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She listened to her Mother, enjoyed 20 years in the Army and 17 as a Defence civilian employee

Female CAF member in a tank

By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs with Corporal (Retired) Hyacinth Telfer, office of the Director Civilian Human Resources Client Services (National) – 

Each year, the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed on March 21. The theme for 2018 is “Promoting tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity in the context of combating racial discrimination.” In support of this observance, here is an inspiring story of a Jamaican-Canadian woman soldier’s career in the Canadian Army and as a civilian in the Department of National Defence.

Even Corporal (Retired) Hyacinth Telfer has to admit that her mother did know best after all.

Her mother, who worked in administration with the Royal Canadian Navy, was relentless in pursuing her goal to have her eldest daughter join the Canadian Armed Forces to serve her country and secure a good job with benefits.

On the other hand, some of Cpl (Ret’d) Telfer’s friends had a different expectation and promptly took bets that she would not even finish basic training and quickly return home.

“They said I was too calm and neat to be in the military. I proved them wrong,” Cpl (Ret’d) Telfer said. She demonstrated that she was more than capable and even managed to keep a firm grip on her sense of humour throughout the almost four decades that followed.

She will retire on December 27, 2018 from her current position as a Human Resources Officer with the Army in Ottawa, Ontario after serving more than 37 years in the Government of Canada, all within the Department of National Defence.

Cpl (Ret’d) Telfer says that while she did face racism when she was in the military and afterward as a civilian, which included racist comments and jokes of questionable taste, she kept a cool head for the most part. “All in all, it was nothing too extreme,” she said. “I actually got along well with almost everyone, no complaints. But there are always a few.”

Not long after her release from the Army, she wrote a short article about her time serving Canada, in uniform and out, for The Spectrum diversity newspaper in Ottawa.
The paper’s slogan was “Making Canadians Visible”. (The Spectrum closed in 2013 after 30 years of publication.)

We join Cpl (Retd) Telfer in 2002:

As we proudly celebrate Black History Month, I thought a few encouraging words about my achievements as a Black woman and a Jamaican-born one would be appropriate. 

I came to Canada over 28 years ago, graduated from Gloucester High School in Ottawa, held several jobs like Nursing Assistant, Data Entry Operator and Stock-taker, just to name a few.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, my mother decided that I should join the military. Needless to say, I was not in agreement. She would tell me off quite frequently.

“What are you doing with your life?” she would ask. And on and on.

I kept wondering, “how on earth could my Mom come up with this absurd notion?” Me joining the military? Ha, not a chance!

Well, she wore me down. I went to the Recruiting Centre, and after several aptitude and medical tests, I was selected. On March 18, 1981, I signed on the dotted line as a Non-commissioned Member (NCM) to serve my country, Canada.  

I attended Recruit School in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia for a 14-week Basic Training Course.

Boot Camp was a real eye-opener, I really did not know what to expect and once I got there, I just wanted to return home. Being a soldier was definitely not for me.

However, I quickly realized that I was there for the duration. Fourteen weeks seemed like years, but I completed the course successfully, much to my surprise. Grad day was one of the proudest days of my life! Marching to the beat of the Canadian Forces Band, I was stepping high. I had made it.

Often when I think back, I cannot believe I aced Basic Training. In fact, neither can my family (my mother excluded). Which just proves that you can do anything you set your mind to.

Twenty years and five months later, I was honourably released from the Canadian Forces (Army) in August 2001, but still support the military as a public servant.

All in all, my only regret is that I did not join earlier.

So I encourage all young Black women – and men – in our community: DO NOT be influenced by anyone or anything. Be strong and vigilant. With determination you can achieve your goals. And also: Listen to yuh madda!

We take up her story again in February 2018.

Cpl (Ret’d) Telfer was born in the parish of St. Thomas, east of Kingston, Jamaica and immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s with her grandmother and two siblings to join their mother, who came to Canada in the mid-1960s.

Following high school in Ottawa, she enrolled in college to study social work, but soon moved to Montreal. She worked at a factory by day while continuing her studies at night, but she found it difficult to make ends meet.

“My mother was in Ottawa, but I could feel her dragging me,” she sighed. “So I finally went to the local recruiting centre.”

Basic training at Canadian Forces Base Cornwallis, Nova Scotia was very nearly her undoing. “The first time I ran the mile and a half, I came in second last,” she said. “Although I was slim, I was not in great physical shape.”  She was required to take remedial physical training. “I can still hear the Master Corporal yelling ‘RAISE those legs!’”

In the depths of her exhaustion, she sobbed to her mother on the phone that it was very tough and to her extreme dismay, her mother wrote a sternly-worded letter to her daughter’s instructors to lay off a bit. “That did not go over well,” she noted. “I never heard the end of it.”

However, she did improve and at the end of 14 weeks, she ran the mile and a half in less than 10 minutes, much to her surprise. “I was right up there near the top.”

Rifle practice resulted in her shoulder remaining sore and bruised for much of basic training. The FNC1 semi-automatic rifle was very heavy, especially when fully loaded. It had quite a kick, she recalled.

From 1994 to 1997, she was posted at the Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre in Toronto, where she administered testing to potential recruits. This job included working from a mobile recruitment van at various locations.

Other postings continued, with the last one at Canadian Forces Support Unit (Ottawa). She retired from the Army in August 2001 and took a civilian job with the Department of National Defence in Ottawa in the Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel)’s office as an Out-Service Training Coordinator.  She moved on to the Army Headquarters in 2003 in increasingly senior positions in Human Resources and Administration where she will remain until retirement at the end of 2018.

Upon retirement, she will take some time to unwind, but not too much.  She will continue to dance, dance, dance – something she has always loved – and many books are waiting to be read, she said. As an avid tennis and basketball fan, she plans to travel to the Association of Tennis Professionals tennis tournaments near and far as well as the National Basketball Association games.

She finds it quite peaceful to work in her garden and is an active member of her church choir.  Other things that beckon include taking dress design and sewing courses and spending time with her family.

“After 37 years? It’s time to relax.”

Photos: Courtesy of Cpl (Ret’d) Telfer

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This post is also available in: Français (French)

Latest comments

  • Great post and interesting story!

    Not sure if this affects others too, but from my DND workstation, only the top line of each photo caption is visible. Can that be changed?

    Congratulations and thanks for your service, Cpl (Retd) Telfer!

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