Celebrating diversity in the Canadian Armed Forces during Black History Month

Chaplain Joachim Nnanna (right) at a ceremony with Canadian Forces Chaplain General John Fletcher (left)
Chaplain Joachim Nnanna (right) at a ceremony with Canadian Forces Chaplain General John Fletcher (left), consecrating the new Squadron colours for 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron in Victoria, B.C. Photo: Corporal Malcolm Byers, MARPAC Imaging Services

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Captain Joachim Nnanna, Regimental Chaplain, 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1 RCHA) – The Shilo Stag

I was born and raised in Nigeria, and now proudly serve as a chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Nothing aside from experience ever prepared me for this work within a multi-faith environment with men and women from such diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.

When I came to Canada 17 years ago, it was a major shift. In the little community I found myself, I felt like the only black guy. I faced all the challenges that immigrants face. As an African and minority in cultural terms, my experiences and encounters were not always positive and pleasant, especially when my skin colour is different from the general populace.

I didn’t quite feel like I belonged to Canada in those early days. Seven years after setting foot in Canada, my life transformed. I took the oath under the red and white flag, and was granted citizenship. I walked with faith-inspired certainty downstairs to the CAF recruiting office in Oshawa, Ont. and picked up the recruitment package without hesitation.

Racial discrimination and prejudice are still real in Canada. While I experienced it myself, much of the discrimination I experienced in this country dissipated when I joined the military. My epaulets, beret and boots boosted my sense of belonging. More importantly, it altered who I was to others. I was no longer an immigrant, I was no longer just a black African; I was a respected officer in the CAF.

As a chaplain, I quickly became a morale booster. What seemed to weave it all together was that I was a serving member, holding the Queen’s Commission with the greatest of honour and servitude.

When I deployed on Operation PROJECTION with the Royal Canadian Navy in 2017, I had the privilege of working with sailors from other countries. The constant question I kept getting was: “How come they allowed you in their Navy?” To which I would always respond, “Whose Navy?”

I would proudly explain that I am Canadian like any other sailor on that ship. I often pondered the reason for this question, and came to realize that Canada is one of the few countries in the world where, with dedication and hard work, an immigrant can rise to any challenge.

In every country we visited, be it the Philippines, South Korea, China, Japan or Malaysia, there was always a Canadian sailor who was originally from the area, and was ready to serve as a translator and a sort of unofficial cultural advisor. This amazed sailors from other nations, and is a testament to the rich human resources we have in Canada.

As an African, I am able to share my values in my new home, in Canada and in the CAF. Among these values are a strong sense of community, optimism about life, reverence for the sacred, respect for elders and duly constituted authority, loyalty to one’s tribe, which in my case now happens to be Canada, laughter and joy as an antidote to all of life’s problems, and a sense of pride in one’s roots.

These values colour my interactions with soldiers, and shape the way I deal with others. As far as I am concerned, we live in the best country in the world and I am privileged to be an officer in the CAF.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we also celebrate our collective resolve to continue to make this country a place for the realization of dreams. This month, I am focusing on reminding soldiers of the richness of the diversity we enjoy in this country, and reminding them not to take that fact for granted. The values we enjoy in this country did not come without sacrifice, and our diversity is our strength.

I clearly remember a conversation I had with a sailor who was lamenting about having to scrub down the ship’s decks as we were approaching home after our lengthy deployment. As I was basking in the euphoria of coming back to Canada, whistling and having fun while washing down the ship, this young sailor asked me why I seemed to be enjoying doing this kind of work.

I turned to him and said, “Twenty-five years ago I didn’t have a bicycle to wash, but today, I am washing Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship. Things are definitely looking up.”

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