College Chief: The Real Deal

The Real Chief Keith Part I: A Challenging Career

Interview conducted in two parts  By OCdt (I) Pablo R. Cardona (27832)


Imagine yourself as a young NCM responsible for the maintenance of shipboard weapons systems. Being new and relatively inexperienced, you knock on the door of the Chiefs and POs mess in search of your Petty Officer supervisor. When the PO arrives, he is disheveled and appears intoxicated. He knocks you on your back, shoves his foot on your throat, and threatens you, “never bother me before 1000hrs again”. Surely none of us would have ever thought that this could happen in the Canadian Armed Forces. Yet, in the early 1980s that happened to hard-working southern Ontario farm-boy Keith Davidson.

Chapter 1: Rough Beginnings

Although Chief Petty Officer First Class Davidson grew up in a small southern Ontario farming community, his love of the ocean had haunted him since his earliest recollections.  His mother begged the Stratford, Ontario branch of the Navy League of Canada’s Commanding Officer to let him join the organization, a year before he became eligible. When he turned 13, he joined the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps and served as a cadet reaching the rank of Chief Petty Officer 1st Class at the age of 16 and as planned, joined the Royal Canadian Navy at the age of 18. (Perhaps a sign of things to come). His choice to join the Royal Canadian Navy after high school was directly related to the positive experiences in both the Navy League and the Sea Cadet Corps.


After the summer of his last year of high school, Ordinary Seaman (OS) Davidson was shipped off to Cornwallis, Nova Scotia to complete 15 weeks of basic training. After completing his occupational education and training, he was eager to get to work maintaining weapon systems aboard the ship. Based on his cadet experience, CPO1 Davidson assumed that his strong work ethic and the pride he felt while in uniform would prove invaluable. After all, he’d won “the tiddliest cadet” award, year after year.  However, he quickly learned these traits were not as adhered to by his NCM colleagues. As CPO1 Davidson recalls, his first assignment was with a Master Seaman who was required to perform preventative maintenance on the 5”54 gun system, However, instead of maintaining the guns, he spent his first day listening to his Master Seaman’s stories of foreign ports. Before going on a coffee break (despite not getting any work done), the Master Seaman instructed CPO1 Davidson to rub graphite grease all over his shirt to make it seem as though they’d been working. Offended at the notion of both lying and unnecessarily ruining his pristine uniform, CPO1 Davidson blatantly refused. From that moment on, and for several years later, he found himself and occasionally placed himself, on the outside.

Life in the Navy during the early 80s were tough years for CPO1 Davidson. His mother was primarily responsible for his conservative attitude towards drug and alcohol use, as well as his perspective towards morality and ethics. While he explored the globe with the Navy, he usually found himself experiencing its wonders in solitude. He recalls widespread issues related to alcohol consumption and how it played a significant role in the routine lives of those who served aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships.  For CPO1 Davidson, working aboard a ship and travelling the world was a dream come true, but in his opinion, the dream was marred by questionable ethical and professional behaviour. As a result, CPO1 Davidson stated that “he would actively avoid discussing what he did for work and in general was less than proud of being a member of the CAF”.

Chapter 2: Drastic Changes

CPO1 Davidson believes that when change is needed it will normally come in the form of a significant catalyst. The brutal beating of Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, by a member of the CAF was just the kind of catalyst that would cause the government of Canada to delve into the culture, ethos and ethics of the CAF.  As sadden as he was for the family of Mr Arone and how ashamed he felt as a member of the CAF members, he often looks back and reflects on what occurred and states unapologetically “thank God for Somalia.” “The Somalia inquiry flipped the Canadian Armed Forces on its head” and forced its members to reflect on whether their conduct was consistent with the ethos of the profession of arms. Similarly, the drastic changes that befell the CAF after Somalia were “exactly what Keith Davidson needed” to change his outlook of the organization. More than two decades after the Somalia inquiry fundamentally changed the culture of the CAF, CPO1 Davidson is now “older [and serving] in a military that [he] admires and respects to [his] core.”

In 2014, l’Actualité and Maclean’s magazines published investigative articles that revealed and criticized the CAF with respect to the handling of sexual assault cases in the CAF. In response, Former CDS General (ret’d) Lawson commissioned former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps to investigate sexual misconduct in the CAF. The result of this was the publication of the Deschamps report in April 2015. “The Deschamps report has provided the CAF with yet another opportunity to address issues that threaten the integrity of our profession of arms.”

When asked about Operation Honour, CPO1 Davidson stated “although Operation Honour speaks specifically to eradicating inappropriate sexual behaviour,” he believes, now more than ever, “an opportunity exists to eradicate inappropriate behavior, in all of it forms.” CPO1 Davidson indicated that “as members of the CAF follow through on the tenants of Operation Honour, the ‘common language’,” which had been viewed as acceptable in the past, and even reflected Canadian society’s common language, “will need to be addressed.” In his opinion, “the report addresses a Canadian societal issue, within the context of the Canadian Armed Forces that will not be tolerated in our profession.”

Chapter 3: The Importance of Acceptance

CPO1 Davidson’s personal and professional experience have led him to believe that it’s easy for most people to “act in plain view of others” in a way that is viewed as acceptable within the context of Canadian societal values and beliefs. However, to really know in your heart that your words reflect your uncompromising, strong and true beliefs is a completely different phenomenon.  Wrong or right, CPO1 Davidson believes that unless an issue affects us on a personal level, we are less compelled to evaluate who we are and what we believe.

For today’s younger Canadians, it’s hard to imagine that in this country an individual would be ostracized for their sexual orientation. In the early 80’s things were very different. CPO1 Davidson grew up in a micro-culture that believed homosexuality was wrong and as such, he lived his life not thinking too much about whether his point of view was morally or ethically valid. Until tragedy befell his family. His brother-in-law, a homosexual man, passed away on Christmas day from a short lived fight against AIDs. He recalls how emotionless and cruel he was, despite the need to provide a sympathetic and compassionate ear to those around him. Despite the need for his children to learn from a father, the responsibilities we have to each other as human beings. CPO1 Davidson’s moment occurred at the funeral. He recalls that he “stood at the gravesite paralyzed, [he] couldn’t believe the person [he] was, the person he had become.” In that moment, the idea of treating any human being as unequal was an unforgivable wrong. To this day, CPO1 Davidson stresses the importance of not just treating all people with uncompromising respect and dignity but believing the need for it, to your core.

He has observed that while in the workplace we can order “that every person shall be treated with the utmost dignity and respect” and yet “we go home and we air our indiscretions in private because it’s a safe place for us to do so.” CPO1 Davidson, who makes an effort to keep up with pop culture, uses the game Cards Against Humanity to illustrate this point. For CPO1 Davidson, the game symbolizes a complex problem with humanity. Although “we act one way in front of one group of folks and would never joke about things that would be viewed as sensitive or disrespectful, as easily as a flip of a card we are somewhat OK with suggesting that those same statements or jokes have a humorous side. I guess in a perfect world, we all would stop running away to play our version of cards against humanity.”

Chapter 4: The Greatest Accomplishment

During CPO1 Davidson’s career or more accurately stated, his 47 years of boot polishing and travel, he has been transformed  “from a narrow-minded boy into a Chief Petty Officer with a wealth of experiences, opportunities, education and training, at his disposal.” CPO1 Davidson says that he’s “a completely different person” and has become “a lot more open, professional, caring, understanding […] as a result of the leadership provided by this institution.” Through the years, he remains a hard-worker and is driven by the belief that “we don’t get up in the morning to come to work to not be the best that we can be.”

Although there are still challenges ahead of the CAF, we have come a long way since CPO1 Davidson first joined. Neither Somalia nor the Deschamps report were “be all end all” events for the CAF, but they did allow the organization to progress and improve itself.  Many of the challenges ahead of us have nothing to do with technical competence or education, but with what lies in our hearts. As we continue to evolve and grow, CPO1 Davidson’s experiences can teach us key lessons. Notably, he teaches us that we must recall the most basic principles of uncompromising respect and dignity for all persons, we must cherish the privilege of serving Canada before ourselves, and that we must get out of bed everyday respecting how unlimited liability makes us different, in ensuring that we remain a strong, ethical and professional organization.

Part II will feature CPO1 Davidson’s views on leadership and reflections on his time at RMC.

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