The Legacy of Command

MARLANT - Admiral's View / April 5, 2017

By Rear-Admiral John Newton, Commander Joint Task Force Atlantic and Maritime Forces Atlantic

I got thinking that the best gift that the outgoing base commander could have probably offered his loyal and supportive staff would have been a snow day.

Mother nature has been encouraging a late March snow day all week, but sadly it could not reach that threshold of complete misery, cold and icy wind, power failure and peril on the highways.

I have grown to like snow days. I know they are disruptive and throw off production at FMF Cape Scott and therefore the operational readiness of the fleet,

But for every snow day, or unplanned leave day let’s say, you get about three months of free parking.

I know its a cruel joke, but as I think back on Captain Sutherland’s tour, his most memorable legacy may very well be that he worked the base out of a pay for parking scheme into an taxable benefit, halving by at least the seemingly unfair monthly fee levied on service-personnel who are posted to this urban base.

I do love referring to Halifax as an urban base. I like to think that we are one of the very few in Canada.  It makes us unique in so many ways and enrichens the posting experience.

To start, I want everybody to understand that soldiers and sailors have worked in the heart of this city since the beginning of time. It was sailors who garrisoned the city at first and then soldiers, but always from barracks and military property holdings that we now call a Base.

The city grew around the Base, and in the competition for land for industry, commerce, transportation networks, residential neighborhoods and recreation, the base has been a key element of development proposals by civic planners and residents.

I would like to think that the big base is a stabilizing influence on the clash of forces in a city in full development, and service personnel are key representatives of Halifax’ identity, something that should make all Haligonians proud as they reflect on their city’s place in greater Canada.

Indeed, the service personnel of this base were front and centre in the story of tragedy and recovery in the Halifax explosion, a point well worth noting in this 100th anniversary year of an epic national story, when the Great War washed ashore.

Service personnel who call Halifax home, have been called to serve in conflict time and again, representing Canadians and their interests in the Battle of the Atlantic that came right into the harbour, in Korea when our ships deployed from Halifax, in the liberation of Kuwait when our fleet deployed in August 1990, and following the terrorist strikes of 9/11.

Time and again, sailors, airmen and women, and soldiers have deployed from Halifax to places distant, sometimes in support of fellow Canadians even, in times of great peril and need - repaying what Boston did for Halifax in 1916 in Louisana following hurricane Katrina for instance, or bringing aid to devastation following earthquake in Haiti.

This is indeed an amazing Base.  Possibly one of the most unique and largest in the country. 

The military buildings, properties, ships and aircraft are highly visible everywhere you turn. They exude Canadian technology, wealth and prosperity, and a clear interest by our government to protect all that which makes Canada great.

Service personnel proudly wear their uniforms in this city without discrimination or hatred directed at them. 

Respect is earned and sustained, not just by operations overseas, it is sustained because the big base is a good neighbor, an environmental steward, a benevolent force in charity, a builder of new infrastructure, and contractor of local labour and service providers.

The Base is an economic force providing a foundation of prosperity in this city through service contracts, civilian employment, military salaries, supply chain contracting, academic programs, taxes and even shipbuilding to recapitalize the fleet we have.

And much of this, directly or indirectly, and the relationships that are necessitated, are the purview of the base commander.  He has an outward looking responsibility to ensure we remain a good neighbor, and to promote at all turns a better outcome in the various port and civic issues that arise. 

He participates in societal endeavor as a director for the United Way, and through this secondary duty, tunes himself to the culture, stresses and realities of the lives of all peoples, especially our neighbours.

The Base Commander also has the responsibility to serve the health, morale and welfare needs of 10,000  service personnel and their families, and host military capabilities not even under his command like hospitals, schools of the navy, air bases, ranges and ammunition depots. 

Its an odd relationship, other people in distant places like Ottawa control the money, yet the Base Commander is left delivering the service or defending the policy.

Admittedly, some of these military activities like training ranges and depots, airfields and ports don’t make for good neighbors so the work of the Base Commander is not easy. It is he who we push to the microphone to defend our departmental and Canadiuan Armed Forces plans, our proposals, and our strategies to manage complex issues where there is no straightforward and easy solution.

Consequently, its very sad to say goodbye to someone who has gracefully and eagerly led a very complex business line, integrating effectively into the team comprising operational planners, readiness staffs, ship’s crews, ship repair unit, health care professionals, navy schools, and supply chain management.

I thank Captain Sutherland for his leadership – I wish he could have stayed longer.  I applaud the Base under Chris’ leadership for our national success hosting of Inter-American Naval Conference in June 2016. This event significantly contributed to professional and cooperative maritime security efforts in the western hemisphere. 

As the Chief of Defence Staff dug into changing the culture of sexual misconduct, Chris was working on a Positive Space initiative, educating on respect and tolerance.  He sought out and repatriated initiatives from the University of Ottawa and facilitated our first organized representation in the Pride parade. 

Chris also focused his personal efforts on mental wellness, and promoted a host of initiatives to tune the many and varied resources we have to support those who are struggling, oft times, using his own very personal life story to defeat the forces of stigmatization that come at a sufferer from all angles.

While its bad enough leading such a large and diverse enterprise, it gets even more difficult when you continually look for efficiencies, change organizational structures, and centralize various nation-wide initiatives like compensation and benefits, and real property management, and the naval training system for instance. 

And just because it gets hard when all the talk and theory of change ends, and real progressive steps of transformation are commenced, the commander can’t wince and oppose, hurl I told you so’s, and complain.

Real leadership starts in jobs like that held by the Base Commander, Fleet Commander, Ship Repair Unit Commander - they must work as a team, so that an issue in one part doesn’t cause a debilitating effect in another.

Captain Sutherland integrated exceptionally well into the senior leadership team and collaborated effectively at all turns.  He will be missed, it was a pleasure to serve with him, and his mark was made on real change, improved conditions, better personnel services, and increased readiness of the Fleet.

Thank you Chris for your efforts and success, and for reflecting great credit on the Canadian Armed Forces in Halifax.

Nobody trains our leaders to lead civilians and military alike in such complex endeavor.

You learn how to do it well if you have an open mind, listen well, develop your patience, and willingness to compromise.

You must learn to work beyond policy restrictions and to bend authoritarian approaches to consensus and collaboration.

Captain Paul Forget will take the reins of the Base like all those who have come before him and humbly start the process of leading one of the most rewarding command appointments in the Canadian Armed Forces.

He will soon realize that the Base is as responsible as any other military capability for the operational readiness of the Royal Canadian Navy fleet, and maritime helicopters that fly out of Shearwater, or the soldiers in the many Reserve units of the region.

And as a senior commander, he will intuitively know what to do to play his role in optimizing the operational readiness of the Canadian Armed Forces, to provide the best support in the country to the families of our personnel, and remain an exceptional neighbor to our civic and provincial colleagues, and kind people of Halifax.

Paul has ample foundation after a year as my Chief of Staff, he is a friend, shipmate and close colleague to all of us here in the small family of the navy, with strong community links through family, children and sport.

Paul, congratulations and thank you for taking on this great responsibility.