Ralph Coleman: 50 Years of Service to Queen & Country

Ralph Coleman

7272 Ralph Coleman, Class of 1967, has recently retired from the Government of Canada after 50 years of service to Queen and country.

During this career he has served under ten Prime Ministers, from John Diefenbaker through to Stephen Harper and ten Governors General, from Georges Vanier to David Johnston, but only one head of state, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

It was on May 27, 1961, that Ralph enrolled in the 29th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery as a militia Gunner. Two years later he joined the regular force and entered Royal Military College, Kingston in September 1963, graduating in 1967 with an Honours B.A. in History. He obtained a Masters Degree in History from McMaster University in 1968.

Military highlights: Ralph was Director of Public Affairs Plans and Operations at National Defence Headquarters, acting Director General and member of a senior management team tasked to renew the communications (public affairs) function at DND in the wake of the Somalia scandal, 1996-99. He directed the Canadian Forces public affairs campaign for NATO operations against Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis; directed the Coalition Press Information Centre in Sarajevo, Bosnia as part of NATO’s peace implementation force in 1996; headed army public affairs at Land Force Command Headquarters 1993-96; served as senior Canadian public affairs officer in the Canadian joint headquarters in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War in 1991; and served with Canada’s NATO forces in Germany as Chief of Public Information during the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, 1989-93. Before joining the military public affairs branch, Ralph served in the artillery, with 2RCHA and 5RALC, was an aide-de-camp to Governors General Roland Michener and Jules Leger, and served in the 1970 October crisis in Quebec.

Royal Military College (RMC)

Civilian highlights: After retiring from the Canadian Forces as a Colonel in 1999, Ralph joined the Intergovernmental Affairs secretariat of the Privy Council Office (PCO) where he became Director of Intergovernmental Communications until his recent second retirement in June, 2011. PCO is the non-partisan, governmental organization that supports the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Major projects included the Clarity Act and communications support to the federal delegation for several First Ministers Meetings on health care, Equalization, Aboriginal issues and the 2008-2009 economic crisis. While still in the military, he also coordinated communications for the 1996 Zaire crisis PCO interdepartmental task force. Earlier in his military career, he was also seconded to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s office as a press officer. Major projects there included numerous First Ministers Meetings on constitutional issues, patriation of the Constitution in 1982 and the Prime Minister’s international peace initiative of 1983-84 during a particularly difficult period of the Cold War.

Ralph and his wife Sonia live in Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa, and have two daughters and two granddaughters also living in the greater Ottawa area. He is looking forward to entering the Old Brigade along with his classmates in the not too distant future. Although he finds it hard to believe that this milestone is almost here.

The following is taken from an interview of Ralph Coleman by Entre Nous upon his retirement in June.

What was your first job (e.g. as a youth) and what did you learn from it?

While in high school in Toronto in the early 1960s, my first job was part-time in a McDonald’s-style hamburger restaurant. I learned from that first job two things that would apply directly to what I am doing now: know your target audience and listen to your employees.

The Red Barn was an American hamburger restaurant chain (this was before McDonald’s) and because the outlet was one of the first to open in Canada, the American management team was on-site to supervise operations. They were introducing to Canadian consumers the shoestring french fries since made famous by the ubiquitous McDonald’s. At that time, Canadian fries tended to be much thicker and were eaten with lots of vinegar. Americans eat their fries without vinegar and so our restaurant, being American-owned, was about to open with no vinegar. Although I was just a brand-new, minimum-wage employee, I pointed out to the American bosses that Canadians like vinegar with their fries and that we would look ridiculous if we didn’t have vinegar. But the Americans ignored my suggestions and those of my colleagues. They didn’t know Canadian eating habits and were not listening to their employees who did.

On opening night, despite my best efforts to use the American talking points about why the shoestring fries don’t need vinegar, one customer was so angry that he threw his fries all over me. I smiled and retained my composure but noticed that the American managers had witnessed the incident. Within an hour we had abundant supplies of vinegar.

Aide-de-Camp

What is your educational background and how did it contribute to your career?

After high school I attended the Royal Military College (RMC). I had wanted to go to RMC since the age of seven when my older neighbour Terry Yates came home in uniform for the first time. The lure of the uniform led me to join the reserves while still in high school, to get military experience as soon as I could.

As well as my university education, focusing on political science and history, RMC gave me leadership skills and taught me to have faith in myself. At RMC they push you to your limits—you have to try everything, even things you think you can’t do. It gives you self-confidence, which makes you a better leader. As someone with the perfect physique for football and hockey, for example, I never thought I could do gymnastics, but the instructors at RMC are great motivators! I also have a masters degree in History from McMaster University, but RMC remains the key educational contributor to my career.

What was your first position in the Public Service?

I joined the Army reserve in Toronto part-time as soon as I turned 16, then the legal minimum age to join the army. That was in 1961, so now I am celebrating 50 years of continuous service to Queen and country. I was a Private, the lowest rank in the army, although being in the Artillery, the rank was called Gunner. I trained to be a member of a 105mm howitzer gun crew, which was great, especially when we got to fire the guns on an artillery target range and blow things up. As I progressed upwards in rank in later years in the Canadian Forces and then in the Public Service and faced much more complex and sensitive situations, I often thought back wistfully to those days when situations could be resolved simply by blowing them up!

Over the course of your career you have held numerous positions in both the military and the civilian public service. What were some of your most interesting experiences?

Valcartier and national unity

A posting to Canadian Forces Base Valcartier outside Québec City in 1970 was my first exposure to the full francophone cultural dimension of our country and my first personal experience of the two solitudes phenomenon. At home in Toronto I would find myself trying to answer to family and friends the question of that particular period, “What does Quebec want?” Then I would go back to Québec City and find myself trying to dispel the long-out-of-date stereotyped image that many Quebecers had of Toronto, a city that had changed dramatically in the 1960s. Little did I know then that much of my career would involve working on national unity issues up to and including working in PCO/IGA on communications materials for the passage of the Clarity Act.

Visiting Moscow during the Trudeau era

The GG and state protocol

Working as an Aide-de-Camp to the Governor General taught me all about state protocol and the role of the Crown in our parliamentary democracy. During the 1972 federal election, when the Liberals and Conservatives got almost exactly the same number of seats, I saw first-hand the steps the Governor General took to prepare for dealing with the potential situations that could arise.

My time on secondment to Pierre Trudeau’s PMO proved to be a fabulous experience, travelling throughout this great country and around the world with the PM and the officials and national news media accompanying him; working here in Ottawa on the numerous First Ministers’ Meetings that led up to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, and generally seeing from the inside how the political level of government works, which has made me a better public servant ever since. What impressed me most was how hard MPs and Cabinet Ministers work at their jobs–the long hours, time away from family, the gruelling weekend flights back to their ridings for more long days of constituency work.

Forest fire evacuation

Now that we are into the forest fire and flood season, typified by events such as the Slave Lake fire and the Manitoba and Quebec floods, I am reminded of an emergency air evacuation of Red Lake, Ontario, by the Air Force, due to a forest fire threat in the spring of 1980. I went with several Hercules aircraft from CFB Winnipeg to handle the public affairs for the operation. People had only a few hours to pack up what they could carry and come to the airport for emergency flights out. It was interesting to see what people chose to bring with them. Some brought family photo albums; others brought small sentimental keepsakes like family jewellery. One man brought only his portable TV (I guess that was important to him) and another had only a paper bag with all his life savings in cash! Makes you wonder though, if someone in authority came to your house and said that you only had 15 minutes or an hour to evacuate with only what you could carry, which things would you choose?

Ronald Reagan, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Ralph Coleman

From black tie to hard rations

An interesting and fun aspect of my career has been the incredible variety of working environments in which I found myself: black-tie dinners at Rideau Hall; hard rations in the field in combat clothes; champagne and caviar at foreign state palaces; warm beer and cold pizza on press buses; meeting the Queen and other heads of state and government in Canada and around the world; sorting press kits on a hotel room floor with support staff; sleeping at the Ritz Hotel in Paris; and trying to sleep in a bombed-out building in Sarajevo in the winter time, with no heat or hot water.

Bosnia-Crotia Border 1996

Oil and water

The most unusual comment I think I ever heard in my travels was by Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Arabian Oil and Mineral Resources Minister, speaking in conversation to me and several Canadian journalists at a reception in Riyadh in 1980 during a visit by our Prime Minister there. Yamani was asked about the challenges facing Saudi Arabia at that time and he lamented the lack of fresh water in his arid country. He said to us sardonically, “It’s frustrating. We keep drilling to find water and all we keep finding is this damned oil!”

The Gulf War

Of course, for a career soldier, an indelible experience was going to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991. Coming under Scud missile attack tends to focus the mind somewhat, especially at the beginning of the war when we didn’t know if Saddam would use the biological and chemical warheads that he actually had at that time, or just conventional explosive ones. So, for every attack it was urgent that we put on our protective suits and gas masks. Near the end of the war I was part of a Canadian team that went into Kuwait City, with the coalition liberation forces, to re-open the Canadian embassy. We were greeted by a spontaneous, cheering crowd of Kuwaitis as we raised the Canadian flag once more. It is not often that one gets to liberate a country, so that will always be a great memory.

Dry run prior to the signature of the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982

Economic crisis

Finally, I have to include working on the First Ministers’ Meetings of 2008 and 2009 to deal with the recent world economic crisis. As a child, I used to hear my parents tell of their first-hand experiences with hardship during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the world teetered on the edge of a similar abyss in the fall of 2008, it felt good to play a small part in government efforts to prevent a similar occurrence.

How has the Public Service changed since you started your career?

When I graduated from university back in the 1960s, people tended to start and finish a career with the same organization, whether it was the armed forces, the public service or a private sector company. That is no longer the case. People are much more likely to move around. In communications, the big change has been the increase in the speed of the news cycle caused by digital communications devices and the 24-hour news channels, expanding the traditional work day into a 24/7 universe.

What advice would you give to a new public servant starting a career today?

You have to manage your own career. It’s great to have a mentor, but with or without one, and I never had one, you need to have your own game plan for what you want to achieve, then take the necessary steps and seek out the appropriate opportunities. Luck and timing also play a role. Finally, if you ever have the chance to go on secondment to a political office, it is well worth the experience. Since our ultimate aim as public servants is to serve our elected political masters, it is an invaluable experience to learn how the political level works.

During your military career you were posted to various locations around the world, including Germany, the Persian Gulf and Sarajevo. Do you plan to travel in your retirement? And where would you like to go?

My wife and I both like taking cruises on our holidays. A cruise ship has all the advantages of a resort and you only have to unpack your suitcase once. Then you have the added bonus that your resort moves you to a different location every day. We have already cruised the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, South America, and the seas around China, Korea and Japan. So now our challenge is to find cruises that will take us to new ports of call. Our next cruise may be one that includes the Black Sea, with ports of call in Ukraine, Russia and Turkey.

Do you have favourite activities that you are planning to pursue in your retirement?

I like doing little handyman projects around the house. I am not a golfer. Frankly, after 50 years of serving Queen and country, I am looking forward to just doing each day exactly what my wife and I decide we want to do.

Ralph and his wife on a cruise

5 Comments

  • Jim Hatton

    August 9, 2012 at 3:22 am

    G’day Ralph – a long time since ACI and RMC. I married Jean Doney – we have 3 children and six grandchildren – have lived in Australia since 1986.

  • wendy may

    December 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Hi Ralph
    Was your dad Ralph and your mom Bobby Coleman and your brother Richard and sister Judy?
    My dad was Bob May who shared your dad’s store front on Bloor Street.

    Please let me know. How is your brother and sister?

  • Jan Redfern Beddoe

    January 28, 2015 at 12:40 am

    Ralph. was going through old picture albums tonight. My favourite will always be my first and only ball at government house with you.
    What a wonderful career you have had. read all about it on line with great interest.
    Hope you are enjoying your retirement, your family and good health and happiness.
    A magical night – never to be forgotten. The best photo album I ever received – actually, you gave it to my parents!
    Best wishes to you.
    With much affection and wonderful memories,
    Jan

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