A father-daughter legacy

News Article / February 28, 2022

Emily Lindahl with contributions from the Peters family

Throughout the years, the Royal Canadian Air Force has proudly profiled trailblazer pilot Walter ‘Wally’ Peters. Receiving his wings in 1963, Wally was a Snowbirds legend. He charted a path for black aviators, and served as the military’s first Human Rights Officer.

His daughter, Lieutenant–Colonel (Retired) Shelley Peters-Carey is a trailblazer in her own right. In 1982, she became the first Black woman to serve in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Shelley followed her father into the RCAF in 1986, retiring in 2012 as the highest-ranking black woman.

We wanted to share how their family saw their contributions to the RCAF while paying tribute to two generations of a black Canadian family.

Walter Peters was many things to many people; son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, friend, trailblazer; role-model, mentor, coach, and boss but to Shelley Peters-Carey, he was simply Dad. He was her rock, her biggest fan, and her inspiration. To know that he was there to support and guide her throughout childhood into her adult years was the foundation she needed to pursue her dreams. “In everything I have ever done, he has been right there either physically or spiritually! I couldn’t be prouder to be his daughter.”

Her father faced discrimination from the start of his military career. While attending a reception on the eve of his graduation from pilot training, Wally was approach by the Reviewing Officer who asked him why he was there. The young man explained he was there to receive his Wings to which the Reviewing Officer replied ‘In my day, you wouldn’t have been more than a rear gunner’. “Imagine his dismay,” Shelley said, “when he presented my father with the Top Student award at the graduation ceremony the next day.”

Shelley’s son, and Wally’s oldest grandson, Matthew Carey has lots of memories about his grandfather. “One of my favourite things was how he made actual tasks seem like fun. He would tell me that the workout equipment was just a game I could play with myself and could get me on the rowing machine or the exercise bike for ‘fun’ when in reality it was good for me.”

Wally saw a way to gain from his grandson’s love of numbers. “He would ask if I wanted to “play a game” and tell me to grab a calculator. He would then grab the grocery flyers, tell me to find certain things, then add them all together. This was actually how he would create his weekly grocery list until I was old enough to catch on.” Matthew finally did figure it out, about five years later.

He never wanted to tell his story specifically but always wanted to help uplift the black community by motivating them the only way he could. When he was older, he ended up going into Hillcrest High School and taking part in their Black History Club, created by students to go into depth on the history of black people in Canada and showing them that the colour of their skin didn’t define them as people. “I have had the honour to be a part of that club in his memory along with my cousin Jacob,” Matthew said. “We still keep in touch with the school to this day to continue spreading his message.”

Wally’s daughter Catherine Peters-Jones shared that “growing up in a military family and living on Base, we were usually the only Black family in the community.” Because of, or perhaps in spite of this, her father always took on a leadership role, and modelled behaviours that she and her sisters could aspire to. She remembers how he encouraged his daughters to always pursue their dreams, regardless of skin colour or any other barrier for that matter. She said that he “fostered excellence in our endeavours, and if we did something, we were expected to be committed to it and to excel to the best of our abilities.”

One of Wally’s grandsons, Jacob Jones, shared the following story:

“When I had dreams of being a pilot like Bamp, he supported me every step of the way. One day he had planned a trip down to Montreal to go through a tour of the Lockheed Martin building. We then met up with some of his old friends, one of which owned a two seater bushwhacker plane. Bamp stayed on the ground that day while his friend took me up for a few hours to fly around and get a feel for the controls as I was on my way to aircrew selection the following weekend.

He also took me to a true flight simulator, again through one of his friends, and we actually got to fly together as Pilot and Co-Pilot. As we were coming to land, Bampy took the controls as he wanted to ‘show me how it was done’ and I guess it had been a few years since he had landed, as he proceeded to bounce the airplane off the landing strip into the ditch and the next thing you knew, the entire simulator was completely red. He then told me that I ‘knew what not to do’ and if he had another crack at it he would have landed it flawlessly as he needed to get used to the controls first.”

To Laura Peters, her father was always pushing limits – race, class, education and even life. “On one of our long summer holidays traveling through Canada and the US with a trailer in tow and a dog in the back it appeared that he may have pushed too far. Our car ran out of gas. However, just like Dad he pulled it out of the bag – we had just reached the top of a large hill, we coasted downhill and right into a gas station at the bottom of the hill!”

He always used to say ‘obstacles are the stepping stones to success.’

Wally loved sports and excelled at every sport he played. He won the world junior broad jump championship. When he went to an exhibition meet in Toronto he looked at the broad jump pit and asked how long it was. When they told him, he said it wasn’t long enough. They laughed. When his time came he jumped over the length of the pit, landing on the ground at the end, breaking his jaw.

His family noted that Wally never let his poverty hold him back – he played every sport he could. He told me that he became a catcher in baseball because they provided the glove and equipment (which he couldn’t afford).

Like her father, Shelley Peters loved playing baseball and softball. She even won the Ontario Softball Championship playing for a team ‘Docs Dolls’.

Her love of sports carried over to her children. Shelley took the opportunity to coach her son and daughter in Basketball and served as assistant coach for many of her daughter’s soccer teams. Her son Matthew shared how “she somehow made it seem like she could be in two places at once as my sister and I’s sports schedule seemed to conflict, but I could always hear my mom in the stands cheering loud when I scored or telling me to stop running into the corners when I was playing basketball. She truly was both of our number 1 fans and we knew it!”

Shelley’s passion for caring for people in need is something that she has passed on to her children. One of Matthew’s memories was when she was serving in Bosnia in 2002, “she got my sister and I to start a project at our elementary school that we dubbed ‘The Hope for Soap Project’. We quickly spread the word throughout the school with the help of our teachers that we were collecting any sort of hygiene products that we could then ship over to her and she could distribute to the many families in need in the communities she was serving in.”

Shelley’s sister Laura shared that her older sister has always been brave, resourceful, quick thinking and loving. “When we were small children racing home from playing outside in the winter, I slipped and fell into a deep ditch full of water. I couldn’t swim. Shelley managed to flag down a tractor drive and tell him what happened in French. He pulled me out and, quite possibly, saved my life.”

A story that her son Matthew shared was about a conversation he had with one of his mother’s previous Colonels, Col Ret’d Dot Cooper. While they were chatting, she introduced Matthew to one of her friends. “I stated that “My mom used to work for Dot” and she quickly stopped me to say “Your mom didn’t work for me she worked with me”.”

Shelley smashed through barriers all her life. She rose to Lieutenant Colonel in a very male dominated environment and profession, but she never forgot the struggle. She has been active in many women in security networks even once holding the position of Vice-Chair for the Committee for Women in NATO Forces which was based in Brussels, Belgium.

Matthew noted that his mother always pointed out that the sign of a good leader isn’t the person who can tell everyone what to do and when to do it, but when a person can listen to all those involved and make sure that the outcome is what is best for everyone, not just what the leader thinks is right.

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