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Canada’s military will soon have a new leader. Will it finally be a woman?

OTTAWA — The search is on for the next leader of the Canadian Armed Forces — and it’s long past time that a woman became chief of the defence staff, observers say. 

Canada has had 21 full-time defence chiefs since 1964, all of them men. The current top commander, Gen. Wayne Eyre, is due to retire this summer. 

The military has long grappled with what a damning external report by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour called a toxic culture of sexual misconduct. 

At the same time, it is dealing with what Defence Minister Bill Blair described this week as a recruitment “death spiral.” 

The forces need “a woman or an openly queer person” as their next leader if real change is going to happen, said veteran Sharp Dopler.

“We’ve been doing this dance with men at the helm for a very long time,” said Dopler. “Look where we are.”

Until 1992, Canada’s official military policy required that gay people be excised from its ranks. 

Throughout the subsequent “LGBT Purge,” as it’s known, military members with LGBTQ+ identities endured persecution and discrimination even after that policy changed.

Dopler was forced out in 1997.

Canada has paid millions of dollars in reparations to the people who were targeted, and the prime minister officially apologized for the purge in 2017. 

But the military’s record of failing to welcome people with different identities lingers. Women still only make up 16 per cent of the Armed Forces, though there is a goal to increase that share to 25 per cent within the next two years. 

“It is about time that we have a chief of the defence staff who’s a woman, whether it’s this cycle or the next,” said retired Lt.-Gen. Guy Thibault, himself a former vice-chief.

Thibault, who is also chairman of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, said it’s been almost 35 years since women were first allowed to serve in combat roles — about how long it takes to rise to the senior ranks.

“It would be disappointing at this point if we hadn’t developed … a good bench of senior female general officers who could potentially be a chief of the defence staff,” Thibault said.

“The good news is, we (have).”

As of May 2023, there were 12 women at the rank of general and flag officer — making up about one in five of the top brass.

Several of them were promoted to their current roles in the immediate aftermath of a 2021 crisis in which a string of senior male commanders were accused of sexual misconduct. 

Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen became the first woman to serve as vice-chief of the defence staff when she was appointed in 2021. 

She stepped into the job after scandal reached the very top: admiral Art McDonald was defence chief for just a few weeks when military police started investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against him. 

Eyre was quickly appointed to take his place, first as interim chief and later in a permanent capacity. 

Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan now leads the military’s reform efforts as the head of conduct and culture change, an office that was created in response to the scandal. 

Lt.-Gen. Lise Bourgon is acting commander of the military’s personnel command, a job she took over after two of her predecessors were removed from the same post within weeks, both because of allegations of sexual misconduct. 

When the government was last in an open search for a defence chief in 2020, some experts said Allen and Christine Whitecross, another lieutenant-general who was seen to be in contention, were perceived as lacking in command experience.

Thibault said “operational credentials” are critical to ensure the chief has credibility with the troops and with allies.

This time around, the military is seen as being “in deep trouble,” Thibault said, as it deals with a combination of a severe shortage of troops and outdated equipment that mean it’s not meeting its own operational readiness targets. 

Plans to slash nearly $1 billion a year from Defence Department spending also have senior leaders worried. 

Steve Saideman, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network, said promoting one of the women in charge of culture change or personnel would send a strong signal from a Liberal government that likes to call itself feminist.

The Governor General appoints defence chiefs on the advice of the federal cabinet. 

When asked about the search for a new chief in a recent interview, Blair said a “continuation of (Gen. Eyre’s) leadership” is what’s needed.

“I think diversity can actually make a much stronger and more capable organization, but one of the responsibilities of the leadership is to ensure — it’s my responsibility too — is to make sure that the work environment is supportive and respectful and effective and works for everybody,” Blair said.

Blair’s own appointment raised eyebrows, Saideman noted.

He replaced Anita Anand, who pledged to make cultural reform her top priority when she became the second woman — and the first woman of colour — to hold that position in 2021. 

The move to put Blair in the role sent “a variety of messages” about the way the government sees the file, said Saideman. 

“It wasn’t just that it was a white dude,” he said. 

But it was “a white dude who’d been a cop,” and someone who had been accused of “not reading his materials” when he was last in a cabinet role, Saideman said. 

“It was a guy whose star was in decline.”

Megan MacKenzie, a researcher at Simon Fraser University, cautioned that simply appointing a woman to the top job will not be enough. 

“Sometimes women or otherwise under-represented individuals who are put in those positions of power are set up for failure, if there’s this expectation that they can solve the problem just by being someone different and there’s not the institutional support for their vision,” she said.

She also said she worries some of the hope and momentum for change that resulted from the Arbour report has been lost.

“I think the Canadian public and I think members of the Canadian Armed Forces were hoping that this was going to be a watershed moment,” she said. 

Dopler’s assessment was more blunt: “I am more than confident the status quo will be maintained.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2024.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press


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