The seven of us were sitting out the storm. In our small green tent that was held up in the middle by the longest ski we had, we sat cross legged around the camping stove we had come to revere. This was the sole barrier between us and the minus-20 something cold that stung our fingers with pain within seconds.
Outside, you could no longer distinguish the frozen Arctic sea from the angry sky that blew wind gusts over the igloo walls we had erected around our tent. In this Nunavut whiteout, we could kiss our ride home goodbye. No plane would come to pick us up.
Some, like my tent mate Andy Lennox, senior vice-president of real estate at Scotiabank, couldn't wait to leave. He had had enough cold to last him a lifetime. Others took the waiting in stride.
This was our first day of rest since the 52 members of the True Patriot Love expedition had set out to trek about 100 kilometres to the magnetic North Pole, circa 1996 – because, yes, its location moves markedly each year. Storms at both end of the week-long trek had compressed the schedule, and after a gruelling 24-kilometre day, hauling backpacks and sleds full of gear, fuel and food, most were just happy to chat idly in their tents.
The expedition, which raised $1.75 million to help soldiers suffering from the physical and mental aftereffects of their military assignments, brought together injured soldiers and Canadian business leaders, such as Paul Desmarais Jr. (Power Corp.), François Olivier (Transcontinental Inc.) and Jim Leech (formerly of Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan).
CEOs and soldiers slept in the same tents. They shared the same pot of fuming oatmeal every morning. And on that final day, they shared thoughts on the corporate and military worlds – and on how divided they stand.
Eric Boyko, president of Stingray Digital, admitted it from the get-go in the boisterous "Quebec tent" next to mine. "There are no soldiers in my entourage, and I held many prejudices regarding them. In my mind, most were dropouts who went to the army as a plan B," he said.
In fact, few outside of defence executives have bridged the gap between the two worlds. Jim Fasano is one of them. This Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board vice-president started his career as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces after studying computer engineering at the Royal Military College in Kingston. "When I was in the military, it pissed me off the lack of respect soldiers got," he said.
Mr. Fasano completed his MBA at the University of Chicago and got hired at Goldman Sachs in New York. "In the United States, many firms such as Goldman actively seek out soldiers for their leadership skills," he said. "In Canada, some investment banks wouldn't even talk to you if you didn't have a traditional background in accounting or finance."
Added Dan Lee, a master corporal in the reserve infantry from Vancouver: "People just don't know our skills,"
As he said that, the military expedition leader, David Quick, popped his head in the tent to check in on us. After 20 years of service, Mr. Quick retired earlier this year as lieutenant colonel and commanding officer for the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment. He was awarded the star of military valour for "exceptional courage" and "selfless dedication" during combat operations in Afghanistan, where he was wounded by an improvised explosive device.
This 40-year-old, who holds a master's degree from Royal Military College in defence studies, had let it be known last summer he was looking for a job in the "real world." Not a single Canadian company approached him. But, Synexxus Inc., an American engineering firm, recruited him as managing director in Ottawa.
"Canadian companies see an infantry guy and say: 'We will put you in charge of a quarry.' Most soldiers retiring from the army end up as foreman or middle managers," he said. And with a pay that, more often than not, is markedly lower.
About 5,000 people leave the Canadian Armed Forces every year, and roughly half of them struggle to find work, according to the non-profit organization Canada Company. Even more veterans will look for jobs this year with the end of the Afghan mission, said Walter Moniz, manager of employer partner relations.
On the True Patriot Love trek, the team spirit, the loyalty and the dedication were striking. Whenever you fell on your back like a turtle, a soldier would help you up. Mr. Boyko was also impressed by the breadth of their knowledge. "This trip was an eye-opener."
As the country marks the Day of Honour, perhaps Canada Inc. will see that too.