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Sergeant (Ret’d) Joan Buchanan

Born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Joan Buchanan emigrated to Toronto, Ontario, when she was 17 years old. She joined the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) 16 years later for what would become both a rewarding and challenging career path. She often felt like the invisible yet visible minority, but Joan vowed to break down racial barriers and paved the way for future generations of women of colour in the military.

Ottawa, Ontario






  • Ottawa, Ontario

Key operational experiences:

  • Bosnia
  • Tampa, Florida

In 1985, Joan Buchanan was settled in Canada and looking for a challenge in a Skilled Trades and Technical Profession. She attempted to join the Canadian Armed Forces, but was turned away and told she did not have military potential. Determined, she returned to the Recruitment Centre and referred to the Employment Equity Act which states that every Canadian citizen has the right to apply. From there, she wrote the aptitude test, but despite meeting all tactical, physical and medical requirements, it took two years before she was offered a position as an Administrative Clerk. “It felt good, it felt real good to be sworn in,” said Joan.

“…It felt good, it felt real good to be sworn in.”

She completed her basic training in 1987. Her career would span 27 years including multiple postings across the country and two deployments overseas: Bosnia and Tampa, Florida.

“I had to constantly prove my worth as a woman of colour.”

As the only woman of colour in her battalion, she found it hard to bond with her colleagues. Education and awareness around systemic racism did not exist at that time, “I was the invisible yet visible minority”. She spent many hours feeling excluded, alone and ignored in a predominantly white male environment. “The racial tension was subtle but the non-verbal language spoke volumes.” This was also true for her son. When a person serves, the family also serves. Joan’s son was forced to readjust with every deployment and often faced racism. She was very aware of how her career choice impacted her family and this weighted heavily on her.

About mid-way through her career, Joan started reflecting on her path and realized she had not been promoted in over 14 years despite her extensive experience and dedication. Not afraid to speak up, she approached several of her direct supervisors and argued her case. With no sign of a promotion coming her way, she decided to put a grievance into motion. A year later, she won her case and was promoted to Master Corporal and to Sergeant three years later. “I had to constantly prove my worth as a woman of colour”.

“The racial tension was subtle but the non-verbal language spoke volumes.”
Joan with granddaughters Kennedy and Olivia.

Joan with granddaughters Kennedy and Olivia.

All through her service, Joan noticed a number of injustices she believed were directly linked to her race and/or gender. Not one to stand idly by, she decided to take action. In 1997, she joined the Defence Visible Minority Advisory Group with the Department of National Defence. The Group identifies systematic issues and recommends ways to address them. As the co-chair, Joan was able to have a true voice to fight for more inclusiveness and address discrimination within the forces. “The idea was to try and change the archaic mindset with concrete examples, whereby transparency was lacking”. In addition, from 2004-2005 she became the first black woman to ever hold the position of President of the Mess Committee.

Her efforts paid off and in 2009 she was presented with the Human Resource Management Award in recognition of her tremendous work in leading change within the Canadian Armed Forces and her volunteer work in employment equity. She retired from the forces in 2014 and now resides in Ottawa which was her last posting. As a civilian, she now holds an administrative position with the Department of National Defence.

“We have been given a voice and it’s time to listen. We are shining a bright light on the issues that affect people of colour.”

Life post military is much lighter for Joan who enjoys spending time with her granddaughters Olivia and Kennedy. Overall, she is proud of her 27 year career but admits that at times it was painful to serve. She resents the injustice that she experienced due to the colour of her skin. She hopes her granddaughters will experience better circumstances in their endeavors. She remains passionate about anti-racism, and in recent months has been an advocate in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We have been given a voice and it’s time to listen”. “We are shining a bright light on the issues that affect people of colour”. Today, Joan continues to serve her community by working with youth through her church. She aims to build confidence in their abilities regardless of race and provide guidance for a more equitable tomorrow. “Amen to that!” Joan exclaimed.

With courage, integrity and loyalty, Joan Buchanan has left her mark. She is one of our Canadian Veterans. Discover more stories.

If you a Veteran, family member or caregiver in need of mental health support, the VAC Assistance Service is available to you 24/7, 365 days a year at no cost. Call "1-800-268-7708 to speak to a mental health professional right now.

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