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.
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.
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.
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.”