Montreal bus driver heads to Belgium to represent famed Black Watch at WW I ceremony

Jawara Hinkson spends his days as a bus driver, but by night, he is an army captain with Montreal's Black Watch. He will represent the storied highland regiment in Belgium at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

Jawara Hinkson says he is 'humbled' by chance to represent Black Watch on 100th anniversary of Armistice

By day, Jawara Hinkson drives the 105 bus. But he's also a captain in the Canadian Forces reserves. (CBC)

On a Tuesday evening last week, Jawara Hinkson, 35, slipped out of one uniform and into another.

He'd spent the previous eight hours behind the wheel of the 105 bus, the vital route that runs along Sherbrooke Street in west-end Montreal.

Then it was onto his second job as Canadian Forces captain assigned to operations with the Black Watch, Montreal's storied highland regiment.

Around a wooden conference table at the regiment's century-old downtown headquarters, Hinkson received his orders for his next mission.

He is among a handful of soldiers chosen to represent the regiment Sunday in Mons, Belgium, where a ceremony will be held to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

"Just to be considered … to go over there 100 years to the day … was a truly, truly humbling experience for me," Hinkson said.    

His predecessors in the Black Watch were instrumental in the capture of Mons on the last day of the war, just hours before news of the Armistice reached the front lines.

On Sunday, Capt. Jawara Hinkson will be part of a parade that seeks to recreate this photo, taken in Mons, Belgium, on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. (Canadian War Museum)

On Nov. 11, Hinkson will be part of a contingent that will recreate the triumphant parade that Black Watch soldiers held in Mons when the guns fell silent exactly 100 years earlier.

"We love to think that we have something inside of us that would make us act almost a fraction as well, and as bravely, as those men fought," he said.

Regiment more diverse today than it was

The Black Watch has changed dramatically since it was founded by Montreal's Scottish chieftains in 1862.

When the Black Watch raised three battalions to fight in the First World War, it would have been unthinkable to find a black bus driver like Hinkson among its officer corps.

The regiment was then still the preserve of the Scottish elite. In 1915, the regiment's 13th battalion had 27 officers, 18 of whom were millionaires. One — Capt. Guy Drummond — was a billionaire. 

But the Black Watch is now commanded by a native French speaker, Lt.-Col. Bruno Plourde, something else that would have been unthinkable in a military that was notoriously anti-French Canadian in the First World War.

Jawara Hinkson was still a high school student when he saw a presentation by the cadets, promising recruits a chance to see the world. He showed up at the armoury that Friday night. (CBC)

Yet the diverse unit — which includes a dozen different cultural groups — still carries on its strange highland traditions, despite many members having no obvious cultural affinity for bagpipes or kilts.

"Sure we have a couple of Scots, but they might need a DNA test to prove it," said Plourde.

Hinkson hopes his taking part in high-profile events, such as the one in Belgium, will help further diversify the Forces.   

"I would be happy if those kids at home — whether they're black, white, Asian or other — if they see me as a role model, they say, 'I can do whatever I want, too,'" he said.

The secret lives of bus drivers

Hinkson was still a high school student when he saw a presentation by the cadets. They promised recruits would have a chance to see the world.

"That Friday night I ended up at the armoury," he said.

Though he doesn't come from a military family, he quickly took to being a cadet.

"You did some incredible things you could boast about when you ended up back at school on Monday," he said, chuckling.

In 2004, he joined the Forces as a reservist and has been affiliated with the Black Watch for almost a decade, serving in a number of different front-line and administrative roles.

He was among several hundred soldiers deployed to Montreal's West Island last year to help residents cope with historic spring flooding.

Lt.-Col. Bruno Plourde, commanding officer of the Black Watch, has known Hinkson since he first joined the Forces. 'One day he'll end up right here in my chair,' Plourde predicted. (CBC)

"You hear about disasters all over the world where the Canadian Forces go to help," Hinkson said.   

"We had this opportunity in our backyards — a bunch of Montreal boys and girls that could just go out there and effect change on a daily basis."

Plourde has known Hinkson since he first joined the Forces. He's watched proudly as Hinkson has risen through the ranks and appreciates the enthusiasm and good nature he brings to his duties.

"Now he's one of the senior captains. He still has a career in front of him," said Plourde, who has served with the Forces in Bosnia, Africa and Afghanistan.   

"We'll just go slowly, and one day he'll end up right here in my chair."

But Hinkson also calls on his military training in his day job as a city bus driver.

Lt.-Col. Bruno Plourde gives instructions to Black Watch soldiers who will be taking part in Sunday's ceremony in Belgium. (CBC)

"You're constantly problem-solving, dealing with different personalities, different people," he said in an interview aboard the 105, after finishing one of his routes.

"It's the ultimate of service when you're serving the public."

Most of his passengers are oblivious to their driver's double life. But a careful eye might notice his uniform is pressed just a bit more sharply than that of other drivers.

"I like the presentation of a clean-cut bus driver. It shows a bit of professionalism," Hinkson said.

"Maybe I got that from my military training."


Editor's note: Jawara Hinkson is the brother of a member of CBC Montreal's editorial staff.