His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada (left), presents Ms Loreena McKennitt with a scroll marking her appointment as the new Honorary Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force alongside Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force (right) during the Honorary Colonels Conference in Québec city on 5 September 2014. Photo: Corporal Vicky Lefrancois, D Air PA.
September 8, 2014
It is with great humility and privilege that I have now accepted the role of Honorary Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Humility, because I know I am part of a rich heritage of individuals and their families who have served and continue to serve Canadians and the international community at large, often at great sacrifice to themselves.
I realize there are many folks from my musical life who have wondered about my association with the RCAF and have asked how it came to me and why I accepted it.
‘How’ I became involved entails a road of personal tragedy. In 1998 I lost my fiancé in a drowning incident. Shortly thereafter I set up a charity, The Cook Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety. Since its inception we’ve raised over $3 million to focus on water safety and search and rescue and we continue to be actively involved in many kinds of initiatives, including funding the recent Red Cross Drowning report. Through this, I became acquainted with many people in the search and rescue community. The Squadron to which I was first appointed as Honorary Colonel was 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron out of Winnipeg. One of their main missions is to assist in search and rescue operations.
‘Why’ I became involved in the RCAF involves a firm conviction I hold. I strongly believe that democracy does not thrive as a spectator sport. It needs involvement from everyone who enjoys its many benefits. Like a plant, without care and engagement it will wither and die.
In Canada our Air Force is part of a broader military community which includes the army and the navy. Unlike some countries past and present, they are relatively neutral instruments which are instructed by the government of the day on behalf of all Canadians. In fact, it is Canadians who inform where and what our military does for us. It is through our engagement or support of our elected officials that leads to the execution of those directions. I’m sure I am not alone in being slow to appreciate this.
It has been important for me to learn and understand that although we may use the word ‘military,’ which may conjure up a wide range of associations for different people around the world, our Canadian Forces personnel, and in particular our Air Force, do 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 and peace-making, not to mention international and domestic disaster relief. In Manitoba, for example, they were central in battling ‘The Flood of the Century’ – with 435 Squadron playing a leading role. In 1999, the army was called in to assist Toronto during a massive snow storm!
In my role as Honorary Colonel of 435 Squadron, I witnessed firsthand – and often from the back of a C130 Hercules aircraft – re-supply missions to our northern-most communities. I saw search and rescue procedures, air-to-air refuelling during coalition training exercises in Cold Lake, and far-reaching national sovereignty operations across Canada and the Far North. I experienced first-hand the rigours of a Snowbird’s training flight in Moose Jaw and in the past few years, I witnessed the heart wrenching and sobering repatriation ceremonies in Trenton, Ontario following our involvement in Afghanistan.
It has been very important for me to get to know our men and women in the Air Force – 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 families, children, husbands, wives and parents, who behind the scenes stoically support them every day of the year. In my tenure as the Honorary Colonel of the RCAF one of my top priorities will be to assist these families.
Our present Canadian Forces represent an extension of the history and traditions of the very brave men and women, who from all across this land fought, died and were sacrificed in vast numbers in two Great Wars and other conflicts. I believe it is they who have afforded us this life of liberty, privilege and affluence and we owe them so much.
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 real people and their families who continue to support Canadians, this country 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 and the many sacrifices they are expected to bear on our behalf. For in their neutrality, lies a vulnerability for which each Canadian citizen holds a duty of care.
I am privileged to support such a distinguished community of people and invite all Canadians to join me in supporting them as well.