A matter of national security: Jody Thomas awarded honorary doctorate

Jody Thomas stands in front of a Canadian flag.

“It's overwhelming. I think ‘why me? I’m just doing my job,’ so it’s really quite something,” says Jody Thomas, national security and intelligence advisor to the prime minister, on being awarded an honorary doctorate at Royal Roads University’s 2023 Spring Convocation. Despite her humble response, Thomas’s job has a wide-reaching impact.

Outside of advising on some of the country’s top security challenges, Thomas is a steadfast spouse, mother and friend. Colleagues say that her attention to the well-being of those around her shows through in her work. Above all, she hopes to leave this country, and the Canadian Armed Forces, a better place for future generations. 

Thomas joined the naval reserves at age 17 as a diesel mechanic, one of the only seagoing roles available to women at the time. She loved it and spent the next 12 years of her life there. 

“Truly everything I've learned about leadership, about decision making, about resilience, comes from that period of time,” she says of her officer role while in the navy. 

Though Thomas learned a lot during her time with the reserves, it wasn’t without its faults. A lot has changed for women in the armed forces since she started in 1984 — thanks to leaders like her, women can now enroll in any CAF occupation — but a culture of toxic masculinity, misogyny and chauvinism remains. 

In 2016, seven former members of the CAF initiated a class action lawsuit against the Government of Canada, alleging sexual harassment, assault, or discrimination while serving. The seven claimants were later joined by more than 24,000 others. 

Thomas fought to ensure that civilian members of the Department of National Defence were included in the suit. After working in the department, she knew civilian employees were integrated with CAF members and were likely victims or perpetrators of sexual misconduct as well. The case resolved in 2019 when the claimants and the government reached a $900-million settlement.

The Government of Canada and the CAF are taking gradual steps to address this toxic culture. Thomas has been there every step of the way, working in the public service, before joining the Canadian Coast Guard, then in a series of senior roles in federal government. Prior to her appointment as NSIA, Thomas served as deputy minister of national defence.

“I had the privilege of leading organizations for people sacrificing their lives every day, but there are huge consequences and responsibilities that come with that. It's those moments where I have to reflect upon just what we ask of people and how much they give.” 

Jody Thomas, National Security and Intelligence Advisor

As DM of national defence, Thomas was involved in the federal government’s apology to CAF members for the harm caused by sexual misconduct within the DND. 

“In the Canadian Armed Forces, there's a lot to account for and apologize for,” says Thomas. “So, I wanted to be a part of that apology, having been a victim [of sexual harassment and discrimination], but equally now in a position where I could bring a bit of hope for the future.”

An ardent advocate for mental wellness, Thomas is a proponent of people bringing their whole selves to work and checking in with colleagues, especially when working within the intensity of the security and defence community. 

The leadership traits she values most are honesty and accountability, willingness to admit when you’ve made a mistake and learning that failure is okay — it’s the recovery from the failure that’s most important.

As Thomas reflects on some of the most difficult moments of her career, they reveal her deep commitment to her colleagues and Canadians. Working with the Coast Guard and the DND, she lost team members and friends to crashes and accidents in the field. 

“I had the privilege of leading organizations for people sacrificing their lives every day, but there are huge consequences and responsibilities that come with that. It's those moments where I have to reflect upon just what we ask of people and how much they give.” 

The January 2022 convoy protests in Ottawa and cities across Canada were one of the first challenges in her role as NSIA. Thomas recalls preparing for her nearly five-hour testimony in the Public Order Emergency Commission, which assessed the federal government’s decision to use the Emergencies Act to quell convoy protests. 

“My dad died in September. He was always my person, always in my corner and he was who I thought I should be. I lost him and [in November,] I was going into this difficult public inquiry, and I don’t think I had time to grieve before I had to prepare... 

“[In senior leadership positions], you still have to come to work every day and you still have to be there for your boss — my bosses are the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister — and for your colleagues and for your team. I had colleagues testifying at the same time and I wanted to support them.”

She noted that before her father’s death, Charles Thomas was proud to learn she would be receiving the honorary doctorate from Royal Roads, which Thomas had to defer in order to testify at the commission. As a former naval officer himself, Thomas senior brought his daughter to the campus back in its military college days. 

In recent years, Thomas has been at the centre of some of Canada’s most important domestic and international decisions, including Canada’s security response to the war in Ukraine; the Canadian Forces response to request for assistance during the pandemic and natural disasters; concerns over Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic; and Canadians being held illegally by foreign governments.

Aside from these monumental tasks, she says she is most occupied with opening the door to the next generation of people coming into public service, and especially, security and defence roles. 

“[It’s important we are] opening the door for the next generation, ensuring that door doesn't get closed on other women, racialized people, minorities, that we understand the importance of having diverse teams that represent who we are as a country.” 

Thomas' goal is to prop the door wide open and declare: “You belong!” 

Jody Thomas receives the Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, at the Spring 2023 Convocation ceremonies June 9. This is the university’s highest honour awarded to people of merit who reflect Royal Roads University's vision and values, and have achieved a significant record of success and community service.