By Natasha Tersigni, 38 Canadian Brigade Group
February is Black History Month, a time to honour Black Canadians past and present who have served in uniform and as civilian employees in defence and service of Canada since before Confederation.
Winnipeg, Manitoba — Her mother's words, “embrace what makes you different,” have kept Corporal Peggy Harris motivated to seek new challenges during her nearly two-decade career with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
A CAF Reservist with 1 Military Police Regiment in Winnipeg, that message has kept her driven through 17 years of service, three international operational deployments and countless courses and taskings. While there was a time when many Canadian women of colour could only dream of the opportunities afforded to Cpl Harris, the Military Police (MP) member works hard in the military to challenge herself while not forgetting the women that came before her who made it all possible.
Growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario as the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant father and Caucasian mother from Canada, it became clear to Cpl Harris from a young age that she was different.
“My mom has blonde hair and blue eyes and she raised us alone after my parents were divorced. It was hard because we didn’t really fit in very well. My brother, sister and I were not looked at as Black kids because we weren’t dark enough. On the other hand, we weren’t white so it was difficult. In my generation, I was born in 1977, you didn’t see a lot of mixed kids especially in Thunder Bay. I didn’t see too many interracial relationships until the late 1980s-early 1990s,” said Cpl Harris who added that her mother would never let this recognition discourage her children.
“She always said ‘Don’t be ashamed of the things that make you different from other people. Embrace what makes you different because someday it will set you apart.’”
After graduating high school, Cpl Harris was still deciding on what she wanted to do for a career when she found an ad looking for part-time MPs.
“I was a mom – I had just had my son – and I knew I needed to do something, but I wasn’t exactly sure what; I hadn’t gone to university or college. I wanted to be a police officer, but I knew I was too young to get hired,” said Cpl Harris.
“One day I was looking for jobs online and I came across this Service Canada ad looking for Reserve MPs and that piqued my interest. I went to the recruiting officer, watched a really cool video on what the Regular Force MPs did and then I started the application process.”
Over the years, Cpl Harris has participated in a number of operations and deployments. She deployed once to Bosnia, employed as Force Protection; and twice to Afghanistan. Her first tour in Afghanistan was to Kabul where she worked in the National Counter-Intelligence Unit with the All Source Intelligence Centre. During her second tour to Afghanistan, this time to Kandahar, she worked as part of the Police Operation Mentoring Liaison Team, located in Arghandab River Valley, which was mentoring Afghan National Police officers,
While there have been moments in her career when her colour may have been judged before her character, it was mostly the bright red colour of her MP beret that was fuel for prejudice and never her skin.
“Being Black has never negatively affected me in the military. Wearing the red beret tends to make you stand out a bit more. When I was preparing for one of my tours, I took a .50 Calibre Heavy Machine Gun course in which I beat out many infantrymen to be selected. One of the senior instructors was questioning how a Reserve MP ended up on his course,” laughed Cpl Harris, who added that a few times on deployment in Afghanistan, she was mistaken for an interpreter and asked to leave intelligence briefings where she was supposed to be taking notes.
“It all worked out well in the end and everyone was apologetic.”
As she reflects on her time in the CAF and prepares for her upcoming deployment in June to Kuwait in support of Operation IMPACT, Cpl Harris can’t help but talk about the important role that Canadian women have played in her success. While many times it is male figures that are recognized during February’s Black History Month, Cpl Harris hopes that contributions made by Canadian women of colour are not left out of the dialogue.
“Too often history focuses on Black men, forgetting Black women’s accomplishments. There were a lot of females that helped bring the men up during the movement. Women such as Viola Desmond, who is often referred to as Canada’s Rosa Parks. She challenged racial segregation by sitting downstairs in the main section of a movie theatre as opposed to upstairs. Her actions got her arrested but helped to publicize the racial discrimination that was occurring in Canada,” explained Cpl Harris.
“Our history and society has been filled with proud Black women and it has been a true inspiration to me. Hopefully young girls can hear my story and know they too can be successful in what they choose to do. Maybe that will include being a Reserve MP in the Canadian Armed Forces and having the opportunity to travel the world and help where needed.”