DIDSBURY — The new commander of the Didsbury 3025 Service Battalion Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps says the cost-free program provides youth with the tools that will enable them to become responsible and engaged citizens.
Previously serving the cadet corps for more than six years as the deputy commanding officer as well as the chief training officer, Capt. Todd MacDonald, who on Saturday, April 23 was officially sworn in during a change of command ceremony at the Didsbury Elks Hall, said, “Our primary focus is teamwork. It’s foundational. They can take the skills that they learn from us on teamwork and leadership and esprit de corps, and they can utilize that in different aspects.”
That could include everything from school sports to future career paths and everything in between, MacDonald said on Tuesday, April 26 during an interview, adding the choice is ultimately up to each individual cadet.
“We’re not teaching them to be soldiers,” he said. “We’re teaching them to be team players.”
The ceremony was presided over by Lt.-Col. Graham Longhurst, the Commanding Officer for 41 service Battalion out of Calgary. Longhurst joined the Army Cadets at age 13, along the way taking part in numerous activities including exchanges to the U.K. and Germany.
The program eventually led him to pursue a military career that spanned from tours in Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Sudan as part of a U.N. mission as well as a deployment in Afghanistan as a logistics mentor with the Kabul Military Training Centre and later in Kosovo as part of the NATO mission to build stability in that war-torn country.
“It was quite an honour to have him there,” said MacDonald, who stepped in as the Didsbury Army Cadets’ commanding officer following a term by Capt. Tim Kaczmarski, who has been involved with the program for more than two decades.
Kaczmarski remains onboard with the Didsbury cadet corps’ and steps into MacDonald’s former roles as deputy commanding officer and chief training officer.
COVID-19 shrinks membership
Asked how the Didsbury Army Cadets have fared through the past couple of years during the pandemic, MacDonald said membership was hit hard.
“We dropped off significantly,” he said.
Prior to COVID-19 prompting sweeping public health measures to stem the spread of the virus, the cadets had more than 40 members.
But that number has since dropped to the low 30s, he said, adding a few aged out of the program after turning19 but that others left largely through attrition when the program had few options available but to go virtual.
“They didn’t want to be online,” he said. “You can’t blame them. Who wants to march online?”
Videos are certainly helpful in teaching students and introducing them to new information. But a pre-recorded lesson on a screen simply cannot replace the physical presence and human interaction of a knowledgeable instructor who can help cadets understand where they might be making a mistake with, for example, tying a tricky knot, he said.
People tend to not only learn but especially retain information better by doing, as opposed to just hearing or seeing, he said.
And practising parade routines by webcam also had little appeal for the members, he said.
“How do you exercise turns and marching procedures,” he asked, rhetorically. “You can’t do that online.”
Back to in-person meetings
Fortunately, he said the cadets have for more than a month been able to resume in-person gatherings.
“But with very strict protocols,” he added. “Masking is mandatory, so is spacing.”
So, while there are still no parade marches, which require close proximity, the cadets can still practise what is known as a static parade, which was how the change of command ceremony was conducted, he said.
“The cadets were in position, maximizing out the space,” he said.
During Thursday training sessions, he said the cadets are able to do in-person drills, but in their own six-foot by six-foot bubbles within which they perform their maneuvers.
The Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps’ high command is approaching the relaxation of pandemic restrictions from what MacDonald called a “crawl, walk, run” philosophy.
“Right now, we’re in crawl moving into walk. So, we’re very careful,” he said. “Their biggest concern is for the health and safety of cadets and their families. We don’t want kids bringing home something from cadets. And we can appreciate that, and we stick by that.”
Depending on how the number of cases and hospitalizations continue to trend, he anticipates further easing of measures over the coming months.
“But right now, everything is generated out of Ottawa,” he said, adding the situation remains unpredictable and changes weekly.
Responsible and engaged citizens
Responding to a question about what he most enjoys about the program, MacDonald said he relishes the opportunity to see as the cadets mature and embark on a path to become responsible, self-respecting adults and engaged citizens who take pride not only in their country but also their community.
“It really does your heart good,” he said, adding parents will also express appreciation for the positive influence on their children’s lives.
Getting involved in the cadets also provides participants an opportunity to develop teamwork and leadership skills without having to play sports that they might not otherwise be able to get into because of either physical or financial constraints, he said.
“It’s all about the team. We call it esprit de corps,” he said, which loosely translates from French as ‘group morale.’
With family roots connecting him to this area, MacDonald, whose grandmother was born in Didsbury, said from a personal perspective that being involved with the cadets gives him a chance to contribute back to the lives of the community’s future leaders, movers and shakers.
He expressed gratitude for being able to be part of an effort to leave a legacy of encouraging youth to strive to be the best versions of themselves, which he considers an investment in the future.
“I think that’s the most inspiring thing for me,” he said. “In the cadets, there are no limitations,” he said, adding that famous retired Canadian astronaut, engineer and fighter pilot Col. Chris Hadfield — among many other renowned and influential Canadians — was once a cadet.
So, MacDonald is glad to see there are adolescents from throughout the surrounding area coming to take advantage of the program, and hopes to see more.
“And the really cool thing is, it doesn’t cost the cadets or their families anything,” he said. “This is a free program — everything’s paid for.”