Jamaican-Born Paul Smith Named First Black Commander of the Canadian Navy Ship York

Lieutenant Commander Paul Smith was born in Lionel Town, Jamaica, and at the age of six moved to Clarendon. He grew up in North York, Ontario, Canada, traveling to the island several times for vacations before he joined the military. He joined the Canadian Naval Reserve (CNR) as soon as he graduated high school in 1986 as an Ordinary Seaman on Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) York. He completed general military training in 1987 and was posted to the HMCS Anticosti in 1993. Now, after 35 years during which he rose through the ranks, attended Dalhousie University to study sociology, and attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander, Smith is returning to the ship as its 33rd and first Black Commander. He will relieve the York’s current commander Walter Moniz in July 2021. Commenting on his new post, Smith said it was “kind of neat to come full circle” to take command of the unit in which he began his military career.

Smith decided to enter the service after a friend at the York Mills Collegiate Institute, who had finished the Naval Reserve Summer Youth Employment program bet him that he would not be able to complete the program himself. Smith, who lived in North York and Scarborough prior to moving to Nova Scotia in 1988, took the bet and traveled to the HMCS York the next day to sign on for the six-week program. The HMCS York was launched in 1923 and serves as a land-based naval facility for part-time sailors as well as a recruitment center for the nation’s naval reserve.

Smith enjoyed the training and camaraderie of the program so much that he decided to enter military service. After training, he was chosen to serve on the East Coast that ultimately became his home. He spent three years in Victoria after joining the Navy and trained during the summer and several nights per week and weekends while attending the university. After two years at Dalhousie, he decided to pursue a full-time career with the Navy in 1993. He was promoted to the rank of Sub-Lieutenant in 1999 and accepted his commission after nearly 14 years as a Non-Commissioned Member (NCM). Smith continued to be promoted and became a Lieutenant Commander in 2010. In 2014, he made history by becoming the first Black Commanding Officer to have his own ship, the HMCS Kingston.

Just three days before taking command of the Kingston, Smith was told he would host then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his annual tour of Canada’s Arctic regions. During the four-day trip, the Kingston also patrolled the area in search of the lost HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, the ship’s that left England in 1845 on an exploration venture headed by Sir John Franklin. The ships became stuck in the ice and were abandoned by their crews in the Victoria Strait near King Edward Island. All perished. Of this expedition, Smith noted that it was “great to be captain, navigator and historian at the same time.” He relished the opportunity to travel the Arctic and experience ice navigation from a military and navigator’s point of view and realized the wealth of historical knowledge to be obtained about Franklin’s experiences as a historian.

In 2016, Smith returned to Jamaica for the first time in almost 20 years in command of a naval vessel, a trip he describes as one of the high-points of his military career. As the trip occurred in the middle of a mission, he and the crew were able to take time for rest and relaxation, and Smith was able to visit relatives in Lionel Town he had not seen in a long time.

Smith has been married for 27 years and has two sons at Dalhousie University. When not working, Smith is a member of the Loran Scholars Foundation Board and supports LOVE (Leave Out Violence) Nova Scotia. He also enjoys watching basketball, a sport he played in college and in the military. He will complete a one-year term as Acting Commandant at the Naval Fleet School (Atlantic) in Halifax prior to going to Toronto to take on his new and historic role.

Photo: Royal Canadian Navy