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Sep1TueFrom recovery to reclaiming his Indigenous identity, Cameron Eggie is growing in Army leadership. September 1, 2020 by Giselle Randall
(Above) Cameron Eggie is the executive director of The Salvation Army’s Northern Centre of Hope in Fort St. John, B.C. (Photos: Hope Linzee Photography)
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Cameron Eggie was a transitional housing caseworker at The Salvation Army’s Gateway of Hope in Langley, B.C., when the chaplain at the time, Major Henri Regamey, encouraged him to explore chaplaincy, and mentored him in the process. While completing a certificate in chaplaincy and spiritual care at Booth University College, Eggie was hired at Vancouver Harbour Light on the Downtown Eastside.
“On my first day, Major Regamey introduced me to everyone,” says Eggie. “But he didn’t start with the staff—he took me outside to the food line. There were about 200-300 people standing in line for a meal, and he walked me through, shaking every single person’s hand.”
As Eggie has grown in leadership within The Salvation Army, that introduction has stayed with him. “It really helped shape my idea of what The Salvation Army is all about,” says Eggie. “Beyond our programs and systems, we’re here for this long lunch line of people.”
Today, Eggie is the executive director of the Army’s Northern Centre of Hope in Fort St. John, B.C., where he serves along with his wife, Tatjana.
“The Salvation Army is an organization with the capacity and depth to help in so many different situations,” he says. “And it’s encouraging to know the community wants us here—it makes you want to do good work.”
Eggie is from Selkirk, Man., a small city just outside Winnipeg. Once a settlement of the Peguis First Nation, the government relocated the reserve about 175 kilometres north in 1907. Eggie’s great-grandfather was forced to choose between losing his status, friends and cultural identity or moving to the distant reserve. He chose to stay.
In the mid ’90s, Canada determined that the surrender of this land was invalid, and that restitution was necessary. While Eggie has status as a member of the Peguis First Nation, he didn’t grow up with a strong sense of his cultural heritage.
“I was disconnected,” he says. “I didn’t have some of the same struggles as others my age whose families did move onto the reserve and I was told, ‘You’re a success.’ ”
They lived in a low-income neighbourhood, and many of his friends were involved with drugs and alcohol. With aspirations of becoming a police officer, though, he managed to keep it at arm’s length. But when he was 19, he fell while rollerblading, breaking his femur and hip. He was in and out of a wheelchair for almost a year.
“It ended my hopes of law enforcement,” he says. “I was angry, bored and didn’t care anymore, so I started using drugs and alcohol.”
Hoping for a fresh start, Eggie moved to Langley, B.C., where a cousin lived. Things were better for a while, until he reconnected with a friend from back home.
“He had never left that scene,” he says. “I made bad choices, and it was a fast downward spiral. Soon it wasn’t a choice anymore, and I was deeply entrenched in addiction.”
For just over two years, Eggie tried to hide what was going on from his family and friends.
“Nothing was falling apart on the outside—I never got to the place of unemployment or homelessness,” he says. “But I felt like a piece of garbage, because my entire life was made up of lies. It was a mountain of shame that I just couldn’t carry anymore.”
One night, he finally realized he needed to ask for help. He called his cousin, whose husband was the director of Teen Challenge B.C., a Christian addiction recovery program.
“I remember telling her, ‘I have a friend and he’s really messed up. He’s wondering if there’s a bed available at Teen Challenge,’ ” he recalls. “And she said, ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ ”
We have a front-row seat to people’s lives and it’s an incredible responsibility, but also an incredible gift.Experiencing Grace
That was a Monday evening. By Friday, he was on his way from Langley to Kelowna to begin the intense 12 to 18-month program.
“That week, I came clean with everyone,” he says. “It broke a lot of trust and relationships, but on that drive, I’d never felt so free—because I wasn’t living under the weight of lies anymore.”
When Eggie arrived, he immediately felt welcomed.
“As soon as I opened the door, someone said, ‘Hey, that’s the new guy,’ and put his arms around me,” he says. “It was the first time I felt acceptance without a transaction. I had nothing to give, and I was still welcomed with a hug.”
It was a powerful example of grace—something he had never truly experienced, even though he grew up going to church.
“The gospel was sold a little cheap: ‘If you just believe in God, you’ll have everything you need,’ ” he says. “It didn’t seem worth pursuing.”
Instead, it was the other way around. Stripped of everything, he met God.
“Living with other broken people who were searching after God—that’s when it became real,” he says. “That’s when it became a relationship.”
A Way of Life
After graduating from Teen Challenge in November 2008, Eggie moved to Chilliwack, B.C., to work for them. In the spring, a friend who worked at a Salvation Army youth shelter told him about a position that had opened up.
“I didn’t know anything about The Salvation Army, and my last job had been as a packaging supervisor for an agricultural company,” he says. “But I met with the director and she really went to bat for me and brought me on. I’m indebted to the Army for taking a chance and believing in me.”
Although shelter work was new to him, it soon became a way of life. After working at the youth shelter for two-and-a-half years, he took a position as a transitional housing caseworker at The Gateway of Hope in Langley. It was there that an officer told him about the Army’s leadership development opportunities.
Eggie started taking social work classes, and then completed the certificate in chaplaincy and spiritual care. After spending a year as a chaplain at Harbour Light, he returned to The Gateway of Hope as the residential services manager and then operations manager.
During this time, he also completed a not-for-profit management course at Booth, the Arrow Leadership Program and began work on a master’s degree in theology and intercultural studies with NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies).
“It’s giving me a space to engage with my culture in a healthy way,” he says. “Like so many, I didn’t know how to integrate my faith and my cultural identity. NAIITS gives us a place to wrestle with some of those things.”
Since 2012, the Army has supported Eggie’s education, providing opportunities to grow and develop as a leader. But it’s the chaplaincy training that has grounded him.
“Sometimes we think we need all our ducks in a row, our programs to be perfect, but we always have the opportunity to talk to someone,” he says. “In our own stories, it’s usually when we came to the end of ourselves that we met God. In The Salvation Army, we get to meet people in similar circumstances every day.
“This is where people can meet God, right here, in this vulnerability, in this brokenness. We have a front-row seat to people’s lives and it’s an incredible responsibility, but also an incredible gift.”
In 2017, another leadership opportunity arose, this time in Fort St. John, B.C., where Eggie and his wife, Tatjana, now serve together as ministry unit leads.
“The Salvation Army’s programs here are vital, because they are one-of-a-kind in the community,” says Eggie. “We have the city’s only registered foodbank, and up to 600 families a month rely on us. We also have the only emergency shelter with attached transitional housing beds in the region.”
In winter, extreme temperatures keep people indoors, so hidden homelessness is a challenge, along with addiction.
“Finding staff and programs to support those unique populations is important, but difficult,” says Eggie. At the beginning, their goal was to become as integrated in the community as possible and re-establish the Army as a significant contributor to local social services.
“We’re trying to remind the public of what we do, and how we’re here to help,” says Eggie.
And it’s working—last Christmas, donations were up more than $50,000, and in the spring the city donated $75,000 to the food bank. The chief of a nearby First Nation also supports the food bank financially.
“He recognizes that the Army is supporting their folks who live off reserve,” says Eggie. “As a member of a First Nation, I feel honoured to serve in this community, as we have a high Indigenous population.”
As a leader, Eggie’s approach is to mentor employees and empower them to make decisions.
“I remember what it’s like to be on the frontlines,” he says. “I think it’s important to question our processes and find out from our staff if there are ways we can make things better.”
One way he’s tried to make things better is in the housing application process, which can be slow.
“When I became a manager, I said, ‘You don’t need to ask me if we can help someone. You need to defend why we can’t,’ ” he says. “It gives people the freedom to move forward and develop their own systems—which helps them grow in confidence.”
This ability to make change at a policy level is one of Eggie’s favourite parts of the job.
“It’s one of my biggest joys in Salvation Army leadership,” he says. “To create positive change and see how it directly impacts the people we serve is so rewarding.”
Hope and Faith
Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it “all hands on deck.” At first, food bank numbers were up, with donations going down.
“In March, we had two employers call to warn us of impending layoffs,” says Eggie. “They wanted to know where to send people.” At the same time, the Army needed to send volunteers home and close the thrift store. Eggie gave the store employees the option to be cross trained at the emergency shelter.
“But after the initial impact, donations rose and the community responded with incredible generosity,” he says.
With health concerns for his wife and a global crisis, the past year has been a challenge. Through it all, Eggie’s faith has deepened.
“It’s been tough, but God has sustained us and we have not lost hope or faith,” he says. “It reminds us of the fragility of life and what we are promised. Our hope is not in the situation changing, but in a God that doesn’t change.”