First Black Naval Com­man­der

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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.

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