Handing over the helm
FOR FOUR YEARS, JOHN NEWTON HAD THE NAVY’S BIGGEST JOB IN HALIFAX—AT THE END OF HIS TERM, HE REFLECTS ON THE EXPERIENCE
When most kids his age would gather around the TV for Howdy Doody or play stick ball down the street, John Newton’s playtime activities were more nautical.
“[I] grew up in the Bedford Basin, used to build rafts out of the wood that would break free from the dump at Fairview Cove,” says Newton. “I can’t imagine that those days of building rafts, instead of tree forts like some kids do, would lead to being able to sail all the world’s oceans.”
Newton was a geologist before joining the Canadian navy in 1983. Since then, he’s risen to the rank of Rear Admiral. For the last four years, he commanded Maritime Forces Atlantic (MARLANT) and Joint Task Force Atlantic (a partnership between the Canadian Armed Forces and support agencies that work to secure Canada’s Atlantic coast). Recently, he left Halifax to become a liason with Veteran’s Affairs in Charlottetown.
As one of the longest-serving MARLANT commanders in the navy’s history, he leaves the job reluctantly. He played a big role in the life of his hometown while he was here. “I think most people in Halifax are so used to the ships just sailing in and out of harbour,” Newton says. “I would hope that they expect that those ships are doing important things. From Halifax, we oversee just everything that’s important about the Royal Canadian Navy.”
Crossing a harbour bridge, one just need glance down to see how central the navy is to Halifax. “This pairing of helicopters and ships that sail forth from Halifax is the biggest piece of military capital in the country,” says Newton. “This is the premier military location in the continent.”
Under Newton’s command, MARLANT deployed ships on diplomatic missions across the Atlantic. “We’re in the business of building relationships,” says Newton. “It’s not a stagnant matter. You’ve got to go build new relationships, and you’ve got to renew relationships, depending on the regional issues, new domains, and thematics that open up and the security environment changes…just the global struggle of humanity to get along.”
He also oversaw scientific projects like cataloging the effects of “increased human activity” on ice in the north, early-threat detection efforts off the coast with sonar technology, and search-and-rescue operations.
“The last big emergency we dealt with was the ice storms on the Acadian peninsula in New Brunswick,” he says. “The little communities of Caraquet in the peninsula had endured a bad storm and about a week to eight days of very -10, -20, -30 temperatures, and ice-encrusted wire-ways and trees. Fuel running low, food running low, no electricity, and we brought in an army and air force task force, under my command…to give resolve to the community, give them resilience, help them restore.”
Newton is proud of the way the military upgraded in Halifax during his term, including the ongoing development of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship and the modernization of MARLANT’s fleet.
“Way back in 2010–11, we were just talking about starting the modernization of the Halifax-class [frigate],” he says. “It was really hard to conceive how to follow that project through, how to do it. It’s such a big modernization in such a short period of time.”
Contractors completed the modernization ahead of schedule, giving sailors extra time to adapt to the changes. “The best tool to finish a job is sailors,” Newton says. “They’re going to tell you what the shortcomings were, they’re going to tell you how it best operated, and how to modify our procedures to all the new technology…we’ve got in our hands now a ship that’s way more capable, and crews that are way more confident than we could ever have foreseen.”
Rear Admiral Craig Baines is replacing Newton as the commander of MARLANT, after serving under him for three years. He says Newton’s leadership makes him better at his job.
“Admiral Newton was the most creative leader I have ever worked for,” says Baines. “He would look at a problem from a completely different lens than almost everyone else. Everything he did always had a people nexus to it. He was just so interested in how decisions would affect people.”
One of Newton’s toughest tests came near the end of his term: the Proud Boys incident, when several men under his command (as part of the racist Proud Boys group) publicly confronted native protestors.
“I knew I had to address concerns of the public immediately,” said Newton in an email in October. “I wanted to own and respond to the issue myself, in my own words, and using my own moral compass. As a personal leadership ethos I never sought to pass my local issues upward to superior chain of commands.”
Baines says that reflects his style. “He recognized immediately that, as the commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, he needed to be personally involved in quickly taking action,” Baines adds. “He just exerted a tremendous amount of personal leadership. And it was genuine personal leadership. I think that came across to people.”
Newton hopes MARLANT will stay central to life in Halifax.
“The worst thing that I could think would happen is we just become a self-licking ice cream cone—it just exists for itself,” he says. “We want people to pull us, we want people to want to have what we are. The serviceman is as much a foundation of Canadian wealth and peace and prosperity as any other element of business or industry. Having the community behind us, and challenging us and asking us to be darn good at who we are, is important. A vibrant relationship is important to sailors and soldiers feeling motivated, and that the people are behind them. They’ll do anything, then.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.