It’s the little things: Former tank crew commander goes above and beyond the call of duty as a Commissionaire.

By Ally Foster

Sometimes, keeping the peace is as simple as helping someone fix a maddening photocopier paper jam, or offering a hand to the person struggling to fill out their income tax forms.

Commissionaire Joe Thomas retired from the CAF and is now the security supervisor at Kingston's housing and social services department. 

Commissionaire Joe Thomas retired from the CAF and is now the security supervisor at Kingston's housing and social services department. 

At least, that’s what retired Canadian Forces Sergeant Joseph Thomas has discovered in his new career as the security supervisor at Kingston’s housing and social services department.

Never see yourself as being ‘above’ any task you come across in your day, and make a conscious effort to go beyond the call of duty every single shift; that is Thomas’s mandate every morning when he proudly prepares for another day as a Commissionaire.

“I want to help people,” he says simply. “And I’ll go out of my way to do it.”

But before Thomas became an expert at defusing workplace confrontations, memorizing the faces and names of hundreds of clients that regularly visit the housing and social services building he works at as a Commissionaire, or how to perfectly fill out the often-bewildering fields in government-issued application forms, he was a tank crew commander.

A revered career

Thomas joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1976 after falling in love with the Cadets, and began weighing the options of joining either the Armoured Corps or the Infantry.

In the end, the decision was fairly easy to make.

“I realized I’d rather ride than walk,” he recalled with a laugh.

And ride he did. Thomas spent 22 years working his way up through the ranks of a tank driver, loader, and eventually, tank crew commander.

Now, ironically, he spends a large portion of his days walking through the building that hosts Kingston’s Ontario Works, Childcare, Housing and Municipal Fee Assistance, while patrolling for potential security risks.

After a highly regarded career that saw him posted to Germany twice, awarded two Commanders’ commendations, a letter of commendation, and three letters of appreciation, Thomas made the decision to retire following an offer of promotion to Warrant Officer with the Royal Canadian Dragoons.

“I turned it down and retired because I did not want to move my family again with my daughters still in school,” he said. “It was a tough decision, but my family was more important.”

But Thomas wanted to continue helping others, and contacted one of his military instructors from back in the day, who was a member of the Commissionaires. He quickly got started in a position as a security guard at a halfway house, where he worked the graveyard shift on weekends until he had his foot firmly planted in the door.

From there, he worked as a Commissionaire Security Officer at the 1st Canadian Division Headquarters and Signal Regiment, which is a readily-deployable unit that sits at an advanced state of readiness (and is now known as the 1st Cdn Div HQ). He remained there until 2014, when he made the move to Kingston’s housing and social services department as a Commissionaire.

Joe Thomas, right, has won several awards and commendations — both during his time in the Canadian Forces and as a Commissionaire. 

Joe Thomas, right, has won several awards and commendations — both during his time in the Canadian Forces and as a Commissionaire. 

During his time at the 1st Canadian Division headquarters, Thomas adopted a reputation as a leader in philanthropy.

“At that time no one had volunteered to run the United Way [program] for the first Canadian division,” he explained. “No one had stepped up to the plate, so I volunteered to do it.”

Thomas would personally visit the desks of every soldier working in the building to talk to them about donating or becoming involved. He organized chili cook offs, and 50/50 competitions with great success.

The second year that Thomas tackled the fundraising efforts for 1st Cdn Div HQ, the group raised more than $250,000. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded a volunteer appreciation award.

He has since organized food drives, and participated in an evening training course at Queen’s University so he could coach his daughters’ bowling league.

Thomas said regular Force members would notice him, as a Commissionaire, taking a lead role in volunteering, and it seemed to encourage them to follow-suit and get involved in both their military and civilian communities.

Honesty, loyalty and dedication

Over the years, Thomas has been handed high-level responsibilities, both during his career in the CAF and as a Commissionaire, which stand out as highlights.

In Germany, he was tasked with leading his regiment on a 40km night road move, where he was in charge of navigating the troops though unfamiliar territory. He remembers nervously crossing his fingers, hoping he wouldn’t wind up getting his whole regiment lost — he didn’t. Also, notably, since leaving the CAF, he has been the only member of the Commissionaires to sit on the Army Senior Safety Council.

But Thomas maintains that one of his proudest career moments has been making his workplace (where he and his fellow staff assist those who are down on their luck, or are facing trying circumstances) a safe and positive environment for everyone on a daily basis. Thomas says he’s able to achieve this through continuing education in safety and security.

Joe Thomas back in his 'tank days'

Joe Thomas back in his 'tank days'

During the past five years, he completed eight safety courses, including a nuclear radiation safety specialist course, a laser safety program, physical security courses, an information system security officer course, and a program designed to teach participants how to disarm and defuse confrontations in the workplace.

“I wanted to take all these courses to better myself,” he explained. “And to make sure that when I was advising my superiors on security and safety, that I had the knowledge.”

Thomas said, “I always wanted the military and Commissionaires to think highly of me — as well as the Housing and Social Services department.”

He added that his main goal is to be the best he can be, and to never let an employer down.

“The one thing I try to live by is honesty, loyalty and dedication,” he said.  “I think over the years, with all my Commendations, when I retire in 2-3 years I can hold my head high.”

Canada’s ultimate disaster response team

By Ally Foster

In blockbuster movies, when there’s a ticking bomb attached to a cell phone, counting down the minutes until it blows a public space (often with a president or mayor nearby) into pieces, the Liam Neeson or Gerard Butler lone wolves always seem to singlehandedly save the day.

But, that’s Hollywood.

In reality, when there’s a threat of a terrorist attack, a suspicious package found, radiation detected, or a high-profile event such as the G8 Summit to secure, a highly skilled joint task force — comprised of members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian military’s special forces — is called in.

The team — which is referred to as the CBRNE Response Team in security circles — works with the support of Canada’s Public Health Agency to prevent and respond to a range of high-consequence but low-probability risks to public safety.

So, what does the long acronym (which doesn’t conveniently spell a related word, or even roll off the tongue) stand for? It represents the intense and complex threats that the members of this specialized team put their lives on the line to eliminate: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive attacks. 

The RCMP members of the team specialize in explosives and forensics, while the Canadian Armed Forces members and DND personnel take the lead on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defence.

The team undergoes intensive training in order to do everything from conducting high-risk searches of areas that are suspected to be involved in a terrorism plot or domestic attack, to securing and protecting locations used for high-profile events. For a high-security occasion, the team is also involved in providing leadership and training to local law-enforcement groups.

Private Jennifer Fodor, a member of 2 General Support Battalion from Petawawa, Ontario, checks Warrant Officer Benson for chemical contamination with two chemical agent monitors (CAM) during a decontamination operation. (Combat Camera)

Private Jennifer Fodor, a member of 2 General Support Battalion from Petawawa, Ontario, checks Warrant Officer Benson for chemical contamination with two chemical agent monitors (CAM) during a decontamination operation. (Combat Camera)

Recently, the unit has worked alongside Ontario’s Emergency Medical Assistance Team to prepare for any possible disaster during the 2015 Pan Am Games, which will be hosted by Toronto in July 2015.

The Public Health Agency of Canada also contributes a team to the CBRNE network; a Microbiological Emergency Response Team, which has expertise that has, over the years, been lent to the World Health Organization as well as other countries. The microbiological team provides on-site identification and containment of possibly dangerous biological elements, and can deploy along with two highly sophisticated mobile laboratories.

When it comes to dealing with radiological threats, the team leans on the expertise and capabilities of the Federal Radiation Assessment Team. This group is comprised of personnel from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Defence Research and Development Canada (Ottawa), DND’s Director Nuclear Safety, Health Canada, the Radiation Protection Bureau, and Natural Resources Canada.

This group has five mobile nuclear labs, in its back pocket, including discreet radiation surveillance equipment.

The hope, of course, is that the CBRNE team will work mostly in prevention, preparedness, and training capacities, which the Canadian government says is becoming more and more necessary.  

“Terrorist attacks are increasingly focused on western interests and Canada has been specifically identified as a target by terrorist organizations,” explains the CBRNE strategy on the Public Safety website. “Canada is also at risk from domestic sources such as radicalized individuals, extremists and criminals. This threat, aggravated by the prevalence of potential CBRNE materials normally used for industrial and scientific purposes, requires coordinated action by many contributors.”

The National CBRNE Strategy was crafted and put into place in 2005 and, although it is unclear how many potential disasters or attacks the response team has prevented since its inception, one thing is clear: the Canadian public appears to be in even better hands than those of the scripted Hollywood heroes, who also always manage to stop the unlikeliest of calamities before the rolling credits.

A SINGING SISTERHOOD: Canadian Military Wives Choir

by Ally Foster

On September 19, 2014, the group celebrated one year since its inaugural meeting with 14 members. Today, the choir’s size has grown to more than 50 members. (Richard Lawrence)

On September 19, 2014, the group celebrated one year since its inaugural meeting with 14 members. Today, the choir’s size has grown
to more than 50 members. (Richard Lawrence)

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.


The Canadian Military Wives Choir performed the national anthem before the hockey game between the General Officers and Flag Officers (GOFOs) of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Esprit de Corps Commandos. (Richard Lawrence)

The Canadian Military Wives Choir performed the national anthem before the hockey game between the General Officers and Flag Officers (GOFOs) of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Esprit de Corps Commandos. (Richard Lawrence)


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.


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.”


BY Ally Foster


As the buzzer announcing the end of the second period echoed throughout the University of Ottawa hockey rink, player number 18, sporting a ‘C’ on the chest of his red jersey, enthusiastically skated over to the gate leading to the home team changing room.

Although his public affairs team strategically scheduled the interview in the brief five-minute intermission between periods (a casual and light tone while offering an ironclad reason to quickly draw the interview to a close — the team needs its captain, after all), General Tom Lawson pulled off his helmet to reveal an eager and open smile. (Note: He was barely winded, even after several minutes of hard play, and somehow didn’t smell anything like a men’s gym bag.)

Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff was in the midst of leading his team of General Officers and Flag Officers (known in the Realm of the Rinks as “the GOFOs”) to an 8–7 victory in a friendly afternoon match against the “Lame Ducks” — a team comprised of military attachés from various embassies in Ottawa.

Without skipping a beat, Gen. Lawson transitioned from good-natured hockey chirping to discussing what he considered to be the highs and lows of 2014, some of the complex issues facing the Canadian military, as well as his thoughts on current operations against ISIS in the Middle East.

Personnel problems

Gen. Lawson was appointed Chief of Defence Staff in late October 2012, adding to an impressive and varied career in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Even for a strong leader who has been trusted with trying tasks in the past — such as being named the spokesperson of the Canadian military during the air campaign to oust former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and taking the lead on the troubled F-35 procurement file — 2014 certainly had its challenges.

In addition to trying to maintain operational readiness and capability in the face of federally mandated defence budget cuts to the tune of $2.1 billion, the Canadian Armed Forces has been working through complex personnel issues that can’t simply be fixed with the signing of a cheque, or bolstered training.

The year 2014 opened with a heartbreaking string of soldier suicides. Statistics released later in the year showed that the Canadian Armed Forces lost more personnel to suicide (160 soldiers) between 2004 and March 2014 than from the entire 12-year combat mission in Afghanistan (138 soldiers).

Federal opposition parties, advocacy groups, soldiers, families, and veterans have been increasingly vocal in demanding that more support be offered to personnel and veterans suffering from the mental injuries that can be caused by combat. From across the country, there has been a panicked plea that the Canadian Armed Forces get a better handle on how to prevent soldier suicides.

Gen. Lawson agreed that “it’s a very serious problem,” but said that during 2014 the CAF has learned a great deal: “Not only about how to help people get through those issues that they have to deal with — that most people don’t have to deal with — but also the transition for those people who decide to leave the forces [which now falls under the umbrella of] Veterans Affairs.”
The department of Veterans Affairs Canada has been under heavy criticism in the past year for shuttering regional offices across the country, a perceived lack of duty or caring for injured veterans — particularly as a result of the New Veterans Charter — and for more than $1 billion in lapsed funding during the past several years.

Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino was replaced by retired Royal Canadian Air Force officer and Conservative MP Erin O’Toole on December 5, after months of fervent demands that he step down.

New Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole

New Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole

But Gen. Lawson says he has seen incredible mental health research produced this past year. “Canada is really on the cutting edge,” says Gen. Lawson, “not only in the military, but also with military-academic partnerships ... They’re finding out things that are going to make our services better.”

He added that “based on the lineups at facilities, and the numbers who self identify and then return to the lines, we’re having some success.”
Another controversy that plagued the CAF last year was the issue of sexual assault in the military, after a number of news articles in the spring and summer of 2014 claimed that sexual misconduct within the Forces had reached an “epidemic level.”

A Statistics Canada survey released in August 2014 found that one in 13 full-time female members have experienced sexual assault as a direct result of their service.

It was announced in July that Madame Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court of Canada justice, would be conducting an independent review into the allegations of sexual misconduct. The results of her study are expected this spring and Gen. Lawson says, “We have every intention of taking whatever she has learned to try and get better.”

He added that some commentators “talk about a military culture that supports preying on weaker individuals, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’ve really done a good job of educating people to the point where everyone knows that it’s just unacceptable.”

There has also been discussion this year about the Canadian Armed Forces’ difficulty in recruiting and retaining members. A report drafted by the Department of National Defence, and tabled in the House of Commons, stated there was a shortfall of almost 900 full-time members and 4,500 reservists in the CAF.

When asked what the cause of this deficit was, Gen. Lawson says that a surge of recruiting efforts in the early 2000s, with retention rates remaining high because of Canada’s faltering economy, made the military an extremely secure and attractive employment option.
“And I think we got used to that,” Lawson says simply. “We eased back on recruiting, decreased our school houses, and now we have to recognize that the economy, in some areas, is back up on top.”

He said that recruiting centres are busy, but that the military needs to find a way to process prospective members more quickly.

Operational Challenges

A CF-18 pilot outside his cockpit during Operation IMPACT in Iraq.

A CF-18 pilot outside his cockpit during Operation IMPACT in Iraq.

Gen. Lawson also discussed Canada’s part in the ongoing allied air mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS) terrorist group. Questions have been raised about how effective the air strikes have really been, considering that there are limited ways to confirm whether the attacks have disabled ISIS in any way, or whether or not any civilians have been harmed.

Some of the most notable targets that have been hit to date are a roadside stop, construction equipment, and a possible munitions warehouse.

Lawson insists that the CAF is “absolutely” declaring some level of success so far in the battle against ISIS.

“I think it’s fair to say that we figured ISIS would become a lot less coalesced,” says Gen. Lawson. “So the targets would be harder and harder to find as soon as we were successful in blunting their attacks. And that’s what we’ve done,” he explains.

However, “that doesn’t end the strategy,” he added. “The next part of the strategy is now, how do you get them back off Iraqi soil and allow the Iraqi government to start exerting its forces?”
He admitted it is a “very tough” mission to accomplish from the air, but the Iraqi soldiers have been brought to the level where they can now put pressure on ISIS from the ground, and Canada’s air strength can be partnered with ground operations.

As the Iraqi military identifies pockets to target, Canada can help smother them, he said.
The fear caused by ISIS this year through its publicized beheadings of Western hostages in the Middle East and the havoc it’s wreaking there has catapulted it into the levels of the ultimate global villain.

A string of tragic attacks in Canada and other Western countries this year have been (whether justifiably, or not) linked to ISIS, and labelled as domestic terrorism inspired by Islamic extremist beliefs championed by the group.

Canada’s own brush with these attacks happened the week of October 20, when Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was intentionally run over in the parking lot of a Canadian Armed Forces recruitment office in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, and killed. Two days later, on October 22, Corporal Nathan Cirillo was gunned down while standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

Both perpetrators were labelled as homegrown Islamic extremists.
The events of that week were strongly connected to what Gen. Lawson identified as his highest and lowest points in 2014.

When asked what his best moment was from the past year, Gen. Lawson took a long thoughtful pause and then said with a sad, but satisfied kind of certainty: “The day we put the guard back up on the War Memorial. I was just so proud to have them back out there at a time when Canadians were looking to the military to lead the response.”

His answer to the follow-up question (the low point of 2014), came much more quickly: “There have been about 25 low points — and that’s been when we’ve lost Canadian Forces members to all sorts of issues: mental health issues, training accidents, and operations.”
In an effort to wrap up the interview on a positive note, and to put the General back on the ice in the same upbeat mood in which he stepped off, he was asked a series of light, rapid-fire personal questions.

Oh, and the third period was well underway at this point, with the interview running very generously into its twelfth minute.