Ernie Peaker joined the Canadian Navy in 1969 and spent 34 years serving — often at his base in Esquimalt, but also as far away as Cambodia.
So, when Peaker saw a note on his windshield admonishing him for his veteran licence plates this summer in Parksville, he felt disheartened.
“Well I was at my golf course and I finished playing golf… I noticed there was a piece of paper on the windshield and it wasn’t very nice,” he said. “Basically it said you should be ashamed for displaying these plates, you’re taking away from real veterans.”
It happened not once, but twice, at the golf course.
“Now I just take take the notes and put them in the garbage, I don’t think twice about it,” he said. “I’m quite comfortable about being a veteran.”
It’s part of a misconception, Peaker said, that veterans who served when he did didn’t see real violence — that they’re not “real” veterans. Peaker said not only did he experience traumatic things while in the Navy, but he had to spend a lot of time away — sometimes 200 days at sea a year, “especially in the early days.”
“You know some people think because you had been in the service for a period of time, but had never seen action, that you’re not a real veteran,” he said, while sitting at his kitchen table wearing a shirt with “Navy Marine” embroidered in yellow thread. “There’s veterans that never stepped outside of Canada and have never been put in harm’s way and they deserve the same respect because they served and they were ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
Peaker joined the Navy when he was just 17 years old. While looking at a photo of himself taken at the beginning of his service, he can’t help but laugh while looking at how young he looks.
“Still a kid, just hardly shaving,” he said.
In more than three decades of time spent serving in the Navy, Peaker went around the world several times. He was awarded the Order of Military Merit by the Governor-General, a Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal and other accolades for his service.
“I’ve served with the United Nations in Cambodia in 1992 for six months and in 2001, after 9/11, we were the first Canadian warship from Vancouver to go to the gulf with the American battle group,” Peaker said. “We spent seven and a half months over there.”
Peaker points to his time in Cambodia as something that stands out for him.
“We were the United Nations transitional authority in Cambodia after they ousted Pol Pot,” he said, referencing the Prime Minister responsible for the Cambodian genocide, which killed an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million people. “The things I saw over there, no body should have to see, the atrocities, it’s still in my mind.”
Still, when Peaker looks back at his storied career, he feels grateful to have had so much of his life spent in the Navy.
“I never had any bad days in the Navy, just some were better than others,” he said. “I say to my buddies, if we had two Navys, I would have moonlighted in the second.”