Col. Eric Charron is living his childhood dream.
"I was set on the military at a very young age," Charron recalled over lunch earlier this month, sitting at a table covered in white linen in the spacious main dining hall at the 17 Wing airbase.
"My dad (who retired in 1996 as a brigadier-general) was a big influence, my grandfather was in the municipal police force in Hull," the colonel said.
"There's pictures of me in my youth, maybe 10 years old, drilling my cousins with hockey sticks held not to play hockey but like slung rifles to do drills up and down our street."
Today, at the age of 49, Charron is now the commanding officer of both CFB Winnipeg and 17 Wing, the base’s largest air force component.
Within minutes of striking up a conversation, a visitor realizes Charron is the furthest thing from the old-school image of a military base commander. If you were expecting Nathan Jessup, the fire-breathing U.S. Marine Corps colonel portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 courtroom drama A Few Good Men, think again.
Charming, talkative, down to earth and unfailingly courteous to those around him, Charron is the antithesis of Nicholson’s famously corrupt character. Not only does he think you can handle the truth, he’s more than happy to share it with you.
"We are not under some dome of secrecy here," said Charron, whose family lives in River Heights, not on the base. "We want Canadians to know we are here and offer training to military people, but we are part of the community. We go to events at schools we go to events with veterans, we live in the community.
"I'm paying my taxes like everybody else... I pay my utilities, my kids are in sports leagues, I take my son to hockey, now he's driving, our daughter is into house soccer leagues. I've been part of a coaching staff for hockey and community soccer. I've been to Winnipeg Harvest preparing bundles of food. I'm a member of the Grace Hospital Foundation as a director, because this is the hospital closest to our base. I’m a Winnipegger, absolutely. I love Winnipeg."
Former Manitoba Conservative leader Stuart Murray, 17 Wing’s honorary colonel, believes Winnipeggers need to know more about the dynamic colonel and the airbase he has commanded since 2018.
"I’ve gotten to know Col. Charron over the past two years," Murray said. "I’ve admired his leadership style. His style is very open and very inclusive. He’s very patient. Every chance I get, I like to spend time with him.
"I think he’s very passionate about the role of the military, not only in Canada but abroad. We are very fortunate to have 17 Wing in Winnipeg. It’s a large economic driver of the city and this province. Winnipeg is the home of the RCAF."
Born in Val-d’Or, Que., the 5-10, 160-pound colonel, resplendent in his camouflage uniform, has never known anything but the military life.
"I was referred to as a base brat," he said, chuckling. "My father was in the service, as well. By the time I was 18, I had moved 12 times in my life since I was born. The first time I was 10 months old, so I have no recollection of the first move."
Like him, his dad was a communications electronics engineer. His younger brother, 41, is serving in the logistics branch of the army. His younger sister, 46, is a civilian with the federal public service in Gatineau, Que.
"We are all serving Canada, you could say," Charron pointed out with obvious pride.
"We want Canadians to know we are here and offer training to military people, but we are part of the community. We go to events at schools we go to events with veterans, we live in the community." – Col. Eric Charron
His first visit to Winnipeg came when he was 13 and is burned into his memory. "I was finishing Grade 6... I have to tell you it was a little bit traumatic at that time. I was finishing public school in Quebec. I went through a very rigorous screening process and been accepted to a boys-only school in Gatineau run by the Jesuits," he said.
"Dad comes home... 'Kids I have some news,' with that face that all of us in the military come home with, and the rest of the family kind of has the hushed tone, ‘'Oh no, we're being posted; where are we going?’
"I was pretty good in geography and knew Winnipeg was the capital of Manitoba and could find it on a map, but we had never lived in Western Canada. We had moved around quite a bit, but mostly Ontario and Quebec. This was, by far, the furthest move. We were going away from relatives and friends into the great unknown.
"With the introspection of looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Believe it or not, I was shy, introverted. I knew some English… It took me out of my shell, it took me out of my comfort zone. I made some amazing friends with whom I'm still in touch today. I like to think I've mastered English as a second language. You can be the judge of that."
There’s a definite francophone accent, but the colonel has not only mastered English, he speaks with remarkable eloquence.
He seems especially proud that his children both attend the same St. Boniface school, College Louis-Riel, from which he graduated 31 years ago. Philippe is finishing Grade 12 and Sarah is in Grade 10.
At the end of Grade 9, the future commander was uprooted again. "Then, horror, Dad comes home: 'Family, I have some news. We're posted. We're leaving Winnipeg.’" It was off to Kingston, Ont., where this base brat felt like an outsider trying to fit in.
"Lo and behold, before the end of Grade 10, Dad comes home again and ‘Family, I have some news.' We said, ‘Dad, we just moved here.’ Dad said, ‘Well, maybe you'll like this one. We're going back to Winnipeg. I'm getting promoted and assuming my old boss’s job and you get to go back to your friends.’"
It was back in Winnipeg where he became involved in sports, ended up as student council president at Louis-Riel, joined air cadets and, in 1988, enrolled in the military, before attending the Royal Military College in Kingston and becoming an electrical engineer.
For the past 19 years, he’s been married to Andrea Charron, an associate professor in political studies at the University of Manitoba. Asked how the pair met, he replies "it’s classified," and he’s only partly joking.
It was 1999 in Ottawa and the then-major was in charge of all military intelligence information systems, while also completing an MBA. She was with the Privy Council Office, which was interested in having more federal departments sharing classified intelligence, exchanging classified data, he said.
"She was sent to attend one of our conferences... a conference with some of our closest allies. Big meeting at the Canadian Security Intelligence establishment. In that room of well over 100 people, mostly older men, there were three women and my wife, Andrea, was one of those three. I was pretty star-struck right on the spot.
"But it was a good buddy of mine, a good military buddy that had the courage to ask her out first. I can't fault him. They did go on a date, a dinner... the friend thought that we would be a better fit. Talk about a true friend. He basically established a contact between us and we met for coffee and the rest is history."
"That's my scope of command, the people to whom I can give legal orders... you're looking at about 280 civilians, 100 reservists and the balance, 750 plus, are regular forces personnel. That's my direct command. When you look at all the other tenants (on the base), then we get closer to 3,000 altogether." – Col. Charron
His career has taken him around the world; his young family has lived in Europe twice.
The highlights include being posted to the Netherlands in 2000 as chief systems engineer for NATO’s military intelligence network, being selected for German Staff College in Hamburg in 2007 after a crash course in German and being deployed to Kabul in 2010 during the war in Afghanistan.
Did he see combat? "You see combat indirectly," he said. "I wasn't employed in a combat role; I was employed in a combat-support role based at the headquarters of the mission in Kabul. The main Canadian fighting forces were based in Kandahar in the southwest of the country.
"I was the deputy for the team that looked after all the information technology and communication systems for all of Afghanistan. Not just the Canadian military, but the coalition military, the whole alliance of 42 nations. The other role I had in Kabul, I was also their commanding officer."
Charron describes himself as a compassionate man — "I've got my heart on my sleeve. I'm a guy with no hidden agenda" — and that became obvious when he described the day, June 28, 2018, he assumed command of 17 Wing.
"My father and I shed a tear that day," he said, his voice breaking at the memory. "As a retired general, to see his son succeed and become a position he could never aspire to be in his time, it was one of those precious life moments.
"The other people I was proud to have there were my wife and kids... in my accepting address, I thanked them for all the moves they had endured to get me to this point. I told them, 'Philippe and Sarah, I hope you get to have in your lives at some point a moment like I'm having today that is the culmination of everything you've dreamed of.'"
He’s just as open and proud when discussing 17 Winnipeg, which most Winnipeggers simply know as a mysterious parcel of land north of Ness Avenue, west of Air Force Way, east of Whytewold Road and south of Saskatchewan Avenue.
His area of responsibility extends much further — the airbase provides support for 113 military units stretching from Thunder Bay to the Saskatchewan-Alberta border.
What happens at 17 Winnipeg? Think advanced air force training as opposed to sending fighter jets screaming into combat and you’ll be close to the mark.
"From a day to day aspect, I'm not supporting operations directly 100 per cent of the time. What I do 100 per cent of the time is training. Training and readiness," Charron explained.
"Training is the biggest portion until there's an operation. When there's an operation we will even stop training because an operation takes primacy."
"That's the bottom line. If we take care of our people ‐ their career aspirations, their professional development, their families ‐if we're really taking care of the people... I know with the loyalty we have shown them, they will show us the loyalty back and serve the Canadian Armed Forces and our great country Canada to their last breath." – Col. Charron
His role as 17 Wing commander gives him authority over about 1,100 personnel. "That's my scope of command, the people to whom I can give legal orders... you're looking at about 280 civilians, 100 reservists and the balance, 750 plus, are regular forces personnel. That's my direct command. When you look at all the other tenants (on the base), then we get closer to 3,000 altogether."
He oversees three schools, including: 402 "City of Winnipeg" Squadron, which offers training for air combat systems operators, and the electronic sensor operators that sit in the back of aircraft; a survival school where "they teach everything from Arctic survival where we take them up north close to Resolute Bay to land survival that's offered right here in Springer Lake, Manitoba"; and William G. Barker Aerospace College — named for the First World War flying ace — that "takes people in air force uniforms away from their specialty and makes them think in the broader context of the air force. It provides advanced air force training."
He’s also responsible for so-called "force generation," which entails "having people ready to go on deployment from all kinds of occupations." As base commander, he’s also the landlord for "lodger units," including 1 Canadian Air Division, which oversees all air force operations; and 2 Canadian Air Division, which oversees individual training and is commanded by Charron’s boss, Brig.-Gen. Mario Leblanc.
"I'm the landlord here, and all the other units are my tenants. I owe them services — I owe them accommodations, I owe them a dining hall, I owe them transportation, I owe them a language school, I owe them a gym. These tenants have their own chain of command. My boss is a tenant in the sense the unit he commands is a headquarters function."
The base is permanent home to four CT-142 Dash-8 aircraft used by 402 Squadron, and four CC-130H Hercules aircraft employed by the Transport and Rescue Squadron, which is not under Charron’s direct command.
But it also has a NORAD role and serves, as required, as an alternative base for CF-18 Hornet fighter jets out of Cold Lake, Alta., when they need to refuel or re-arm.
Not to forget the legendary RCAF Band, which calls 17 Wing home. "They welcomed our Grey Cup champions back home. I sent them to the airport to welcome (the Blue Bombers) back home. If you pick up our local paper, that's the front-page picture."
And no, the avid jogger, cross-country skier and "fair-weather cyclist" is not a pilot, which he sees as symbolic of the way the Canadian military has evolved.
"We're breaking new ground as an air force. When I joined in 1988 as a communications officer, if someone told me then, ‘You, young man, one day could be the wing commander,' I would have laughed outright. It wasn't in our career path. We were considered technical specialists.
"But the air force has really evolved, as the army and navy have, and come to terms with the fact that what you want in a base commander or wing commander goes beyond flying skills, it goes beyond air operations; it has to do with a senior manager, an executive manger. It has to do with leadership, it has to do with fitness, it has to do with language skills, because we insist that our senior officers be bilingual in French and English."
His message to Winnipeggers? Charron said it’s simply that everyone on the base is proud to be in Winnipeg and serving Canadians. This commander is all about showing compassion to those serving under him.
"If there's one takeaway, if we continue as leaders to put people first, the missions will always get done," he said. "That's the bottom line. If we take care of our people — their career aspirations, their professional development, their families —if we're really taking care of the people... I know with the loyalty we have shown them, they will show us the loyalty back and serve the Canadian Armed Forces and our great country Canada to their last breath."
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.