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TIM DUNNE: Cy Clayton — a natural-born soldier, legendary mentor for Canadian Forces officers

A proud African Nova Scotian, Sgt. Cy Clayton was ultimately promoted to the highest non-commissioned rank of Chief Warrant Officer (CWO). He was the first African Canadian appointed Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of a major Canadian base when Maj.-Gen. Bryan Stevenson assigned him to CFB Gagetown, N.B. He was inducted into the prestigious Order of Military Merit on Dec. 7, 1990, and became a legend in the Canadian Army due to the quality of his instruction, mentorship and leadership.
Cy Clayton was the first African Canadian appointed Regimental Sergeant Major of a major Canadian base when he was assigned to CFB Gagetown, N.B. He was inducted into the prestigious Order of Military Merit on Dec. 7, 1990. - Contributed

I arrived at the Canadian Forces Officer Candidate School in Chilliwack, B.C. in February 1974. 

The area was spectacularly beautiful. But I only had a few hours to enjoy the vistas before I began the Canadian version of officer boot camp.  

On Day 1, I was led to the room that I shared with three other officer candidates and began to unpack. The first time I met Sgt. Cy Clayton, I didn’t see him as much as I felt his presence when I saw my roommates stiffen. 

Sgt. Clayton was to be my platoon non-commissioned officer. I had been a reservist (part-time military) for several years and had decided to transfer to the full-time regular force. It was through Sgt. Clayton that I was introduced to officer candidate school and to the regular Forces.  

Back to my first impressions.

Sgt. Clayton was walking from room to room, telling each of us how to lay out our “bed spaces” and our toiletries for daily inspections. “You might want to go to the base CANEX store to get an extra razor and toothbrush for display,” he suggested. 

We quickly learned that his directions enabled us to survive our inspections. We were officer candidates, raw recruits, and we were seeing how an experienced and capable non-commissioned officer guided, led and protected his soldiers. 

We counted on his visits before we were to undertake a new task or event. The night before our first field exercise, for example, he brought a military sleeping bag into the corridor and told us: “Gentlemen, getting ready for field training is the only time when neatness doesn’t count.” He stuffed the sleeping bag into its carrying case, pausing halfway to quip, “Yeah, hello neat.” 

But when necessary, our mentor became a tough and demanding taskmaster. 

A proud African Nova Scotian, Sgt. Clayton was ultimately promoted to the highest non-commissioned rank of Chief Warrant Officer (CWO). He was the first African Canadian appointed Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of a major Canadian base when Maj.-Gen. Bryan Stevenson assigned him to CFB Gagetown, N.B. He was inducted into the prestigious Order of Military Merit on Dec. 7, 1990, and became a legend in the Canadian Army due to the quality of his instruction, mentorship and leadership. 

During our recent interview in Halifax, he attributed much of his advancement to officers such as Royal 22nd Regiment’s Col. J.G. LeBlanc, who appointed him the RSM of the Canadian School of Infantry in 1988, Lt.-Gen. Michel Maisonneuve, Maj.-Gen. Stevenson and Maj. Ken Hynes, currently curator of the Army Museum in Halifax. They were among several “who looked through the colour and saw the man.” 

Clayton might have been destined to become an outstanding soldier. His introduction to the Canadian military began when he was a child, as troops were returning from overseas. His mother was pushing him in a stroller on a rainy day during the VE Day riots in Halifax in May 1945.  

A soldier took his rain cape off and said, “Ma’am, put this over your little guy.” She asked, ”What are you gonna use?” He said, “No, that’s fine.” 

That story, which his mother later told him, had a huge impact.  

“That made me want to be a soldier. I served in all the cadets — Princess Louise Fusiliers Army Cadet Corps at Alexander School, and air cadets and navy cadets at the same time. I was probably 13.” 

And that worked for about a year in terms of quenching his thirst for all things military. But when he was 14 years and nine months, he “doctored up a baptismal certificate that showed me as 17 years old in 1956,” so he could join the Halifax Rifles militia.  

And when he actually reached his 17th birthday, he enrolled as an infantryman in the Canadian Guards and moved to Petawawa, Ont., in July 1958. 

His first United Nations deployment was with his unit to Cyprus for six months in 1967-68 to join the international force overseeing the fragile ceasefire between the ethnic Greek and Turk Cypriots.  

During those six months, he was an observation post commander, spending two months each at positions named Trails End, Thompson’s Farm and Barbara Hill 1.  

His second UN deployment was as regimental sergeant-major with the Canadian contingent attached to the United Nations Force at Camp Ziouani in 1981-82 on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. 

Because he got married before his 21st birthday, he couldn’t accompany the Canadian Guards to Germany in 1959. So he transferred to the 2nd Battalion Black Watch in Gagetown, N.B. that November. He remained with them until they disbanded in 1970. The 2nd Battalion Black Watch was “rebadged” to the 2nd Battalion The Royal Canadian Regiment. 

Assigned to Officer Candidate School as a sergeant from 1971-74, he provided basic training to entry-level officer candidates for the army, navy, and air force, regular and reserve, and foreign and NATO countries.  

Once appointed RSM of the Canadian School of Infantry at Gagetown, CWO Clayton participated in training programs for infantry soldiers and officers who had completed their basic training. Infantry school also provided more advanced training phases and professional development courses, like small arms, mortar crews, machine-guns, pioneers and crew-served weapons, and other infantry-specific courses and training. 

In 1992, the Toronto Sun published a full-page photo essay about Clayton as part of a “Canada 125” series about Canadians who made a difference. 

“I always wanted to be a soldier,” CWO Clayton told me. “I achieved that dream and lived it for 40 years, until I retired 25 years ago. And I still miss the army.” 

After graduating from officer candidate school in 1974, Tim Dunne became the longest-serving public affairs officer in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces. He served in Canada, the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He acknowledges he was well-served by the many lessons CWO Clayton taught him. 

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