The 605 Tarry Squadron Royal Canadian Air Cadets in Swift Current has received provincial recognition for an innovative approach to training that continued to provide cadets with learning and development opportunities during the pandemic.
The squadron was selected as Saskatchewan’s top air cadet squadron for the 2019/20 training year. It received the Premier’s Commendation of Achievement Certificate, which is signed by Premier Scott Moe and Provincial Military Liaison Greg Lawrence, the MLA for Moose Jaw Wakamow.
It is the 11th year of this provincial award, which recognizes the best cadet units in the province. The award is given to the top sea cadet and army cadet corps and to the top air cadet squadron.
Capt. Jeff Kurtz, the commanding officer of Tarry Squadron, said it is the first time this award was won by the Swift Current air cadets.
“It's quite an honour to be recognized this way,” he mentioned. “There's a lot of really good squadrons in the province and so to be awarded this is quite an honour.”
Tarry Squadron received other provincial recognitions in the past, but he felt the award of top air cadet squadron has some additional meaning to the unit.
“I think it is more significant, because it shows the group effort,” he said. “There's been individual awards handed out in the past, but I think something like this is recognition to the entire squadron, which encompasses the whole and total operation of the unit. It's recognition for the job that the sponsoring committee does, it's recognition for the job that the training officers and the staff put together, but it's also recognition for the job that the cadets do in their overall performance and training from week to week.”
The top Saskatchewan units are selected for their work on special projects during the training year, which are evaluated by zone training officers. Capt. Melanie Sittler, the training officer for Tarry Squadron, said there are certain criteria that will earn squadrons more points during this evaluation.
“Typically, the zone training officers follow a matrix and you get certain points for participating in certain activities, because there's local activities, zone activities and provincial activities,” she explained. “So the broader the program you're providing, the more points you qualify for.”
The 2019-20 training year was different from any other year, because squadrons were faced with the additional challenge of adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tarry Squadron was therefore recognized for some activities that took place prior to the pandemic, including the marksmanship and biathlon programs.
“We had a very robust marksmanship program and we've got our cadets shooting the air rifles,” she said. “We had great success with that, and had we not been shut down, our cadets would have advanced to provincials, which was a first for us. We were also able to offer a really good biathlon program and we had two brand new first year cadets who had never done any shooting or biathlon activities before who actually made it to the provincial level. So that counted in our favour as well.”
Swift Current Airport Manager Todd Schultz volunteered to conduct a weekly ground school program to cadets, which was another aspect of a well-rounded program offered to cadets.
“For the first time we had four cadets that passed their pre-qualification exams to go onward, and actually three of them were tentatively accepted for either a glider flying scholarship program last year, which unfortunately had to be cancelled due to COVID,” Kurtz said.
The cadet units in the province went into standdown in March 2020 due to the pandemic, and Tarry Squadron’s response earned additional points towards winning the award as top air cadet squadron.
“When we went into standdown, lots of squadrons didn't carry on,” Sittler said. “We didn't do that. We kept going, and we kept providing a virtual platform. We actually had new cadets join in September, even though we were virtual. Most of them were siblings of cadets that were already in the program, but we had an increase in enrolment nonetheless.”
Tarry Squadron shifted to a virtual platform to continue activities through Zoom meetings. They soon got back to a regular meeting schedule and developed various activities to keep cadets engaged.
“We've been allowed to deviate from our standard training program in order to keep cadets engaged, and it's given us opportunities to provide them with a really interesting and dynamic virtual program,” she said. “We'll be happy to abandon that to go back to in-person training, but for now it's necessary and they seem to enjoy it.”
The transition was a challenge at first, but Sittler soon started to see growing participation and an improvement in the content and delivery of the virtual lessons.
“We've been very fortunate in that we've had a great group of cadets and parents support to keep these cadets involved in this virtual interaction,” she said. “While the cadets and all of us look forward to meeting again in person, we enjoy almost 100 per cent participation on a weekly basis with our Zoom meetings. We haven't lost any cadets due to the pandemic. In fact, I think it sort of fortified the group and they remain committed and the training just gets better and better and more creative.”
There was a brief period in the fall when the squadron had a few in-person parade nights as well as a Saturday training event for marksmanship and survival activities. All these in-person activities took place in strict compliance with public health regulations.
The virtual training activities have been very diverse to ensure the cadets will remain engaged. It included a few online movie nights and trivia nights thereafter to test the knowledge of cadets after they watch movies that were selected for historical relevance.
One of the aims of the cadet program is to promote physical fitness. Cadets were therefore given a physical fitness challenge connected to the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. They had to complete 80 kilometres of physical activity in 80 days, which could be done through walking, hiking or biking.
“They kept track on a register and mailed in their results to us after 80 days,” Kurtz said. “That was really good. We had some cadets that far exceeded 80 kilometres, and went to about 150 kilometres.”
There was also a spring virtual camp to give cadets an opportunity to carry out an outdoor activity. They were asked to do an overnight camp in their backyards or at other outdoor locations, and to take pictures and videos of their activities.
“So we had cadets sharing pictures of shelters and some shared campfire cooking recipes,” he said. “We had a cadet that demonstrated how he did water collection, how to start fires, and one of our training officers did a video on how to administer field first aid.”
There were various other activities to cover aspects such as leadership, citizenship, and self-discipline. There was a Christmas challenge with several hands-on activities and they received ballots for each completed activity.
Everyone had to write and mail a Christmas letter to a Canadian Armed Forces member serving overseas as a prerequisite to receive ballots for other activities, which included the creation of aviation themed Christmas tree decorations and carrying out an act of kindness.
They were asked to share their family’s favourite Christmas recipes, which resulted in the creation of a squadron cookbook. They created festive cards based on their favourite Christmas movies, and they were also asked to carry out physical fitness activities with family and to build an outdoor winter shelter, snowman or ice sculpture.
Sittler felt the success of the online training is largely due to the enthusiasm of the senior cadets, who are responsible for most of the virtual presentations.
“We have a very engaged group of senior cadets and I think that is actually the most important feature,” she said. “The group of mentoring cadets is strong, and the lessons they present every week get better and better, and without quality lesson deliveries we wouldn't have been able to maintain it. We have a couple of other people that do presentations with our training staff and our senior cadets. I believe that really has been our secret to success and actually part of the reason we got recognized, because in the past we had very high participation with our group and we've been able to maintain that.”