Matthew Dalzell
Matthew Dalzell

Prairie sailor

When Matthew Dalzell yells “all hands on deck,” he means it. Literally.

After 23 years of service and training, Dalzell will soon assume the post of commanding officer (CO) of HMCS Unicorn, Saskatoon's reserve division of the Royal Canadian Navy. His "ship" is pretty much land locked—"a stone frigate tied up across from City Hall on the corner of 24th Street and Fourth Avenue"—but it, like its incoming CO, has a long and proud naval history.

Dalzell, who by day is the communications officer at the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, is a third-generation prairie sailor; his father was Unicorn's 17th CO (Dalzell will be its 26th) and his maternal grandfather was a sea cadet officer during the Second World War. "It just seemed that's what I would do."

He joined up as an officer cadet in 1992, during his first year at the U of S. Not only was he following a family tradition "but my parents pointed out the navy would help me earn money for school." The summer of that year was spent in basic training, what Dalzell described as the "the welcome-to-the-navy course: leadership training, tying knots, fighting fires and sailing out of Esquimalt on Vancouver Island."

At the same time, he was working on the first of three degrees he earned at the U of S —a bachelor of education, a BSc in palaeobiology and an MSc in geology. He took 1993-94 off school to do marine surface training with the navy, and did more in 1996 on the east coast "learning to drive a ship, which I was OK at." He moved up through the ranks and today, described himself as "a sea-going fi ghting logistics officer."

At the same time, Dalzell was pursing a civilian career. In an interview in his office with a Geiger counter ticking away in the background—"I leave it on for guests, and the auditors. The one thing I am trying to prove is that radiation is everywhere and that it should be respected but not feared, like a bear, or fire."—he recounted his time teaching in Mayfair, Sask. "where I was the high school science and English departments." Back in Saskatoon, Dalzell started his master's degree and worked as a substitute teacher for Saskatoon Public Schools.

That was followed by three years with Unicorn as its full-time training officer. Then, a volunteer opportunity with the Canada-Wide Science Fair organization gave him his first taste of communications work where "my science, English and teaching background helped me explain what was going on." He joined the Canadian Light Source as its communications officer before the facility even opened, "and at that point, science communications became my thing." In 2012, he moved to the Fedoruk Centre.

So what is the attraction to the navy for people from the prairies? "That's a big question everybody asks and there are so many apocryphal answers to it," replied Dalzell. First, it is a different experience, he said, but "prairie people are used to hard work and staring out at big empty horizons. The final reason we make good sailors, I think, is because we don't necessarily know what we're getting into."

What Dalzell will take command of in August is a reserve unit of about 60 sailors that carries the battle honours of all the ships named Unicorn that have gone before, from the one that sailed against the Spanish armada in 1588 to the light aircraft carrier that supported the British Pacific Fleet operations at Okinawa in 1945. "And I'm the captain," he said, adding his role as CO "is akin to being a school principal in many ways."

The four main roles of HMCS Unicorn are to recruit and train sailors for the regular reserve navy; to be available to augment the fleet; to "connect with Canadians, including answering the question of why there is a naval reserve in Saskatoon," and to respond to domestic emergencies, particularly floods. "We have boats and we know how to use them." Dalzell, who carries the rank of lieutenant commander, will be the Unicorn's CO for three years, and admitted, "there's something special about being a ship's captain. It will certainly be a highlight of my career." At the end of his term, there may be regional and national job opportunities for former captains "but ultimately, what happens to me is up to the navy based on the job I do."

The naval reserves have given Dalzell myriad opportunities to travel, train and acquire leadership skills but the real appeal for this prairie sailor is closely linked with his patriotism. "For me, it's about the idea of service, of contributing to an institution, and contributing to and serving one's country. That idea resonates with everyone who wears the uniform, and it certainly does with me."
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