HCol McKennitt – Change of Appointment remarks

June 12, 2024


🎧 LISTEN: HCol McKennitt’s parting remarks (below)

Chief of Defence Staff – Gen Eyre, MP John Nater (Perth Wellington), Commander – LGen Kenny, LGen Allen, General Officers and Flag Officers, CWO Hall, Vice-Adm Topshee, Ret Lieutenants General Bouchard and Deschamps, HCol Renee van Kessel, Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force. It is a great pleasure to be with you today. (Chef d’état-major de la Défense Canada) Commandant, Chief Hall, invités distingués, bonjour tout le monde. Nous sommes tous des citoyens. C’est un grand plaisir d’être avec vous aujourd’hui.

Kwey, Kakena

Well, the day has finally arrived that I retire this uniform. On some accounts, it may be just as well given it continues to shrink in my closet with every passing year. And yet, I know I will reflect on this part of my life with great fondness, gratitude and pride.

I owe a debt of gratitude to so many faces in this room and to all of those who have served and are serving still.

In this 100th Anniversary year of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the time seemed right to pass the torch to my successor Renee van Kessel, who I know will do an excellent job. She knows she can call on me any time should the need arise.

It is a great privilege to share a few thoughts with you this afternoon.

As an artist, not coming from a military family, you can imagine I’ve had many people ask me how I came to be an honorary colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

I know when I was first inducted in 2006 I was also touring with my band and crew performing concerts across Canada and into the United States and Europe. I made a deliberate point of mentioning this role, on and off the stage. Many people, of course, were surprised to find that an artist who sang sensitive Celtic songs would have any association with the military whatsoever.

And, there were many comments and conversations on and off our tour buses, including when LGen Charlie Bouchard invited us to tour Cheyenne Mountain at Colorado Springs. But I was delighted to learn that people were most curious and these conversations became a bridge of learning.

I also remember a comment made several years ago by a dear friend of mine, who was serving in the army. He said, “You know, the only difference between your theatre and ours is that we just rehearse for a performance we hope never to give”.

The brutal truth is that this journey began, unbeknownst to me, in 1998 when I lost my fiancé in a boating accident in Georgian Bay.

Ron, along with his brother Rick and work colleague Greg Cook would be lost in this tragedy – and  from this the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety would be born. The families and I would raise between $3 million and $4 million to strengthen the efforts of water safety and rescue around Canada and beyond.

In time, I’d learn that it was the incredible efforts of 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron out of Trenton who undertook the search that fateful day in July of 1998.

So in 2006, when I was invited to hold the honorary colonel position for 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron in Winnipeg – and having grown up in Manitoba – it felt like a good match and I was honoured to accept.

My years of learning and appreciation would begin.

I would later come into this current role, as honorary colonel of the RCAF, in 2015.

It has been an extraordinary 17 years and an education like no other. Indeed, it greatly compensated for what I had not learned in school.

It’s been a privilege to witness first-hand, and often from the back of a Hercules aircraft, re-supply missions to our northern most communities,  search and rescue procedures, air-to-air refuelling during major coalition training exercises in Cold Lake, Alberta and far-reaching national sovereignty operations across Canada and the far North. I experienced the rigours of a Snowbird’s training flight in Moose Jaw and during the Afghan conflict the sobering repatriation ceremonies in Trenton.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to theatres including Kuwait, Lithuania and Romania.

And along the way, I came to meet many of the remarkable men and women in the RCAF.

I came to think how similar in many ways this RCAF life was to our own touring infrastructure for concerts.

There were people such as myself at the front of the stage, but there were also the many individuals behind the scenes whose collective efforts were and are indispensable in making each mission a success. It was a great honour to meet so many of them, be it on the hanger floor, in administrative settings, the back of the aircraft, in training simulators, or at the numerous occasions when the Jet Stream Band and string musicians would serenade us into the night. I’d be around long enough to see some of those whom I first met in Winnipeg at 435 Squadron evolve to be leaders who sit before me today.

With the RCAF, I would learn about a culture of humility, rather than hubris, of leadership and a selfless desire to serve. I would grow to understand the value of protocols and lessons learned, as they reached for the highest standards and best practices and I’d bring whatever I learned into my own operations.

I would come to deeply admire and respect their impressive Code of Ethics and their determination to hold their history and traditions close to their hearts and the pride with which they undertake their duties, most often quite invisibly.

In these 17 years, I would also witness herculean efforts in bringing about culture change, as many organizations around this country are striving to do. What the RCAF has achieved in this regard must be considered amongst this nation’s best and perhaps underappreciated. Although the job is never done, the efforts I have witnessed have been reassuring and inspirational.

And I have also found inspiration in my travels, as I have met many of the families who are so crucial in their dedicated support.  Being an older single Mom, with no extended family around me, I would soon develop some small sense of what it would be like to be the spouse of a deployed family member, far away from other family support and with all the challenges which come from moving around, finding child care, doctors, houses, spousal employment and more.

Over the years, people have continued to ask me why I took on this role.

I accepted this role, largely inspired by the sentiment that democracy does not thrive as a spectator sport – that if we care about the democracy in which we live we need to all do our part to preserve and protect it.

Over these past several years, I’ve tried to develop an ‘appreciation of the situation’ as I have studied the ingredients, activities, history and context of the greater Canadian military family.

It’s been important for me to learn and understand that, although the word ‘military’ may conjure up a wide range of associations for different people, our Canadian Armed Forces personnel do so many things which extend far beyond a battle field.

Their mandate includes search and rescue, humanitarian aid, sovereignty patrol, re-supply missions, international peace-keeping, peace-making, and combat roles, not to mention international and domestic disaster relief – and now new challenges with the added domain of space.

It’s been very important for me to get to know our men and women in uniform, where they come from, why they joined, and how they undertake their responsibilities.

It has been equally important to understand how their career paths have affected their ability to have and maintain a family, children, husbands, wives and parents who, behind the scenes, stoically support them every day of the year.

Looking at the Canadian Armed Forces at large, a vital part of this learning has been to take into account the reality that militaries around the world are unto themselves unique entities, endowed with their distinct past and present, and with distinct political and economic associations.

In Canada, we are fortunate to count our military as a relatively neutral instrument, instructed by the government of the day on behalf of Canadians.  As well we know, this is not, nor has always been the case elsewhere in the world.

And because of that, each Canadian government of whatever political stripe, is responsible for what that instrument does on our behalf – and who may die on our behalf.

For that ‘instrument’ is much more than just equipment and protocols. It is the sum of real people and their families who continue to support Canadians, Canada and the international community every day of the year.

We, as citizens, owe it to them to be informed about the work they do, the challenges and risks they face.

For in their neutrality, lies a vulnerability, for which each Canadian citizen holds a duty of care.

I have grown to share the concern, that we, as citizens, have lost touch with how our country is run. That we have become increasingly cynical, apathetic and ill-informed, partially through the absence of instruction of history and governance in our schools, partially through a complacency which may come at times of plenty and peace, partially through the contamination caused by reckless partisan rhetoric, and in recent times the weaponizing of disinformation and misinformation and of artificial intelligence, through unregulated and unaccountable technology companies.

All of these things can affect how our men and women in uniform are deployed and equipped for their duties, and indeed may affect who may be attracted to serve in this honourable profession.

The men and women in the Canadian Forces deserve informed and responsible leadership, who in turn are supported by an informed and involved citizenry.

My travels and experiences have shown the members of the RCAF to be exemplary and often noble individuals. I have found them to be stoic, deeply devoted to their missions and keenly attuned to their professional and moral responsibilities. Wherever they serve, they garner respect and credibility from allies, friends and adversaries alike.

And I have also found them to have a fierce sense of humour in the direst of circumstances.

We, as Canadians, owe them all our duty of care. They are crucial to the life-blood of our nation’s democracy and values.

Although I will be formally moving on from this role, I have come to appreciate that to serve others is our greatest calling and we need not wait to wear a uniform to do our part – for none of us lives for ourselves alone.

Simply, we must be proud of our military.

In reflecting on the future, I am drawn to a quote of Arthur M. Schlesinger: “It is useful to remember that history is to a nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of their memory, they become disorientated and lost. Not knowing where they have been or where they are going. So, a nation denied a conception of its past, will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”

So, as I exit this stage left I will leave you with a closing appeal.

As we enter a new era of greater uncertainty we can see the precious principles and values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, under renewed attack.

Authoritarian states are eroding the norms and rules of the international order. Climate change is driving migration and conflict in many parts of the world and increasing our vulnerability to natural disasters at home. Accelerated technological change is reshaping how our wars are fought and demographic and societal norms are rapidly changing.

In this 100th anniversary year of the Royal Canadian Air Force we are witnessing a tremendous modernization program to meet this advancing need. And we, as Canadians, must appreciate what a great country Canada is and is capable of many things; that we should feel confident that we possess many strengths and advantages which will see us through the coming disorder.

And so, in closing, I would only like to say it is my fervent hope that we will all continue to be soldiers of democracy.

Whether we are automotive workers or hospitality waiters, singers or soldiers, premiers or plumbers, the time is now to shut down our mesmerizing social media and study our history books, set aside our petty political differences, and find the common ground needed to move forward with a renewed commitment to protect a way of life past generations sacrificed so much for.

As accomplished as the Canadian Armed Forces are, they alone cannot preserve democracy. Without question, their lives and the lives of many others, including future generations, are now depending upon all of us.

Our present Canadian Armed Forces are the extension of the history and traditions of the very brave men and women, who ‘took up the fight’ in times of deep crisis.

They came from across this land and so many fought and died in vast numbers in two great wars and more. It is they who have afforded us this life of security, affluence and liberty. Their sacrifices are never to be forgotten.

May we continue to be ambassadors and advocates for diplomacy and respectful discourse when possible, and defenders of the common good when necessary.

May we grow with a sense of trust in and appreciation of each other.

As Canadians and with our allies, we must believe in democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And defending it must begin at home.

To the chief of defense staff, the commander and chief, and all those who have served and are serving still, I thank you.

To all the honorary colonels, I thank you very much for your companionship on this incredible journey.

To my personal assistant Mark McCauley, who has assisted me every inch of the way and continues to do so, my deepest thanks.

Finally, I thank you all for the privilege of serving you.

HCol Loreena McKennitt