Captain Sonny Brown: Homing in on history

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Article / February 17, 2016 / Project number: 16-0011

Halifax, Nova Scotia — By leaving his country of Sierra Leone to become a Canadian, Captain Brown has managed to return to the hometown of his ancestors.

Capt Brown, now an Honours and Awards Staff Officer at the 5th Canadian Division Headquarters, arrived in his new country on his 17th birthday after most of his family left civil war-torn Sierra Leone to become UN refugees in Guinea. In 2002, they landed in Winnipeg, Manitoba as permanent residents of Canada.

Though young and displaced, he was determined to follow his mother’s chosen path of a military career. She originally joined the Sierra Leone military as a nurse and is currently working there at the rank of colonel, having chosen not to immigrate to Canada.

When I was attending the University of Manitoba, I tried to apply to the Navy but I was a permanent resident and you needed to be a Canadian citizen. As soon as I took my citizenship oath I ran to the recruitment office,” he laughed.

Nearing his university graduation with a degree in political science, Capt Brown attributes his relatively quick and successful integration into Canada, in part, to the fact that Sierra Leone is a former British colony where English is the official spoken language, along with the Krio (Creole) language. Both languages are used by all sixteen ethnic groups who share the country.

Capt Brown learned his trade as an intelligence officer while living in Winnipeg but eventually moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia to work with the Navy at the Trinity Intelligence Centre. It was there that his heritage became more than a point of interest for his coworkers.

His recent move from the Navy to the Army and to his current job as staff officer in 5th Canadian Division Headquarters was one that made sense since he was already working in the Army environment. However, it came with a personal cost: 10 weeks of Common Army Phase training. “I didn’t know my body could take that much.

Capt Brown is an active member of the Defence Visible Minority Advisory Group (DVMAG) and goes out to community events, making connections and encouraging fellow new Canadians to consider a military career. In fact, one of his first contacts at basic training back in Winnipeg was a new Canadian from the Republic of the Congo. His friend had failed his first attempt at basic training, a lesson that Capt Brown took seriously, along with a recognition of the need for teamwork. “That motivated me; I would not approach the process like he had. We ended up doing basic training together, because he signed up again, and we passed.

Since his arrival at the Army, Capt Brown has learned about the high level of motivation in his new workplace and the historic significance of his last name.

I am amazed at how committed everyone is here in the Army. That is really good, you know?” He considers his own job to be the very definition of motivation. “The best part is the awards. There are 5,000 military members in 5 Div and I am very busy following the process for commendations and merit awards.

Through local Black History Month commemorations and other DVMAG events in Halifax, Capt Brown has come across a surprising number of Browns of black heritage. “It opens up the possibility that we could be relatives,” he laughed.

In fact, Brown is an unexpected name for a fellow from Sierra Leone, a country comprised of mostly Muslim and indigenous citizens, if you do not know about a certain detail in Canadian history. In the late 1700s, a mass migration of more than 500 black Maroons, the term for Caribbean people descended from escaped slaves of mixed African heritage, found safety in Nova Scotia. A number of them took the surname Brown. They were employed by the British to work on the fortifications at Citadel Hill but disliked the harsh climate and the government’s attempts to convert them to Christianity. In 1880, nearly all of the offspring of these Maroons immigrated to Sierra Leone, according to Capt Brown.

It feels like a full circle,” said Capt Brown of his new hometown, the same town where his ancestors lived and worked two centuries ago.

By Anne Duggan, Army Public Affairs

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