Dr. Bonnie Henry’s military roots



The journey to Dr. Bonnie Henry becoming a household name in B.C. and across the rest of Canada began decades ago as the child of a military family.

She still has the stereotypical answer to the question, “Where are you from?”

“I was born in Fredericton when my father was posted to CFB Gagetown, but I consider Charlottetown my hometown,” she says, because her father was a Major with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, Canadian Army. “We moved around a lot.”

She grew up in towns across Canada and abroad – from Charlottetown to Calgary to Saint John’s and even as far away as the Netherlands.

But it was summer employment with the Naval Reserves as a Naval Warfare Officer, then known as a Naval Control of Shipping officer, that would lead her to B.C., and eventually to Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia managing COVID-19, the first woman to hold that position.   

An interest in medicine led her to Dalhousie University Faculty of Medicine in Halifax, Nova Scotia. While completing her medical degree, she decided to follow her father’s path and join the Canadian Armed Forces.

“Being an armoured corps officer, he was sorely disappointed when I joined the navy,” she quips.

The military, always in need of medical staff, paid for the last two years of her degree.

Like her current position, back in the 1990s she was a female rarity in the medical, navy, and diving world. She spent almost 10 years showcasing how woman can excel in the military domain. During her service, she was a ship’s diver, flight surgeon, and medical diver. Each of those roles required special training that exposed her to physical and mental stressors.

“They were all physically demanding and intellectually stimulating,” she says. “I really enjoyed the physical part as well as the understanding, from a medical perspective, of the occupational challenges life in the military and specific things such as diving or flying have on people.”

She dove with Fleet Diving Unit clearance divers to understand the unique challenges of the underwater environment and their medical needs should a situation arise where the decompression chamber would be required. While she wasn’t the strongest diver, she persevered through the training and managed donning the complex dive gear and operating the heavy dive equipment.

As a medical officer, she sailed in HMCS Annapolis, HMCS Provider and HMCS Regina, and attended to the medical needs of the crew. She recalls many late night knocks at her cabin door from a sailor needing something minor such as a Band-Aid.

“As a medical officer, my job was 90 per cent boredom and 10 per cent panic,” she says wryly. “My role in the ship was also a public health one.”

During port visits, she held the customary briefings to explain the importance of protective measures in foreign cities, from food dangers to sexual safety.

She was even at the forefront of banning smoking in warships. At that time sailors could puff away inside the ship, even in the racks.

“I walked into a meeting and most of the men there were smokers. We had done a survey and 50 per cent of the crew were smokers,” she said.

Despite coming prepared to argue for the ban, it wasn’t required.

“It surprised me that they all agreed smoking was bad and it was banned [inside the ship].”

The uniqueness of sailing in a warship stays with her to this day.

“I remember sailing down to RIMPAC; half way to Hawaii we stopped the ship to have a swim. There is something about swimming in the middle of the Ocean when you realize the closest piece of land is one nautical mile away, straight down.”

In 1995, Dr. Henry retired from the military at the rank of Lieutenant (Navy), exchanging her weighted diver’s boots and sailor footwear for her signature Fluevog shoes. When she joined the civilian workforce, she took with her the many lessons learned about leadership and decision making.

“I learned the importance of understanding what people do to deal with a crisis. In a crisis it is important to make decisions with the best information you have at the time, but often the information is imperfect and there may be things we don’t yet know. Not everybody is comfortable making a decision in these circumstances.”

Her wisdom has grown through her work with UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and dealing with public health crises at varying levels in Canada, such as Anthrax, Polio, Ebola, SARS and H1N1. Now she advises the province on how to handle this global pandemic.

To her health care colleagues currently in uniform thinking of careers after military service, she offers this advice.

“Be confident that the training and experience you have from the military will hold you in good stead in the civilian world as well. That and the extra experience you get from a leadership perspective can be readily transferable. Just don’t expect everyone in the ‘real’ world to follow your advice!”

As the pandemic continues around the world, B.C. residents should continue to follow Dr. Henry’s advice: “Be kind. Be calm. Be safe.”


Filed Under: Top Stories

About the Author: The Lookout Newspaper can trace its history back to April 1943 when CFB Esquimalt’s first newspaper was published. Since then, Lookout has grown into the award winning source for Pacific Navy News. Leading the way towards interactive social media reach, we are a community resource newspaper growing a world wide audience.

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  1. William Jones says:

    A great lady doing a tough job , you can’t please everone but you come close , many Thanks!

  2. A TIME SPENT IN THE MARITIMES—LARDtunnerin jayzes buys—chose Summerside PEI, but if Chatam, and married the nurse–would have had a daughter like you Bonnie

  3. L/S Ray Alyea(exRCNR) says:

    Keep up the good work,well done BROVO ZULU”

  4. Elizabeth J, Koelman-Murphy ex (RCNR) says:

    Hello Dr. Bonnie, When yu first appeared on the TV I felt I knew you somehow. After several of your appearances I thought — this gal has got to be Navy, somehow it showed, and I had never heard anything about you before that. Then from one of my ship mates I heard that you were Ex-Navy and I patted myself on the back for being so perceptive. I too am ex navy ( actually you are never ex-navy it is always with you) but in MY day women were not allowed to stay on board over night—it was in the ’50’s – so long before your time, but hey, we old timer’s are very proud of you. I hope that some day when this “virus” has been conquered, we will see you as a guest at our VNVA meetings at HMCS Discovery –that would e a great honour for us OLD SHIPMATES.
    Right now we are banned from coming aboard the Base but we miss it very much. To quote someone I admire very much, keep calm and stay safe. Keep up the good work. Betty Murphy RCNR Ret.

  5. Keith C. Cowan says:

    Returned for PV MX on July 17th, and felt relaxed to be home under the care of Dr Henry. Many signs of her leadership around the shops in town.

  6. Bill Schneider says:

    The little girl across the street on Dakota Dr in Oromocto NB. Served with your dad in the Royal Canadian Dragoons in the 60’s. He was the CO of the St John Recruiting Centre in 84 when I swore in my RCAF Daughter Krista into the Forces. Was a pleasure to meet you again in Esquimalt in the 90’s. Think you’re doing a Great job providing leadership for us through this crisis. Thank you!

  7. B (Skip) Walker says:

    Thanks Bonnie. I value our time together and am honoured to have served with you. You were always the calm, pragmatic officer in the Wardroom, invariably in a sea of bull-headedness. I’m glad that that pragmatism continues in your present excellence. We appreciate you more than you can know.

  8. Rich Bak says:

    What an incredible background Dr. Bonnie Henry has … it is nothing more than simply amazing!

  9. Bill Wilson says:

    Thank you, a well written article. And bravo, Dr. Henry- you have the respect of us all!

  10. Mark Melanson says:

    Nice story

    My Irgun AnnapolisRoyal NS

  11. anne moon says:

    AND she has written a book, which was revised to cover the current COVID 19 crisis!

  12. Elisa S. Lay says:

    You are my hero!

  13. Bill Bresser says:

    Hi Bonnie. Keep your stellar advice coming. It is sincerely appreciated as is your demeanour both of which are guiding examples to BC residents and elsewhere.

  14. louise jones says:

    I love Dr Bonnie’s comment,
    “physically demanding and intellectually stimulating”..
    good words to live by..
    (I also was born in NB and grew up in Charlottetown)
    Thank you Dr Bonnie for your gentle leadership!

  15. Vanessa Hammond says:

    You are a role model for the world – I get comments about you from family and friends across Canada, the UK, Ireland and more. Thank you.
    I was an army brat, early years in S Asia. Rejected by the RAF and then the Canadian Air force on gender grounds. Regardless, learned to fly, one of my best ever decisions. And now Chair a Health Co-op. I totally agree that the early exposure to the military environment was a gift in many ways.

    • Kathy Joyal says:

      Hi Vanessa
      Would you explain “Rejected by the RAF and then the Canadian Air force on gender grounds”. As a female ex-military, I am curious at your comment. Thanks.

  16. Janice James says:

    What a great and informative article. Being a follower of Dr. Bonnie its nice to hear some of the interesting and challenging background that clearly has helped her help us through this crisis. Yay Dr. Bonnie

  17. Susan Warrender says:

    Thank you for keeping as safe as possible during this time. I can only imagine how very frustrating it is when people who are uneducated and ignorant ignore your advice. This article proves just how very intelligent and well trained you are. So lucky you are here in B.C.

  18. John Harper says:

    I think of Dr. Henry every-time I enter a public space. I know that she would never say “Don’t Do that John” but she might say, “Have you thought this throught, have you considered what effect this action might have on yourself, and others.

    There is so much to respect about her efforts to make us all safer, and better people all at the same time.

  19. Judy says:

    That’s a nice story to hear! I come from a Air background ,grandfather ,father ,husband and our daughter join the army!

  20. Judy says:

    Nice to hear your story…I’m from an Air background, grandfather, father, husband and our daughter went army!!!

  21. Brenda says:

    Even though I live in Ontario, I found your reports during the pandemic very informative and clear language. Thank You.
    Your life history was very interesting and so true about military training, it stays with you forever.
    Thanks again for your service, in and out of the military.

  22. Christina Sylvestre says:

    An admirable history for a remarkable person. As do many, I hold her in the highest esteem. We are lucky to have her and her vast experience right here in BC!

    Side note: Mr Dettwiler, I believe you may have sailed with my father, Larry Loveridge. When I saw your name, I was reminded that Frank Carter mentioned you at my Dad’s service. I have a few great pictures to share, if you’re interested. They are of both my father’s and his father’s Navy history. Specifically, 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s 60’s ships, rescues at sea, warships, WWII battles at sea, A few of HMCS CORNWALLIS, as well.Feel free to contact me anytime!

  23. Christina Sylvestre says:

    An admirable history for a remarkable person. As do many, I hold her in the highest esteem. We are lucky to have her and her vast experience right here in BC!

    Side note: Mr Detweiler, I believe you may have sailed with my father, Larry Loveridge. When I saw your name, I was reminded that Frank Carter mentioned you at my Dad’s service. I have a few great pictures to share, if you’re interested. They are of both my father’s and his father’s Navy history. Specifically, 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s 60’s ships, rescues at sea, warships, WWII battles at sea, A few of HMCS CORNWALLIS, as well.Feel free to contact me anytime!

  24. Sharron Makus says:

    Thank you Dr. Bonnie Henry for your service to our country, especially for all your good advice during this pandemic. I wish you well in all future endeavors. You have made BC an example to the rest of Canada and other countries. We are truly blessed to have you as our provincial medical officer.

  25. Sylvie R-Robinson says:

    What a nice military career and continuing involvement in the needed areas. Experience is acquired and becomes useful if the « real world follows the advice » as Dr Henry states… What a wonderful person who loves humanity.

  26. Ray. Perchie says:

    I don’t think we could have got anyone better. Thank you for a the great job you have done for this province.

  27. David Smith says:

    I would love to share with her my own transition. We came Back from RCAF Stn. No.1 Wing Marville France to RCAF Stn. Clinton Ontario. After 4 years in Europe i recall standing on the main drag such as it is, of Clinton and thinking what the hell is this? I came to like the place,we brats are always flexible.I subsequently joined the RCN in London. The day i got home from recruiting office in London my dad asked me when was i going to manning depot St. Jean (RCAF)and i said I am not going to manning depot dad I am going to HMCS Cornwallis. He leaned across the table over our beers (first he ever gave me)and said ‘Thats a funny GD place
    to send an airman you little b**^%tard 🙂

  28. Steve Foldesi says:

    Hi Bonnie. What a great article and I love the photo. So pleased to hear about you. Let’s connect on Facebook to catch up on all these years. Your old skipper in Provider.

  29. Heather Parker says:

    Nice write up about an amazing lady.

  30. Good history of DR Henry!!

  31. Jack Thorgeirson says:

    And young lady we in BC are so blessed to have you here.
    Take Care, Be safe, Be Healthy.

  32. Camille Douglas says:

    Great story! Thanks so much for bringing us ‘the rest of the story’!

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