Behind the uniform: the people and families of CFB Esquimalt
A closer look at some of the people who staff the Pacific Fleet
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A closer look at some of the people who staff the Pacific Fleet
Capital Daily’s educational series spotlighting Canada’s Navy is supported by Babcock Canada but the stories and journalism are produced independently by Capital Daily. Per our policy, Babcock Canada had no editorial input into this story.
Though military service demands a certain degree of conformity, the people that make up the Royal Canadian Navy come from all walks of life. Though it’s slow moving at times, the Canadian Armed Forces has been working to implement change in the ranks to make sure people of all identities are welcome.
The Capital caught up with three members of the Royal Canadian Navy who work out of CFB Esquimalt to talk about their work, their lives, and their experiences within the Navy.
Commander Lorraine Sammut sits in the lush backyard of her Langford home. It’s a June evening, and she’s spending it caring for her two young daughters after a day of work. Her husband, Paul, has been deployed on HMCS Calgary since February. He won’t be home until September, when the frigate and its crew return from a series of international missions in the Middle East and the South China Sea.
Until then, she’s balancing work and parenthood solo – no easy feat.
“Having children has really taught me a lot about perspective and patience. And I think I am immensely better at what I do [because of it],” Sammut said.
Originally from Alliston, Ontario, Sammut signed up for the Army reserves with a friend when she finished high school.
“In being completely honest, I had absolutely zero aspirations to join the military,” Sammut said with a laugh.
When a recruiter came along to the reserves, she signed up half-heartedly with little intention of following through. When the call came, she ended up agreeing to serve, and went through training at the Royal Military College of Canada.
The Army was never a point of passion for Sammut, but that stint didn’t last long. The same friend that originally encouraged her to join up came back from a summer sailing regatta with stars in her eyes, telling Sammut she had to join the Navy. She was able to transfer, and hasn’t looked back since. She’s been a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for 26 years, and has risen through the ranks to hold a number of prominent roles.
“It has been amazing. I have never had a job that I haven't liked,” Sammut said.
Sammut currently works as the Chief of Staff Communications & Information Warfare. The job involves policy interpretation and information security, and she oversees a team of 40 people. Though she likes her desk job, her real passion comes from navigating warships.
Her career highlight was as the Executive Officer of HMCS Winnipeg, and then HMCS Calgary. On Navy ships, the "XO" is second-in-command, overseeing a team of 250 sailors as well as Air Force and Army personnel.
“Nothing kind of tops that so far ... because that is an all encompassing experience,” Sammut said.
She was also an aide-de-camp to two past Lieutenant Governors of British Columbia: Steven Point and Judith Guichon. It’s an experience she describes as a “complete privilege.”
Sammut takes great pride in her ability to balance her career with the additional titles of mom, and wife.
“My greatest achievements in life are my children,” Sammut said.
She’s quick to emphasize that all parents, in and out of uniform, struggle with their work-life balance. There are sacrifices to be made, she says, and her and husband have both made them. In the Armed Forces, though, those sacrifices can sometimes be out of your control.
“What maybe differentiates being a military mom, is that we are at the beck and call of our service,” Sammut said.
Last time she was deployed, she was gone for four and a half months. She says the uncertainty is the most difficult part.
Sammut says the biggest misconception about life in the armed forces she’s encountered is that because she’s a woman, people assume she’s been mistreated or been the victim of sexism or abuse. Though she has encountered some instances of sexism throughout her time in the force, she says, she's always felt empowered enough to stop it in its tracks. In her time, she’s seen more and more women come up through the ranks.
It’s a shift in culture that Sammut says is needed, because of the compassion and empathy that she sees women bringing to the table.
“It actually empowers others, the opposite gender included, to be more open, to speak freely, to not hide ideas. And we're just starting. There's a wave that we have happening in our organization right now. And it is just starting to take off and it's beautiful to see, because we're not quite yet where we need to be. But we're getting there,” Sammut said.
Lyne enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces right out of high school. It seemed like a natural fit. She’d been involved with cadets since a young age, and her parents couldn’t afford to send all four of their children to university. She had inherited a love of tinkering with technology from her dad, skills that were easily put to use in the Navy. Plus, she wanted to see the world. After 32 years, she can proudly say she’s seen quite a bit of it.
“I've been literally around the world. One six month trip, we went on, we sailed west and kept sailing west for the whole trip,” said Edmondson.
On that trip alone, she stopped in Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Qatar, Dubai, Bahrain, France, Greece, Italy, the Caribbean, and then through the Panama Canal and back up the west coast of North America.
“It was amazing. People ask me what my best trip was, and that's it,” said Edmondson.
Her day to day job involves bridging the gap between projects developed in Ottawa and the base in Esquimalt. Her team makes sure that the new capabilities that come from Ottawa, like the new Harry DeWolf class Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, can be integrated into the functions of the base.
In 32 years of service, she’s watched a lot of things change in the culture of the Armed Forces. For one, she was around when women were allowed to work in all areas of the military, back in 1989. From her vantage point, the Armed Forces has adapted over the years to take better care of its workers.
“There's more of an inclination to think of people first. We know we're going to do our job to the best we can. But we need to take care of people,” Edmondson said.
Edmondson has seen that support first-hand. She’s a transgender woman, and she began her transition in 2017. Both then and now, she’s held positions of leadership and authority within the ranks, most notably the rank of Chief Petty Officer Second Class (CPO2).
When she came to fully understand her gender identity and realize the changes she wanted to make, she went straight to her Command Chiefs. The Base Chief then helped her find support within the organization. Edmondson says the process of coming out to her co-workers helped her make sense of her own story.
“It was the series of telling my story, and getting better and better at it. Getting more and more comfortable. Telling my truth, not living a lie. Not living someone that I felt that I wasn't inside,” Edmondson said.
She’s found that she could lean on her rank as a source of both internal and external strength to get her through when times get tough. She says it affords her a certain amount of privilege to be herself.
“Being confident in front of a bunch of people that knew me, but you know, me telling them that I've been a woman all my life, and I need you to start treating me like that was pretty significant. I needed the strength of that Chief to do that,” said Edmondson.
She’s found leadership in her identity on the LGBTQ2+ spectrum, too. Edmondson works as a facilitator for the Positive Spaces program, which provides training to make places more inclusive for LGBTQ2S+ people. She’s also a member of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Defence Team Pride Advisory Organization.
Recently, she led the charge to have the Pride flag raised in three spots on the base for the full week of Pride last year. That was the first time the Pride flag had ever stayed up for longer than a day.
Edmonson says that acceptance for LGBTQ2+ individuals within the Armed Forces has come a long way. When she first joined, there was the common belief within the organization that gay and queer members of the force were a weak link that could be exploited by Canada’s enemies.
“A lot of people were treated really, really badly. And were forced to potentially get out. Or were kicked out,” said Edmondson.
Now, she’s one of many LGBTQ2+ people on the base.
Edmondson says that though things have improved, there’s still quite a way to go.There is an ongoing review of the CAF’s uniform policies, and healthcare coverage for trans people isn’t uniform across the country. The culture within the ranks can also be slow to change.
“The way that we celebrate LGBTQ2+ people, and their strengths that they bring to the table, I think can be increased throughout our formation,” Edmondson said.
“We're not all black and white. We need to give each other a little space. But we need to acknowledge the people that are in front of us. ... The great strides that we've done so far, we need to keep going, because we're not done.”
Stephen Morrison has been with the Canadian Armed Forces since 1985, and the Navy since 1991. He’s held a number of jobs, but at the moment, Morrison is working in the Naval Training Development Center, trialing sophisticated technology like HoloLens augmented reality. When he’s out on deployment, he works as a radar operator.
“It is [interesting] until you're in the middle of the ocean staring at a radar screen and there's nothing out there and you're not doing anything. You're just crazy. And then it's like, oh my God. That's not enough coffee,” Morrison said with a laugh.
“There’s times I hate my job, times I love my job. I've had a hell of a diverse career.”
Morrison’s work with the Navy has taken him everywhere: five trips through the Panama Canal, once through the Suez Canal, the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean.
It’s also taken him all across Canada, including the northern territories. On a stint in Calgary, he was assigned to be the diversity recruiter for all of southern Alberta, the east Kootenays, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. In that role, he spent two years travelling around to different reserves and First Nations.
“Just everywhere I went showed me the resilience of people and how open their hearts were, especially going to the different Nations,” Morrison said.
Though the hiring manager didn’t know it when they assigned him the role, Morrison is Métis. His great-great-grandfather Louis Schmidt was a college contemporary of Louis Riel. His great-grandfather greeted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during the Royal Visit to Calgary in 1939. Several of his family members have also served in the military.
As Morrison travelled through western and northern Canada recruiting Indigenous people to join the military, he was recognized by many people for his role in the Indigenous military training program Bold Eagle. It’s an intensive summer training program that advertises itself as combining Indigenous culture and teachings with military training. Morrison taught the RAVEN Aboriginal Youth Employment Program, the Navy’s version of Bold Eagle. He says that he’s seen first-hand the positive impacts of those programs.
“I meet band counselors and employees, tribal police, fire department, paramedics, general workers, who got their start because they went on Bold Eagle or Raven or one of the other Indigenous courses we have now. And it showed them there was something besides the despair that they have from being on reserve. It gives them a brighter view,” Morrison said.
Morrison is also the National Military Co-Chair of the Defense Aboriginal Advisory Group. It’s an elected position, and he works with a team to advise top military brass on all aspects of Indigenous employment equity across the entire Department of National Defense. Morrison acknowledges that working to create change within a federal agency can be slow going.
“There's a lot of hurt out there. A lot of people are angry. This past couple of weeks have been really hard,” Morrison said.
Though there are many difficulties, he sees the bright side of his work and believes in the ability of the Armed Forces to adapt and work towards accepting people of all backgrounds.
“I think I'm in that spot now, nationally, to be the bridge between the cultures. Because I think we have to be. There's too many people who are angry on both sides. There's a lot of polarization. And there's nobody talking. You can't change things without talking.”
Correction on July 12 at 4 pm: An earlier version of this story said that Commander Lorraine Sammut had never encountered sexism during her time in the armed forces, when she had. The story has been reflected to change that.