First Black Naval Commander
Lt.-Cmdr. Paul Smith had an inkling he was the first black person to attain that rank in the Royal Canadian Navy’s 106-year history.
The navy chose Smith, 48, to be a commander in January 2010, but it wasn’t until around July 2014 — when he was appointed his first ship, the coastal defence vessel HMCS Kingston — that talk began in earnest about his possibly making history.
The subject first came up during coffees Smith had with some of his naval colleagues, he says. “Someone said, ‘I think you might be the first black CO (Commanding Officer) we’ve had on a ship,’” Smith says.
Being in uniform for 23 years, and sailing on Canadian ships for almost as long, Smith hadn’t worked under any black commanding officers.
An officer combed naval records for the definitive answer. The Directorate of History and Heritage, a repository of the navy’s past, was the source used to make the confirmation.
Receiving that proof was “great news” for Smith, who says it’s an honour to represent both the black community and the Canadian navy.
Being the first is “a bit of responsibility and something I embrace,” Smith said in an interview from Miami. The ship he now commands, HMCS Summerside, set sail for the Caribbean to participate in Operation CARIBBE 2016, part of a multinational campaign against drug trafficking.
“I like to think that I can provide some measure of being a role model to not just black Canadians but any diversity group,” says Smith, who is married with two sons and lives with his family in Halifax.
Smith says most people aren’t surprised when they learn he’s a ship commander. “The military has no roadblocks based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation. If you’re a qualified person, you are qualified,” he says. “I’ll leave it to others to say how they feel about (that), but I certainly haven’t had any issues.”
Born in Lionel Town, Jamaica, Smith came to Canada at age 7 with his parents and grew up in North York. About to graduate high school and looking for a summer job at age 19, Smith learned about the naval reserve’s summer youth employment program, in which participants signed up for basic
Lt.-Cmdr. Paul Smith, pictured in Miami on board HMCS Summerside, the second vessel he has commanded.