A SINGING SISTERHOOD: Canadian Military Wives Choir

Growing up a military brat, Sonia Clark said with a lighthearted laugh that she always swore she wouldn’t marry into the Canadian Forces lifestyle.

And yet, there she found herself; her husband, a master corporal, is deployed to an undisclosed location. She’s still adjusting to life in a fairly new posting to Ottawa, and her two boys had back-to-back hockey tournaments on weekends that her daughter – a competitive dancer – had to attend rehearsal.

Her closest relative lives 1,700 km away, so looking to family for assistance is out of the question.

But when Sonia posted a request on a military family community Facebook page, inquiring whether anyone could help by hosting her daughter and ensuring she made it to practice, the offers rolled in with little hesitation.

The source of these generous offers of support? Not surprisingly to Sonia, they all came from her peers at the Military Wives Choir.

“It’s like a big family—almost like a sisterhood,” she said of the group, which was formed by Sue Palmer, a military spouse who moved to the Ottawa area from the United Kingdom in July 2013 with her husband, who transferred into the Canadian Forces.

Prior to coming to Canada, Sue was a member of the British Military Wives Choir, which has been hugely successful. There are now almost 80 choir groups of spousal support across the UK.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” she told Esprit de Corps. 

Armed with her experience, she quickly put out feelers on an Ottawa Facebook military community group to test the appetite in the area for a military spouse choir group. She saw strong initial interest, and brought musical director Allison Houston on board, who volunteered for the first term while the group got off the ground.  

There were 14 wives at the first meeting, and that number has now climbed to more than 50.

Despite the musical thread that weaves them all together, Sue (who is now the president of the organization) explained, “it’s not really about the singing.”

The choir is open to any local military spouse, and there is no vocal experience or talent necessary.

Sonia saw Sue’s post about the choir on the Facebook group, and said she was immediately intrigued.

“I was looking for something that was my own,” she said. “When you’re a military spouse, you’re always kind of following along, and whenever you move to a new community you’ve got to figure out what role you’ll [play].” She added that she “went out to the first practice and just fell in love with it.”

Sonia describes the choir as welcoming and completely non-judgmental. There are women from all lifestyles, and of all ages who bring varying perspectives and strengths to the group, she said.

A singing sisterhood

As Sonia explained, there are unique sets of struggles that come with being a military spouse, which can make it difficult to relate to civilians.

“Deployments are not necessarily safe, so not only are you holding down the fort on this end, but you’re worrying, and you’re doing your best to try and communicate with your partner, but it’s not always possible.”

Sonia said that sometimes, when she ends a conversation with her deployed husband, she won’t know when she’ll hear from him next.

“We don’t always know where they are or what they’re doing. In military relationships, we have to have a really high level of trust,” she explained, adding that it makes things easier being able to talk to other women who have been in the same situation.

Heather Cudmore-McCarthy, another member of the choir, echoed similar sentiments.

A military spouse for 22 years, Heather, her husband – who is in the Royal Canadian Air Force – and their four children had just recently moved to Ottawa when she read about the choir.

“When you move around a lot, having something that you can go to, and call your own, is really important...It helped the transition.”

Heather said her quality of life as a wife, a mother, and a woman has changed for the better since she joined the choir.

The road ahead

 As the Ottawa-based Military Wives Choir continues to grow, so too does its list of goals.

“In my dream world, every base would have a choir family, so that when you get posted, you leave one choir family behind, but there’s another one waiting for you with open arms,” said Sonia.

Sue explained that there has been growing interest in various communities across the country, but that finding the funds and a musical director is a challenge in some areas. The Military Wives Choir would like to put together a starter kit, which could be sent to women across Canada who want to start their own branch of the choir.

Ideally, the starter kit would include a tip sheet, a list of contacts, and some funds to help get the new group kick started.

But the Ottawa-based group of spouses also have their own fundraising hurdle to try and clear: the group has been asked to sing at the Canadian International Military Tattoo at the end of May, and is looking to raise $7,000 to cover the cost of the bus.

Being asked to perform at the Tattoo, as well as other a special events like the service for the families of the fallen, which took place in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in May, Remembrance Day ceremonies, Christmas festivities on Parliament Hill, the 7th  annual Take a Veteran to Dinner Night on October 26th at Tudor Hall, as well as the Esprit de Corps charity hockey game in September have been an honour, said Sonia.

“I can’t explain the difference that it’s made over the last year and a half – just in my confidence, in my own feelings of security and feeling like I have an outlet. It’s doing something that I love to do with an amazing group of women. It’s just wonderful.”

To donate to the Military Wives Choir, please visit the donation page of their website at www.CanadianMilitaryWivesChoir.ca.