We were cadets once... and young

How a start in the Canadian Cadet Program propelled some of Canada’s best and brightest to success

By Evelyn Brotherston

This year’s crop of eager young cadets are in good company. The organization boasts an illustrious alumni going back to its origins in the late 1800s. We took stock of all the movers and shakers filling the current ranks of Canadian political, military, entertainment and sporting life and found that many of them credit their successes to a start in Cadets.

In alphabetical order, here’s what 11 former cadets had to say about their formative years in the cadet program, (edited for length and clarity).


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Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay (Air Cadet)

“My time as an Air Cadet opened my eyes to significant life lessons, including: discipline, problem solving, being precise and on time, being sharp in mind and in appearance, loyalty and teamwork.

I became a human rights activist to help those most vulnerable in the world. Cadets shaped me into a very appreciative and patriotic Canadian and I wanted the same opportunities and privileges I had, growing up here, for others in the world. I am extremely grateful for the leadership skills fostered as a Cadet. The program afforded me opportunities to be an effective communicator and to develop the drive and initiative to take on enormous causes involving human rights campaigns that ultimately helped save lives. I credit Air Cadets to a large degree as being responsible for the person I am today.”

Former Miss World Canada and Miss World 2003 runner-up, Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay is a human rights campaigner and author. She is the wife of MP Peter MacKay.


George Canyon (Air Cadet)

“My air cadet experience is one I value and have treasured throughout my life. Not only did it teach me discipline, but I learned valuable leadership qualities that I have applied, and continue to apply in my life.”

Canadian country music heavyweight George Canyon is well-known in the cadet world. In 2008 he was named Honourary Colonel of 14 Wing Greenwood; when the appointment expired in 2011 he was named the first-ever Colonel Commandant of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. At one time, he hoped to be a military pilot himself, but a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes ended that career path. Now a two-time Juno Award winner, with multiple Canadian Country Music Awards under his belt, his big break came when he finished as the runner-up in the 2004 Nashville Star competition.   


Lt.-Col. Maryse Carmichael (Air Cadet)

“Being part of the Air Cadets as a teenager provided me an excellent foundation for my career in aviation and with the Canadian Forces. I had the chance to be initiated in flying and learn about leadership, discipline and aviation. Taking part in the various activities gave me the opportunity to develop skills and personality traits that are required and used every day in my present career: interpersonal skills, public speaking, reliability, discipline and assertiveness. I was positively influenced by the friends I made and the mentors I had. The six years I spent with the organization certainly gave me the tools to attack life head on and work hard.” (Air Cadet League)

The first woman to fly with Canada’s elite Snow Birds, Lt.-Col. Carmichael also became the first-ever female pilot to command the Snow Birds in 2010.  


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Commodore Luc Cassivi (Sea Cadet)

“As a young teenage nerd — before “The Big Bang Theory” made it cool to be one — in a rural area, I was struggling to find a place where I would fit in. Little did I know that Cadets would be that place. The core values of the movement and the mutual respect amongst its members made it a place where I could thrive. Summer camps were exciting; they allowed me to see that the world was much bigger than my local community and made me excited about contributing to it. The camps allowed me to bring back experiences and knowledge to my unit that I could use to help train and provide new experiences to my fellow cadets. They re-enforced the concept of service and giving back to your community.

I still cross path with friends I made in Cadets. Even after decades, our shared experiences have formed a common bond of trust and respect. I am grateful for the wonderful opportunity I had in Cadets. Without it, my life would have likely taken a very different path.”

Commodore Cassivi served as the commander of CFB Esquimalt and Canada's Pacific fleet from 2013-2014 and is currently the Director-General of Naval Strategic Readiness at NDHQ.


Chris Hadfield (Air Cadet)

“I dreamed of spaceflight. Watching the first humans leave our Earth to walk on another planet was a young boy’s dream, ignited. I clearly knew what I wanted to do, but had no idea how to get myself there. So I did some research. When I looked at what space explorers knew, I saw that they were aviators, engineers and test pilots. Growing up as a farm boy that looked great to me, but I needed to learn how airplanes worked and how to fly. The Milton 820 RCAC Squadron had recently formed, so I joined and grew up with them. The lessons I learned there I still draw upon daily: self-discipline, teamwork, technical competence, flying and leadership. I know full well that it has been the Air Cadet experience that has allowed me to fly so high.” (Air Cadet League)

Formerly a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, Hadfield is the first Canadian to walk in space and served as the commander of the International Space Station.


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Simon Jacques (Sea & Army Cadet)

“I joined the Sea Cadets at the age of 12. One year later I joined the Army Cadets and served with them until I turned 17. After 5 years in Cadets I knew that a military career would open many doors in life and also allow me to serve Canada in a very meaningful way.

I have very fond memories of my time in the program and all the new friends and adventures.  I entered the Cadet program primarily because of all the great activities available to me at no cost. My parents especially liked the free aspect of the program. The program played an important role in my life.  Not many people have the chance to learn self-discipline, teamwork and leadership early-on.  It gave me the necessary tools to tackle life and I have no doubt that what I learned as a Cadet influenced who I am today. I hope that one day my two sons will also choose to join the Cadet program and start their own adventures. Let’s see if they choose Army, Sea or Air Cadets!”

A career-navy-man turned defence executive, Jacques is the Director of Canadian Sales for French aircraft manufacturer Airbus.


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Jean-Philippe Le Guellec (Army Cadet)

“I signed up for Cadets when I was 13. I was intrigued by the military aspect and the discipline instilled by the program. The idea of wearing a uniform and caring for it, doing survival weekends and camps, learning about aviation and even hopping in a glider seemed super fun! I developed management skills, leadership skills, presentation skills and even teaching skills. As I started moving up the ranks, responsibilities and powers were given to me. Learning to apply those privileges helped me develop in a way few other jobs or organizations could have. What’s more, I didn’t even realize it. It just happened.

You never know where your journey through Cadets will take you! Trust me. I had no clue I’d represent Canada at three Olympic Games!”

Jean-Philippe Le Guellec has represented Canada at countless international competitions in the Biathlon event, including the Olympics, the Biathlon World Cup and the Biathlon World Championships. 


LCol Karen McCrimmon (Army Cadet)

“Joining cadets was a turning point in my life. One of my most memorable moments was as staff instructor at Camp Ipperwash in 1974-75 when young women were first allowed to attend Cadet summer camps.  Two young girls, who were sisters, sent me a letter, thanking me for everything I taught them that summer — and it meant the world to me.  I had given each cadet the opportunity to lead the platoon.  They had never had that opportunity before and it helped them realize that they had what it took to lead.

After Cadets I joined the Reservists, then the Regular Forces.  I retired in 2006 after a 31-year military career starting at the rank of Private and ending as a Lieutenant-Colonel. The leadership lessons I learned in Cadets gave me the foundation that allowed me to command a squadron and many missions at home and around the world.  I always tried to set the best example and to mentor others towards leadership as well.”

LCol. McCrimmon was the first female navigator and the first female commander of a Canadian Air Force Squadron.


Gen. Walter Natynczyk (Air Cadet)

“My decision to join Cadets at age 13 was based on my desire to become a member of an organization that offered personal challenges and my passion for aircraft. I attended camp in Penhold, Alberta during the summers of 1972 and 1973. I went back to Penhold nearly 30 years later to see the current generation of Air Cadets. I told them that life was about choices. They had made a choice to join the Air Cadets and in my view, it was one of the best choices they ever made. Serving as Chief of Defence Staff, I have absolutely no doubt that my formative years as a cadet served me well in developing self-discipline, determination and a sense of teamwork. As I have told many young cadets: ‘You will be a leader in Canada and any one of you could be the next CDS.’” (Air Cadet League)

Gen. Natynczyk was the Chief of Defence Staff from 2008-2012. He has also served as President of the Canadian Space Agency and is currently the Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs.


Hon. Steven Point (Air Cadet)

“My time as a Cadet taught me the importance of appearance in uniform. I came from a poor family on an Indian Reserve near Chilliwack and the uniform made all of us the same. Growing up in a small town can be difficult, especially when it comes to friends who want you to do things that you know are wrong. Being in the Cadets allowed me the time to make up my own mind about those matters. The older cadets and officers were good role models for me and I wanted to be like them. 

I learned to respect my peers and the officers who gave the orders. I learned the importance of being a team player, that others were counting on me to do well and to come prepared. I learned to love the marching music — especially the bag pipes.

When I look back on my youth, the cadet training I received was a high point. My brothers either went to Sea Cadets or Air Cadets. I would say that we have all succeeded in life, better prepared to face challenges and tough patches along the way.

I recall once on a marching tour the bus broke down. Nobody panicked, we got out and walked for a while and another bus came along. So I tend to expect that when things go wrong, just wait and a solution will show up. Life is too short to wring one’s hands over matters we have no control over.”

Steven Point served as the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia from 2007-2012 and is currently a B.C. Provincial Court judge. From 1975-1999 he served as the Chief of the Skowkale First Nation.


Commodore Brian Santarpia (Sea Cadet)

“I often reflect on the debt I owe to the Cadet program. I knew nothing of the military when I enrolled in cadets and, truth be told, I only joined at the insistence of my mother, who recognized that if I joined the same activity as my older sister then she would enjoy a quiet evening at home once a week. Her quiet night became the best part of my week as I quickly decided that I wanted a life that would match my youth and so resolved to join the Canadian Armed Forces when I finished school. 

That resolution was the starting point for my career, but if I had been able to enrol then and there, at the age of 13, I doubt it would have led to a successful career. The real preparation took place over the next six years, culminating when I was appointed as the Coxswain of HMCS Quadra, a Sea Cadet Camp in Comox, B.C., where over 1000 cadets receive training each summer. It was several years into my career as a naval officer before I felt like I had achieved the same level of responsibility as I had exercised then. It was the leadership lessons from cadets — like looking after sailors      before self and motivating people through positive feedback and enthusiasm — that allowed me to feel comfortable as an officer. Cadets let me learn those lessons every day in small, practical ways that made them part of my core beliefs. It’s the kind of debt that no one could ever pay back, only pay forward.”

Commodore Santarpia was the base commander of CFB Halifax from 2010-12 and has also served as the Director General of Naval Strategic Readiness and the commander of Combined Task Force 150. He is currently the Chief of Staff to the Vice Chief of Defence Staff.