginal people could not hold a commission,” she says. “The barriers are gone, but the legacy continues.”
She says aboriginal military personnel often do not have the training or university education required to rise to leadership positions. Those who do are often reluctant to leave their communities, where their leadership is also needed.
Capt. Askew signed a 20-year contract as military chaplain and that means she’ll be 51 when it expires. What then? “We’ll see how my body feels,” she says. If she can still meet the physical requirements, she promises to stick around.