She is the second female to command HMCS Brandon. And it was on her watch that Brandon’s namesake was involved in a $260-million illicit drug seizure in South America.
HMCS Brandon’s commander, 37-year-old Lt.-Cmdr. Maude Ouellet-Savard, was at the helm when it was involved in the seizure of 4,220 kilograms of illegal drugs recently alongside HMCS Saskatoon.
Ouellet-Savard became the commanding officer of the coastal defence vessel in 2019. She will be moving onto teaching at CFB Esquimalt this summer after she’s promoted to the rank of Commander. She hails from the small town of Loretteville, Que. — population 14,000.
Her love of the sea began as a teenager in sea cadets.
"I was 17 when I left home," she said. She has been in the military 20 years now.
"I could retire in five years."
But Ouellet-Savard doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
"It’s been a great opportunity. I’ve been the captain of a warship in the Canadian navy. For most people, it’s a dream we have in the naval warcraft trade. So my career’s been built around having the skills, expertise, leadership and doing this job to the best of my ability," she told The Sun in a telephone interview somewhere between Guatemala and Panama.
"Achieving this milestone is an incredible moment," she said.
"Lots of challenges," she laughed.
"We’re still on mission right now." The mission has been going on since 2006. "I was familiar with it before I took command of the ship. As soon as I found out I was being deployed on this mission, I was very excited for the chance in my career to make a difference in the world protecting North America from the trafficking and flow of drugs and removing them from the street."
HMCS Brandon covers an area that is between Guatemala and Panama for the most part, and all the way down to Columbia and Ecuador. For security reasons, Ouellet-Savard wasn’t at liberty to reveal their exact location.
"It’s a wide area to cover, but that’s where the partnerships in the region really pay off," she said.
The total for the mission for the Royal Canadian Navy involved in illicit drug seizures sits at 4,220 kilograms valued at approximately $260 million this year alone. It’s not all HMCS Brandon — HMCS Saskatoon was also part of the mission, too, she pointed out.
When the drug seizure took place, Ouellet-Savard said it was "very exciting."
Both ships have the American Coast Guard members who disembarked with two teams of seven per ship. They also had the assistance of the U.S Coast Guard helicopter and cutter as well.
"Once we get information that a suspicious vessel was in our area, often we work with the Maritime Patrol aircraft. So there’s a plane in the air that will usually identify the vessel in the water and direct us toward that position."
The smugglers often dump the ‘bales’ of drugs into the water to distract from being arrested, she said. Those bales were retrieved as evidence, photographed and sorted then turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard.
"We transfer the substantives to them. Once that’s done, we go back to patrolling."
She explained Canada can’t arrest or detain.
"We don’t have the authority," she said. "We provide logistical support, transport and all the resources they need for them to do enforcement."
Seven U.S. Coast Guard members stay on HMCS Brandon with its crew during these operations, for a total of 47 crew members.
"The Brandon seized 870 kilograms in one go," Ouellet-Savard said. "It was the biggest for Brandon in its history. It’s a very big achievement for us when we saw the numbers we had reached on that bust. It was surreal at first."
But it was when the subject of Betty Coleman, HMCS Brandon’s matron, did the ship’s captain noticeably soften.
"Ah, Betty," she said.
"I had the privilege of talking to Coleman by phone a couple of days prior to her passing. It was a very emotional moment, but it was a very privileged moment to be able to close the loop with her and reassure her that her ship would be taken care of. And that she had made quite an impact on HMCS Brandon, and very specifically, missed by everyone out here."
Coleman was there when Ouellet-Savard took command of the ship.
"She insisted on being present. She was a very determined person so we made sure she was there. We had her over in the fall of 2019 for a barbecue on the jetty. We made sure she had her hotdog. She took the time to present all the crew members with a pin and the ship’s crest. She liked to make sure that all the crew members knew they were part of the ship."
"Betty kept in contact with the Brandon Salutes team to ensure we could carry on. She called it her ship. She was really vested in what we were doing."
This summer, Ouellet-Savard will be promoted to Commander and work at CFB Esquimalt. Then, she has her eye on the frigates.
Her attitude to take things one step at a time seems to have paid off. That’s what’s kept her moving forward.
On her ship, everyone is equal.
"I have had a really good team," she said. "I’m proud of my crew.
"But we never forget who we represent," she said of the ties the ship has to Brandon.