By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs
St. John, New Brunswick — Cheryl Robertson is a retired educator and enthusiastic volunteer in her home community. Her work, paid and otherwise, earned her an Order of New Brunswick in 2014 – the same year she became Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel of 37 Signal Regiment, a Canadian Army Reserve unit.
The tradition of honoraries, private citizens given military rank and tasked with acting as volunteer advocates of and advisors to their regiments, is a venerable one Canada inherited from Britain. Sir Robert Borden, our eighth prime minister, said honoraries in his time were useful in garnering “the interest and sympathy of gentlemen of position and wealth by connecting them to regiments.”
HLCol Robertson however, is representative of a modern Army growing steadily into one more reflective of the country it is charged with defending. In the following interview, she shares some of the satisfactions of her work so far, offers advice to prospective future honoraries, and discusses the challenge of learning military acronyms.
How did the Honorary appointment come to you?
In the fall of 2012. I received a call from a businesswoman I know in St. John. She’d been contacted to see if she’d be interested in having her name submitted for the role but she didn’t feel she had the time to give such an appointment. She called and asked me if I would consider it.
How did you go about deciding if it was right for you?
I consulted with, not just friends, but with contacts who know something about me and also had some familiarity with the military, and asked them, ‘Do you think I’d be a good fit?’ They all gave me positive feedback and were encouraging. After the end of that month, I contacted the CO of the regiment and said, if they were still interested, I would agree to their nominating me.
And what was the attraction for you?
My father served in the First World War. My brother served in the Navy for five years. Their service was my closest military connection. I grew up in a house where Remembrance Day was a very special day to be observed, so I respected it. As a retired educator who served mostly in leadership positions, I like to learn new things, and there’s a lot to learn in this role, especially the acronyms.
Every profession has its own acronyms but, my God, the Armed Forces, I think, is the winner on that front [laughs]. Throughout my roughly 35 years of paid work, as I call it, I was always involved in volunteer work of one kind or another, so when I retired it just seemed natural that I would continue giving time to causes I care about.
How does your background in education come in to play in your duties?
When you work in education, especially at the post-secondary level, you have to be involved in the community because you want the community to support your college or your university or wherever it is you’re working. I’m quite good at linking people up around a common interest or goal. Connecting the unit with other people in the community who can help accomplish some of our goals seems to be something I can be helpful in.
What have been the most rewarding parts of being an Honorary for you so far?
I mentioned earlier how I like to learn new things. You are more worthwhile to the organization the better you understand it. That’s been rewarding because I’ve had reinforcements along the way that I am learning. Just a simple thing like getting an email from the commanding officer saying, ‘Good idea,’ or, ‘You’ve been very helpful on this file.’ That’s a good reinforcement. And I would also say observing the Reservists as they acquire new skills and develop into proud, strong, and ready soldiers.
As a woman, what is your view on efforts to make the Canadian Armed Forces more diverse?
Honoraries have, I’ve learned, a noble history dating back to 1895. And those early appointments were captains, quote-unquote, of industry – people with deep pockets. I’m not one of those captains of industry, and I don’t have deep pockets, so I guess the selection process has become more inclusive in the 21st century. When that message comes from the top, from the Commander of the Army down through the ranks, I think that helps a lot. And I think he sees a role for us honoraries in helping to make this happen.
So the emphasis going forward is, let’s look for more diversity: women, visible minorities, and people of Indigenous backgrounds. What more do we need to know? Let’s go find some. And that doesn’t mean that they won’t have all the other attributes. We’re not going to lower any standards. There are lots of good people out there; we just need to work a little harder at finding them.
Do you have any advice to offer other honorary nominees?
I’d say ask yourself these questions: Do I have an interest in this work or this cause? And then, do I have anything to offer this work or this cause? Will I learn anything new? And most often you do. Will it be fun? Because at a certain age and stage you don’t want to be coming home and thinking, ‘My God, why did I sign up for this [laughs]?’
Another piece of counsel I would offer is this is no place for a shy, timid person. If you don’t have the courage to ask questions pretty often you’re going to remain in the dark, especially if you don’t have a military background. I would say most of the answers are positive and it will be a very rewarding experience, as I’ve found it to be.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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