West African deployment a “once-in-a-lifetime” journey

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Crowsnest - Spring 2017 / April 26, 2017

By Darlene Blakeley

For the first time in many years the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has deployed ships to West Africa, providing crew members with the rare opportunity to support joint training and foster relationships in the Gulf of Guinea region.

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Moncton and Summerside left Halifax in mid-February and will return home in early May. Port visits by the two maritime coastal defence vessels during the deployment, dubbed Neptune Trident 17-01, aim to improve cooperation among participating nations in order to increase maritime safety and security in the area. They include the Canary Islands, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire.

“The officers and sailors of HMC Ships Summerside and Moncton will be exceptional ambassadors of Canada during this important work in West Africa,” says Rear-Admiral John Newton, Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic. “Neptune Trident is an extraordinary opportunity for the operational competencies of the RCN to be used in a capacity-building undertaking in an area of stated interest by the Government of Canada. Already, we have learned so much from the planning of this deployment and through staff visits with African counterparts, and we look forward to building on the lessons learned from the deployment.”

Moncton and Summerside are engaging in activities ranging from defence diplomacy to force generation, as well as training exercises with allied navies and activities designed to build confidence with partner nations.

But the deployment also has a very human side to it.

For crew members, it is a unique opportunity to not only practise their seagoing skills with allies, but to closely engage with the communities they will be visiting.

Each of the ship’s commanding officers has special and deeply personal visions of what the deployment means to them.

An often forgotten relationship

Lieutenant-Commander Paul Smith, captain of HMCS Summerside and the first black person to command an RCN warship, is excited to visit local communities and build relationships by working at orphanages and hosting local government and community leaders onboard the ship.

A highlight for LCdr Smith was in Sierra Leone, where he was eager to draw attention to the often forgotten relationship between the country and Nova Scotia. Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, was settled in 1792 by freed slaves known as the Nova Scotian settlers. Their influences, families and historical sites are still there today. He saw the “Cotton Tree”, which was the first prayer location for the settlers, the Nova Scotian churches that still exist in Freetown, and the King Tom cemetery. 

“It’s a Commonwealth graveyard that has three Canadian soldiers and two Canadian sailors buried there from the Second World War,” says LCdr Smith. “It was an honour to present a wreath on behalf of Canada and the RCN.”

Freetown was also influenced by escaped slaves from Jamaica called the Jamaican Maroons. “I'm Jamaican by birth and I live in Nova Scotia, so it was perfect,” he says. “I was pleased to represent the black Canadian community and see the commonalities within the different communities. Too often we focus on the differences.”

LCdr Smith says he is “ecstatic” to be able to help represent the RCN on the deployment, not only from a personal perspective, but from a professional standpoint as well. “The RCN is a globally deployable force that works with international allies and partner navies to develop relationships, friendships and ultimately, trust,” he says. “Western Africa is an area where we will strengthen already established relationships, as well as learn what it is like to operate in its maritime environment.”

A once-in-a-lifetime journey

As one of only a couple of current female commanders of an RCN vessel, LCdr Nicole Robichaud, captain of HMCS Moncton, is also “deeply honoured” to be leading her crew on this deployment.

“Being appointed commanding officer of HMCS Moncton has been the highlight of my career,” she says. “Now to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime journey with an incredible crew, knowing that we are going to make a difference, is nothing but amazing.”

LCdr Robichaud is particularly interested in working with the area’s young women during the deployment.

“In Dakar, Sierra Leone and Liberia, I participated in round table discussions with local young women,” she explains. “In most locations, senior women leaders such as ambassadors and heads of women’s organizations chaired the meetings and participated in the discussions. The visit to Liberia follows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit where he discussed female empowerment. To be able to meet, discuss and learn how women are overcoming adversity and promoting equal rights so that future generations of women can succeed is truly an honour. I have been fortunate throughout my career. If I can share my story and offer even a bit of inspiration to a young girl, I will be delighted.”

These discussions included organizations such as the Adolescent Girls Network and STEM Women. The Adolescent Girls Network is a group of committed, local and international organizations that aim to develop programs that empower adolescent girls with health, social and cognitive assets, protect their human rights and elevate their status in their communities, in particular delaying age at marriage and childbearing. STEM is a platform for women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math in Sierra Leone, seeking to increase the participation of women and improve education in these fields. 

Moncton also worked extensively with CODE, Canada’s leading international development agency uniquely focused on advancing literacy and education. Crew members read to children and assisted in building and stocking a library in Freetown.

While deployed, Summerside and Moncton, along with a detachment of personnel from the Maritime Tactical Operations Group (MTOG), also participated in exercise Obangame Express 2017, an at-sea maritime training event led by U.S. Naval Forces Africa. MTOG worked with regional partners to support joint training for maritime interdiction which aims to delay, disrupt, or destroy criminal or enemy forces or supplies en route at sea.

Obangame, which means “togetherness”, comes from the Fang language of southern Cameroon and other parts of Central Africa.

The exercise took place in the Gulf of Guinea with signatory nations of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct and involved numerous African partners including Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Cabo Verde, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe, and Togo.

The visit to West Africa has been a deployment like few others. Long after the business of navies working together has concluded, crew members will have lasting memories of the people: playing basketball with the children, assisting with literacy programs, empowering young women, showing visitors around the ships, hosting barbecues, planting trees and immersing themselves in a unique and all-encompassing culture.

A once-in-a-lifetime journey indeed.