Mike Poitras will be a long way from home this Christmas. Then again, home is wherever the Canadian Armed Forces has seen fit to send him throughout his 17-year career. A master corporal in the Lord Strathcona's Light Horse, an armored regiment, Poitras is currently serving as a peacekeeper in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia. This is his second peacekeeping tour of duty in Bosnia, and his third overall.
The 36-year-old Poitras, a Cree from Balcarres who is a member of the Muscowpetung First Nation, now considers Edmonton, Alta. his home because this is where his regiment is stationed.
But on Christmas Day, home will be Camp Holopina Coralici in Bosnia. The Lord Strathcona's Light Horse has about 900 personnel, with about 10 of them of Aboriginal ancestry. Of those 10, three are from Saskatchewan. They include Master Cpl. Donna Poole, from Carry the Kettle Band, and Warrant Officer Larry Derkson, from the Peepeekisis First Nation. Master Cpl. Artis White is from the Little Red River First Nation in Alberta.
Bosnia-Herzegovina saw some of the most vicious fighting between the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim peoples when the country of Yugoslavia began to break up in the early 1990's. Canada immediately pledged peacekeeping forces under a United Nations mandate. But the war continued even in the presence of the UN troops, because their presence was allowed only with the goodwill of all three warring parties. In 1997, NATO pledged combat troops to help enforce a peace. New rules of engagement were ordered that allowed the troops to defend themselves and others more quickly than before. Since the arrival of the NATO troops, the war has simmered down, but not disappeared.
Poitras explained that, on the surface, a typical day for him is not much different than anyone else with a steady job. He gets up, has his breakfast, puts in his hours and goes to bed. A typical day, that is, until you realize his job is in the middle of a war zone. Because of that, the peacekeepers have to be aware of the dangers around them.
"You don't go off the roads, period, [because of] mines and booby traps," he said. "If you decide to go off a route . . . you could hit a trip wire and there's a big anti-tank mine that will kill you and everybody else."
The Bosnians have developed symbols, such as a boot on a stick, a small pyramid of rocks, or grass tied into a bundle to indicate mine fields. The trick, he said, is to learn these symbols. Even though it's just easier not to leave a hard standing road, Poitras has, on one occasion, walked through a mine field without knowing it.
Another part of the job involves keeping an eye on the locals to make sure no new hostilities are breaking out.
"What we get is a lot of gunfire that we have to go and investigate," said Poitras. In Bosnia "gunfire goes along with partying and marriages. There's all kinds of that going on. They know that we'll investigate and use [gunfire] to bluff us."
He said that when the war was going on, everyone and everything was a target.
"It was a free for all."
Poitras is stationed in the northern part of Bosnia, which is a mountainous area. This increases the danger that he's in because the roads are small, and, in winter, it's really slow going.
Another part of the job is repatriating families to towns they were chased out of during the periods of "ethnic cleansing." Most of the towns have been blasted to nothing and there's very little for these people to return to. But there's the problem with the people who have moved into these homes and who don't want to vacate them for the returning families. Poitras said that the people currently living in the houses will burn them down to prevent the returning families from getting them. It's another thing to watch out for, he said, because a large amount of wood stacked up against a house usually means it's going to get torched and the peacekeepers have to prevent that.
But life in Bosnia is not without its share of funny moments either. Poitras said that there's a need for humor to keep the peacekeepers sane, and this usually means practical jokes are common. Humor, too, can be found when it's not intended.
"An officer once said 'be careful because it's Indian Country out there,'" said Poitras. "And then he looked right at me and tried to apologize."
Culture too helps keep Poitras sane. He set up a sweat lodge in the camp for himself and the other Aboriginal soldiers. It has become necessary when he realizes that he's trying to keep people from killing him or each other, and that's he's on the other side of the world at Christmas.
Of course, being in far off places is just part of the job when you're in the Canadian Armed Forces. Poitras admitted that as a teenager he was headed for trouble. It was a judge who gave him a choice between jail or the military. It was a moment that changed his life.
The military is "a good trade for anyone who's sitting on the streets and there's nothing else to do," he said. But he added that completing high school is necessary because of the competition to join the Forces. The rewards, however, far outweigh any draw backs. He's been to Europe and Cyprus, as well as all over Canada. He now works on computers and other high-tech equipment.
"It's a guaranteed 20-year job with a good salary and all the benefits," he said. "It saved me from a life of crime.
"And if I hadn't gone to Germany, I wouldn't of met my wife."