Yellowknifers pick up accolades for all sorts of things. Sailor of the year in the Royal Canadian Navy is not normally one of them.
Jesse Roberts, a 21-year-old who was born and raised in Yellowknife – around a thousand kilometres from the nearest ocean – has been named the Canadian Pacific fleet’s sailor of the year.
“It was a little bit surprising, to say the least,” Roberts told Cabin Radio.
She works as a boatswain, a role she calls “one of the most diverse” on any ship and the modern-day equivalent of a deckhand. Roberts is responsible for tasks like the rope-handling involved when interacting with other vessels, the management of small arms, and the driving of smaller boats like Zodiacs.
“We tackle everything on board,” she said.
While the NWT has its fair share of maritime industry – barges delivering goods to northern communities by river, research and patrol vessels operating along the Northwest Passage, and fishing on Great Slave Lake being examples – rarely are the territory’s residents associated with the Navy.
Roberts said she signed up on a whim.
“I was born and raised in Yellowknife. I lived there for 18 years of my life,” she said. “When it came to graduation out of high school, I had applied for registered nursing with several universities and I decided I wasn’t ready to make a firm decision about who I wanted to be or what I wanted to do in life.
“I didn’t want to spend four years at a university only to decide that I didn’t want to follow that career path and so, on a spur-of-the-moment random decision, I decided to join the Royal Canadian Navy.
“I couldn’t tell you why.”
‘Achieving something higher’
Several years later, she doesn’t regret that choice, even though she’ll switch to the Naval Reserve later this year when she begins a nursing course at Sprott Shaw College in Victoria.
“I went into this with a very low bar and very low expectation,” she said, “but the Navy is not just a career, it’s not just sailing, it’s so much more than that. It’s been a wonderful organization and I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself and who I am, versus who I want to be, through this job.”
Roberts said the Navy has taken her to countries like Guatemala and Mexico and allowed her to participate in programs like a canoe journey jointly organized by the military and First Nations communities.
According to Roberts, her selection as the Canadian Pacific fleet’s sailor of the year recognized that she had performed her duties “to an exceptional level,” accomplishing tasks usually required of sailors who have been doing the job for five or more years.
“It was a huge step,” she said, describing taking on leadership roles and volunteering to work with cadets.
“If anything, it’s just being in a position where I am expected to perform the bare minimum but achieving something much higher than that.”
In all of that, though, did she meet any other sailors from the NWT?
“There was one gentleman, like, three years ago,” she recalled.
“I don’t remember his name any more, but he had gone to Sir John Franklin High School as well. And we talked a little bit about Yellowknife. I haven’t seen him since.
“It does happen – but it’s very rare.”