Lt. Col. Joseph Nonato, seated far left, hands over command of the Royal Regiment of Canada to Lt.-Col. Peter Martinis, right, in a May 30 ceremony presided over by Col. John McEwen. Photo by WO Aly Hirji

Servant leadership guides unit commander

  • June 13, 2021

June 4, 2017 was a landmark day in Lt.-Col. Joseph Nonato’s life where he felt like he was answering God’s will. That was the day the Brampton, Ont., product carved a place in history as the first Filipino-Canadian to assume command of the Royal Regiment of Canada at the Fort York Armoury in Toronto.

On May 30, just shy of four years later, the Roman Catholic wrapped up his command of the unit of approximately 250 men and women. Nonato handed over the regiment to his successor, Lt.-Col Peter Martinis, at a ceremony presided over by the Commander of 32 Canadian Brigade Group, Col. John McEwen.

Nonato describes concluding this chapter in his military career as “bittersweet.” But he said he lets the Lord guide him through these transitions. Whether confronting deadly front-line peril in Afghanistan or striving to help students excel in religion and social studies as a teacher at Toronto’s De La Salle College “Oaklands” Catholic prep school, Nonato knows he’s been empowered with support from God.

“We’re supposed to be doing what our Lord is asking us,” said Nonato. “Transitions in life are part of what happens, such as evolutions in families — and a regiment is family too. You ask the Lord what He wants you to do. I try to consider the Lord’s will in a supernatural perspective and remember to be a servant.”

Answering “yes” to God’s call to serve in the military has taken Nonato to Afghanistan in 2008-2009, South Sudan in 2012 and Kuwait in 2019-2020. While military placements can sometimes shake the faith of some, it has been a rock for Nonato. In fact, some of the memories closest to his heart are the times he celebrated faith with people of other nations.

“When you are generous with God, God is generous with you. In Afghanistan, for some weird reason I was fortunate to go to daily Mass every day,” he said.

“When I was deployed in South Sudan, there was a part of the country where the Protestants would evangelize the east and Catholics would evangelize the west. Initially I was going to be deployed to the east, but in the 11th hour I was redeployed to a different station where I got to attend daily Catholic Mass. At first the villagers thought it was kind of weird seeing a foreigner in a UN vehicle coming to Mass, but eventually they just adopted me.”

While daily Mass was not a possibility in Kuwait, Nonato was able to attend chapel services a couple of times each week.

Nonato, a graduate of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., said servant leadership is intrinsic to the DNA of Canadian military leadership. They operate with a “leader is last” mentality.

Putting others before himself is natural, in his career and his family. Nonato and his wife Sheila raise three young children together.

Sheila has exhibited strength of her own these past years as a military wife. She is so proud of her husband’s leadership.

“I’m proud of him for being a role model to young people, including to Filipino-Canadian youth, to his students and cadets,” said Sheila. “Joe is a dedicated teacher who loves to teach his students about the Catholic faith and leadership skills. His cadets and students look up to him and several have gone on to careers in the military, the police force and the health-care sector.”

Nonato says he and Sheila’s devotion to a rich prayer life has enabled the couple to provide strong spousal support to each other throughout all these years as a military family.

“It all stems from prayer. The more difficult days happen when you abandon that prayer life,” he said. “We make time to pray a family rosary as often as possible, and we constantly encourage each other to take time for mental prayer. We have to recognize to be encouraging, patient and Christ-like to each other.”

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