First-ever National Defence Black History Month Event Sparks Meaningful Conversations
February 21, 2023 - Defence Stories
Commodore Jacques Olivier moderates a panel featuring Master Warrant Officer Gareth Webb, Debra Christmas, Executive Partner at Gartner Canada, Caroline Xavier, Chief of the Communications Security Establishment, and Major (ret’d) Austin Douglas, with the Master of Ceremony, Lieutenant Colonel Martell Thompson, on the right. The screen and poster behind them read “Black History Month 2023”
On February 6, 2023, Defence Team members gathered in person at National Defence Headquarters (Carling Campus) and online for the first-ever DND/CAF Black History Month national event. The event featured remarks from the Honourable Minister of National Defence Anita Anand, Deputy Minister Bill Matthews, and General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff, as well as representatives from the Defence Visible Minority Advisory Group (DVMAG) and the Defence Team Black Employee Network (DTBEN) (accessible only on the National Defence network).
Minister Anand kicked off the event via video link, thanking Black Defence Team members, both public service employees and those in uniform, for their service. She emphasized that having a diverse Defence Team is a priority and that all should feel respected and protected. “Discrimination is despicable, it should never happen,” said the Minister. There’s so much more work to do to break down the barriers of systemic discrimination, she said, and this event is a step forward in the process. “We have to commit to ensuring that we are building an environment and an institution free from discrimination. And one that is equal and open and respectful for all members, regardless of the colour of their skin.” Minister Anand also recognized Commodore Jacques Olivier, the newly appointed Defence Team Champion for Visible Minorities, for his exemplary leadership and for taking on this important role. (Read the Defence Team Champion for Visible Minorities’ Black History Month message)
Speaking Up and Speaking Out
The Defence Team Black Employees Network (DTBEN) co-chairs, Faduno Ali and Major Chris Stobbs, speak to the audience from the podium.
The focus of the event was the panel discussion. Cmdre Olivier hosted an inspiring and informative panel discussion featuring four guests with remarkable and diverse experience of leadership in the defence and security sphere, representing government, the CAF, and the private sector. Panelists included:
- Deputy Minister Caroline Xavier, Chief of the Communications Security Establishment;
- Master Warrant Officer Gareth Webb, Executive Assistant to Sergeant Major of the Chief, Professional Conduct and Culture (CPCC);
- Major (ret’d) Austin Douglas, MSM, CD, Senior Manager, General Dynamics Mission Systems—Canada; and
- Debra Christmas, Executive Partner at Gartner Canada.
Cmdre Olivier got the discussion rolling by asking each panelist a question specific to their area of experience. This discussion was followed by a question-and-answer period where participants were able to pose their questions to the panelists.
During the panel discussion, Chief Xavier talked about her progression through the senior management ranks of the public service as a Black woman. She began working as a student in a data entry position and moved up the ranks of the IM/IT program, where there were very few women and racialized people. "There are more of us now, but not that many more," she said. In the federal public service, she was the first Black individual appointed as Deputy Minister in 2020 and, when the panel occurred, the senior-most Black Deputy Minister. “You must be bold, brave, and courageous, and find a way to get in the way,” she said.
MWO Webb, who previously worked at the Sexual Misconduct Support and Resource Centre as a Senior Advisor and then in recruitment as a Diversity Outreach Coordinator, gave advice to the chains of command on building inclusive teams. He suggested setting the tone for an organization, department, or team by outlining specific goals and expectations, and checking in on them on a regular basis. He acknowledged that conversations about race and culture are difficult to navigate, but emphasized that they are necessary in building a culture of inclusion. "Have those difficult conversations because that’s the only way we’re going to get to a place where we’re all going to be comfortable in a room," he said. Racialized people have an input and Defense Advisory Groups are there to advise the chain of command on such topics, he added.
Maj (ret’d) Douglas talked about why he chose to attend the Royal Military College in 1991 and his experience of being the only person of colour in his class of ’95. "There were challenging times to survive in that place and to feel like I belonged," he said. He served in the Royal Canadian Regiment in all three battalions, deploying on operational duty each time. On each of the Regimental tours, he was always the only officer of colour in the leadership cadre. He said he always looked for people to identify and empathize with but could never find any, and no one came forth to offer him a safe place, or serve as a mentor. "I wasn’t really sure how to ask for help, I wasn’t sure what help looked like," he added. "The first Black General Officer of colour I met was about two weeks ago and it was Cmdre Olivier, as hard as that might seem to believe." He added that having workplace mentors to identify with and trust are extremely important, especially for visible minorities who may feel isolated and alone.
Debra Christmas spoke about how she overcame barriers when starting her high-tech career in 1979 as a young Black woman. When she first sat at the executive table with nine white men twenty years older than her, she knew they felt she didn’t belong there. When she accepted a new position in IT, she was often challenged and dismissed. Yet she grew up in a strong Black community in Montreal that taught her she belonged wherever she showed up. "I never ever felt I didn’t belong. They might not think I belong, but I thought I belonged," she said. She emphasized understanding where people are coming from, gauging whether their hostility is coming from a place of ignorance or arrogance, and responding appropriately, because there’s no point in just getting mad. "The more that I understand where you’re coming from, the more ammunition I have to now go forward," she said. She calls it "learning how to play the room."
The four panelists stand with the MC, the moderator, DTBEN, and DVMAG at the front of the auditorium after the event.
By all accounts, it was a fascinating and rich conversation. In fact, the panelists and audience members were so engaged, the discussion continued to flow well beyond the planned one-hour duration. Issues of inclusion and belonging were central to many of the remarks and discussions during this unique event. As DND/CAF works to evolve its culture, it was a poignant reminder that creating space for members to share their lived experiences and have constructive conversations is critical to achieving meaningful change.
In his closing remarks, Cmdre Olivier acknowledged incredibly positive spirit of the discussion and encouraged everyone to keep up the momentum: "Thank you for being curious. Thank you for being willing to listen and learn. Let’s continue this conversation not just in February but every day."
A driving force behind this first-ever official National Defence Black History Month Event were the leaders from the DTBEN, specifically Faduno Ali, Lieutenant Commander Esrom Tesfamichael, Major Chris Stobbs and Cassandra Auguste. Their advocacy and passion is a great example of how people in the Defence Team are working together to create positive change and motivate others to do the same.
Defence Team members can watch—or re-watch—the full recording of the Black History Month event on MS Streams. A version with subtitles in both official languages is currently in development and will be posted on Canada.ca in the coming weeks to open up access to a wider audience.
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