The following article was from an interview with Claude Scilley, a former journalist with the Kingston Whig-Standard, as part of a series of interviews arranged by the eVeritas with Ex-Cadets from a variety of graduating years:
A career with many twists and turns
Not everyone who graduates from Royal Military College gets to command a tank, or a warship, or a fighter squadron.
12215 Dave Mowat never got to do any of those things, but, then again, very few officers have a chance to impact the lives of every single member of the Canadian Forces, as Mowat did.
It was the late 1990s, and the Forces were “plagued by low pay, squalid housing and plummeting morale,” as Maclean’s magazine put it in a cover story in April, 1998. Mowat was part of a group working to fix that, searching for ways to resolve those issues at a time when money was tight in the Department of National Defence.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘Everybody that wears a uniform, the results of the work that I’m doing will impact them,’” Mowat said. “Whatever number we had at the time, say it was 90,000, everybody had a little bit more money in their pocket as a result of the work that we did.
“Was my overseas operational tour rewarding? Completely; one hundred per cent. It was absolutely fabulous. We did so many amazing things over there, but in terms of the impact that I had? Clearly I had more impact (in finance) than I did there.”
Restructuring the pay structure, not only for members of the regular force, but for reservists as well, was just part of the battle. The other part, Mowat, a major at the time, recalled, was getting the major brass onside, and equipping them with the evidence for them to make the case to Treasury Board. Nothing would have happened without the support of his superiors, including the Chief of Financial Services, Vice-Admiral Jarvis.
“I’m not trying to overstate my involvement; I was the guy at the bottom end who was doing all the work and negotiating at the lowest levels,” Mowat said. “We did all the methodology stuff, and we had set up some factors of success, but it wouldn’t have happened without the money guy (Jarvis) coming through.”
Rewarding as it was, it was a stressful exercise, Mowat remembers. “It was quite a labour-intensive two years, to the point where I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive,” he said.
“That’s not being overly dramatic; it was literally the truth. I had to get posted out after that.”
Mowat came to RMC in 1975. Though he eventually captained the hockey team at RMC, he almost never made it to the college, and he almost never made it to the hockey team, either.
He was well travelled in his youth. Born in Alberta, Mowat spent most of his formative years in the Maritimes as his father, an air force pilot, was posted to bases in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. He was a high school student in Dartmouth, N.S., when it came time to apply for university, and there was never any question that RMC would be a stepping stone to following his father’s footsteps into the cockpits of military aircraft.
Mowat recalled a telephone call in the spring of 1975, when the voice at the other end told him he’d been accepted, and would commence his post-secondary studies at College militaire royal in St-Jean—with a naval classification. “He was congratulating me and making it sound like it was a huge big deal,” Mowat said, “and I thought, ‘I don’t think so — this is going to be a short conversation.’”
Short as it may have been, Mowat’s mother was overhearing enough of the conversation to fear an all-expenses-paid education was suddenly in jeopardy. “She said, ‘No, we’ll go talk to the CO.’ Against my wishes, we went.”
As it turned out, the commanding officer at the recruiting centre had flown with Mowat’s father. “Sure enough, whatever magic he did, I ended up being accepted into the pilot classification.”
And that’s pretty much all that was on Mowat’s mind when he arrived in Kingston that fall. Certainly, playing varsity hockey wasn’t in the picture for a fellow who had never played beyond the provincial juvenile playoffs in Nova Scotia. “I didn’t think I was that great of a hockey player, to tell you the truth.”
Mowat’s first-year roommate, Russ Parker, was trying out for the team and he encouraged Mowat to give it a try. Thinking inter-squadron hockey would be his limit, Mowat nonetheless weighed the merits of skating with the varsity—“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go there and see how I feel”—when he was summoned by the squadron commander. Mowat was about to discover that if it had ever been written or overheard that a cadet had ever so much as picked up a hockey stick, the varsity coach was going to know about it.
“I remember going into the squadron commander’s office and he basically was implying that sometimes when you have two people who are equal, if somebody has athletic ability then they’ll select that person, almost suggesting that I only got there because of my hockey skills,” Mowat said, “and here I was, not even trying out for the hockey team, and I’m going, ‘Oops.’
“I was flattered, but I also didn’t feel like I had a choice.”
As it turned out, Parker never made the hockey team, but Mowat did, though he never considered himself a gifted skater. “In my older days I used to say I lost a step that I didn’t have to lose.”
Mowat arrived at his first varsity practice with an old pair of skates. “We had seven kids in our family and I didn’t really have a new pair of skates,” he said. “The coach took me to a sports store and the arrangement was the college would pay half and I would pay half and I’d get to keep the skates.
“He bought me a pair of Langes.” At the time, Lange skates, with a hard plastic boot similar to a ski boot, were considered revolutionary. “They made a huge difference because it gave me much more stability.”
Mowat realized he was, indeed, capable of playing varsity hockey during an exhibition game the Redmen had with the Belleville Bulls, then a Tier II junior club, at the Cataraqui Community Centre. “We beat them, and I had a goal and a couple of assists that game, and it was, like, ‘Wow! OK, this is crazy.’
“I played in some games against some really good hockey players. I was always very competitive, (but any success was due to) hard work more than anything else. I didn’t have the hands. I always had a good skating stride but I was not fast.”
Mowat recalled the team in his first year as having a winning record, a rare achievement at RMC, but less successful as the years went on. In his third year, the Redmen beat West Point, but didn’t do very well in the league. RMC was 0-12 when it went to Toronto and beat Ryerson. “I remember our trainer, Rob Reilander, was joking to someone at the Whig-Standard, saying we expect the streets to be lined with people when we get back.”
That prompted two memories of the Constantine Arena: That the team was lucky to attract 50 people to the game, and a spot by the visitors’ bench where condensation would drip down from the roof, “and you’d have this little bump on the ice.”
It wasn’t at the Constantine, however, that the 1978 game with the U.S. Mlitary Academy took place, one of the most memorable games in the storied series. It was at the Memorial Centre, with about 2,000 people in the stands. The Redmen scored three goals in a span of 42 seconds in the final six minutes of the game to turn a two-goal deficit into a 7-6 win.
“The thing that I remember the most, is being out on my first shift and having no legs at all,” Mowat said. “You were so nervous because it was such a huge deal, and people are actually watching the game.” At the time, players billeted with an opponent and Mowat said what finally got him going was belting the chap he’d roomed with the night before. “I hit him against the boards, just drilled him, and that kind of got me into the game.”
Mowat said he never saw any of the goals in the game-winning outburst. “I was on the bench, and we were buzzing around the (Army) net, and I could see them raising their hands. After that it was non-stop adrenaline. The clock never goes fast when you’re in front.
“I remember being completely exhausted. (Army) was a super-good hockey team. They had a couple of all-Americans. Roger Hitesman was our goalie, and he stood on his head, and we had guys who quite literally played the game of their lives.”
The unlikely career of a young man who almost turned down an invitation to enter military college, who became captain of a hockey team for which he almost didn’t audition, and who switched to an Honours history program because engineering proved not to be his cup of tea, continued to meander after Mowat left RMC.
Turns out the aspiring pilot couldn’t stand being in the air. “I had a balance situation,” he said, one that causes him problems to a lesser degree even in every-day situations. “I remember going to the Byward Market and trying to walk on a rickety floor, and it throws me right off,” he said.
Of his early flight training, Mowat said that on an hour-long trip, he’d be fine—for a while. “The first half hour I was great; I’d do all the things I was supposed to do,” he said, “and then it would throw me off, it almost felt like a hangover. All I wanted to do was get on the ground. I just didn’t feel right in the air.”
Mowat completed his initial flight training and was flying Tudors in Moose Jaw when it got to be too much. “I might have had about 20 hours,” he said. “I’d had my first solo, but I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not enjoying this.’ I loved the environment when I was there, when I wasn’t feeling awkward, but if you don’t enjoy something, the worst thing you can do is continue doing it. I ended up saying, ‘Well, let’s try something different, because this isn’t going to work.’
“Of course, Dad’s all disappointed and I’m disappointed as well, but having said that, I said to myself if I still felt the same way after a year, that I made the right decision, that would be it. I wouldn’t question it.”
A couple of years later, Mowat went flying with a friend who had a small Cessena. “It was the same deal. I got about half an hour into the flight and thought, ‘I don’t enjoy it,’ and he wasn’t doing anything; he wasn’t doing any of the flips or rolls or aerobatics or any of that stuff that we did in Moose Jaw. I just didn’t feel comfortable.
“I landed and said, ‘No, I made the right decision,’ as hard as it was. It was probably the most difficult decision I ever made, but having said that I was very happy with the career I ended up with.
“Would I have still liked to (continue flying)? Yes, but at the end of the day if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing there’s something wrong and you’ve got to change it.”
Even so, it was a circuitous path that Mowat took to his career in the financial branch. “I was always good at math,” he said, but that’s not what landed him behind his first ledger: The base comptroller just happened to be the goaltender on the base hockey team at Moose Jaw. “There are quite a few people who get off their courses, for whatever reason,” Mowat said. “Officers are always looking for free talent.” After completing the requisite logistics and base finance courses, Mowat was on his way to a career in finance.
After a two-year tour at the radar station at Baldy Hughes, B.C., in 1986 Mowat was posted to work with the Director General of Compensation and Benefits, where he managed to find a niche where he proved to be successful: developing policy. From 1996 to 1999 his group implemented the results of the Total Compensation Comparability Study that was instrumental in easing the pain of a five-year wage freeze throughout the Canadian Forces.
“I couldn’t believe people actually joined directly into those things,” he said. “You would think that your initial foray into the forces would be to find something in an operational category but once I got in, I (discovered) you could go pretty much anywhere in the world that anybody else can go in those types of support jobs.”
Still, it was awhile until Mowat got his opportunity to go overseas. “I’d been in for about 10 years but I hadn’t gone anywhere (outside Canada), so I called up one day and within a couple of days I was posted over there for a couple of tours.”
Mowat spent 13 months in the Golan Heights as the contingent comptroller. As one of the few officers with the group, it often fell to him to entertain visiting officers and dignitaries. “It was a whirlwind 13 months,” he said. Among the lighter duties was teaming with the United Nations commander, an Austrian major-general, to win a log-sawing competition during a Cabane a sucre, held in 32-degree weather with imported ice and Quebec maple syrup. Then there was the impromptu visit of some Soviet army officers.
“We got woken up by the DCO saying that the Russians had gotten back too late to go across the area of separation,” Mowat said. “We got woken up, essentially, to entertain them.” Over some drinks, the Canadians discovered that one of the Soviets had been a Red Army hockey player who had played in the 1972 Summit Series. “They were all six-foot-four and 250 pounds,” Mowat recalled. “They could put away a 40-pounder of vodka and still be pumping you for information while on their second bottle.
“In hindsight, I think they intentionally missed the gate closing, but probably regretted it, because all we wanted to talk about were Paul Henderson’s goals.”
Mowat retains two other images from the tour. “You see in Syria the abject poverty of people on that side of the house,” he said, “and you go back to Canada and you hear people complaining about this, that, and the other thing and you’re thinking, ‘Man, you don’t know the first thing about living a hard life.’”
The other memory is of a visit the Canadians paid to an orphanage run by Polish nuns on the Mount of Olives. “We’d offload all these guys and all the kids would be there, and they couldn’t speak English, and the guys couldn’t speak whatever language the kids were speaking, but someone would throw a soccer ball out and, boom, all of a sudden, everything was going great, because it’s sort of a universal language. The kids would all be laughing and giggling while they’re kicking this soccer ball around, and the young guys from our camp, same deal, they’d be out there laughing and giggling along with the kids. It was pretty good.”
Before he left, Mowat was part of a hockey game that quickly drew international attention. The Canadian CO learned of two half-sized skating rinks in Israel and decided it would be good for morale to get his troops playing some hockey. Gear was requisitioned from CFB Lahr in Germany but while this was in the works, some Canadian ex-pats in Israel got wind and decided to challenge the soldiers to a game.
With some of the top players in the Canadian Forces posted to the Golan at the time, the game was a 20-2 rout, an outcome that was duly reported in the Globe and Mail and in a piece for CTV. “It was quite incredible,” Mowat recalled. “Apparently the win unintentionally made a certain Syrian general very happy.”
Mowat retired as a lieutenant-colonel in 2008, after a career in the Forces of almost 35 years. He now lives on Whitefish Lake, near Elgin, north of Kingston.
Of his time at RMC, he said you don’t recognize the calibre of your classmates until many years later. “You’re kids,” he said.
From his graduating class of 1979 came two chiefs of defence staff. Larry Stevenson, who founded the Chapters chain of bookstores, was a year ahead of him. “It’s funny. I look at executives of companies, and I wonder what that guy was like when he was a teenager.”
Mowat said students at civilian universities could not imagine the kind of schedule a cadet faces. “We were going to classes 9 to 5, but we had all the secondary duties; we had to organize things. When I look back at it now, I think, ‘Man, that was pretty crazy,’ and I understand why it was so difficult going through. It’s not something I look back and think, ‘I’d like to do that again,’ but it’s like everything else: you adapt to the environment that you’re in.
“At RMC, it’s extremely tough but once you get into a routine, you figure out how to manage your time a lot better, because you had no choice, and the management of your time is what really stays with you throughout your career.
“Would I say my experience at RMC was always enjoyable? No. It was certainly a tough grind, but you really appreciate it, well after the fact.”