Remarks by Ambassador Jacqueline O’Neill: Vimy Gala 2023

Je suis profondément reconnaissante pour ce prix – et je vous remercie sincèrement.

Je suis ravie de pouvoir partager cette soirée avec vous tous et toutes qui servez notre grand pays de différentes manières.

Je suis particulièrement reconnaissante – en ce jour, aux vétérans et vétéranes Autochtones dont nous honorons le service tous les 8 novembre, et durant cette semaine – pour tous les vétérans et vétéranes parmi nous.

This is a celebratory night…that is happening during a very heavy time in the world.

I can tell you right away that this speech won’t have the perfect words to make sense of or even ease the deep pain and fear and despair that so many people are feeling – not just in Gaza and Israel, but across Canada, and no doubt in this room.

What I will do is honour those working for peace – Palestinian and Israeli women among them, who have worked for decades – to reject hate, to avoid the devastating horrors of war and the suffering of innocent people.

So many of you have dedicated your lives to this work too.

Here tonight are several people who were also nominated for this award, and are equally deserving of being up here – and of course, previous Vimy Award winners.

Past award winners have been so accomplished… so distinguished, that perhaps so many of you are wondering for the first time: What does this recipient actually do? What is an Ambassador for Women, Peace and Security? Or maybe you’re even wondering – as a nice gentleman on Twitter posted in response to my appointment 4 years ago, “How did Canada get stuck with this budget Tina Fey?”

All fair questions! So in reverse order…

There isn’t a big ‘aha’ moment that explains how I ended up so deep in this work. For a little context – when I was in Grade 2 – about 7 years old – French immersion schools across Alberta had a speech competition. About 90% of kids gave a variation of “Pourquoi J’aime Wayne Gretzky.” (Edmonton in the 80s!) I gave mine on why the world needs more women in politics.

In 2005, I had a focusing experience, in Sudan. Thanks to Roméo Dallaire, for whom I was doing research on child soldiers, I had a job working 3 days a week at the UN Peacekeeping mission, and 3 days a week at Ahfad – Khartoum’s all women university. The war between North and South had just ended through a peace agreement. UN officials were working on a transitional government, a new constitution, and dealing with bloated security forces. At the University,
women experts were working on the same things. But the two groups were like ships passing in the night. Missing out on each others’ knowledge and access. I knew I could help close that gap.

Sudanese women were really the first to show me “Women, Peace and Security.” I learned only later about the actual concept and how it came to be.

Briefly: For literally thousands of years, women in every part of the world have played key roles in war and peace. Including here on this land, where Indigenous women have long traditions of mediating between warring groups & preventing conflicts over resources.

About 30 years ago, women came together from countries experiencing war – from Rwanda, Colombia, Bosnia, the Philippines, and more. They found that despite their very different cultures – they had remarkably similar experiences: They delivered essential services. They fought as combatants. They led  revolutions. They helped end wars – they mediated, they negotiated, and they got parties to negotiating tables. But, when it came time for formal processes – to set the terms of a final peace agreement and to rebuild, they were almost wholly shut out.

They organized for 5 years, and got UN Security Council to pass a resolution saying women are not only victims, but essential decision-makers. And the term “Women, Peace and Security” was born.

Before going further on what it IS, let’s talk about what its NOT.

It’s NOT the idea that women are inherently more peaceful than men.

It’s NOT women VERSUS men.

It’s NOT about “soft power” or “hard power”. (Both men and women can deliver both)

And It’s NOT about saying all women are the same – or all men are the same.

So what IS Women, Peace and Security?

It is the idea that diverse groups make better decisions. That women – from various backgrounds and identities – not only have a right to influence decisions that affect our lives, but that when we do, the outcomes are better.

Research bears this out – in the private sector, on boards, and with respect to peace agreements – which are 35% more likely to endure at least 15 years if women participate meaningfully in their creation.

A quick story on this: Several years ago, there were peace talks on Darfur between the government of Sudan, and multiple rebel groups. The leaders of most of the rebel groups were living in exile in Europe. The UN flew them to Nigeria for negotiations. Canadian senator, Mobina Jaffer, was Canada’s envoy at the time, and said, “if we can pick up warlords, we can get some women here too.” She arranged for about a dozen Darfuri women, most living in displaced
persons camps, to be there. Because they weren’t armed actors, they didn’t have a seat at the table, so were informal “technical advisors” sitting outside the room.

At one point, the parties came out, everyone frustrated because they were deadlocked over an issue. As people were getting coffee, someone explained to the women – the talks broke down because no one could agree on who would control a certain river. The women pointed at a map and said, “that river?
People can’t agree on that river?” “Yep.” The women said, “Well…that river dried up three years ago!” They knew this in part because collecting water is traditionally a woman’s role.

Women, Peace and Security is also the idea that true operational effectiveness occurs when we reduce blind spots in situational awareness. When field commanders get a more comprehensive picture of local populations’ needs and interests. When we can better anticipate migration patterns and the behaviours of combatants and non-combatants. When we understand triggers for violence, and much more.

Ultimately, it’s about winning the war, and winning the peace.

There is no security issue to which all of this does not apply.

Take artificial intelligence, where algorithms amplify gender and racial biases throughout machine learning cycles – which can be even inadvertently transferred into military AI systems. Take great power competition and the use of disinformation campaigns by adversaries to set conditions for kinetic action. A few weeks ago at NATO, Ukraine’s Strategic Communications said “gender disinformation is the most underestimated threat of Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

Take even natural disasters. This is one of my favorite examples: There is research showing that when a storm is given a woman’s name, people are less likely to listen to calls from authorities to evacuate. They’ve even done trials – testing the name Alexander vs Alexandra. The amazing point being that people tend to take storms named after women less seriously, so many end up being even more deadly.

At a time of great divisions, realignments, and a changing world order, Women, Peace and Security is a remarkable source of partnerships and genuine collaboration.

It is an area where we can cooperate outside our traditional alliances and partners, building trust and vital relationships.

I sometimes hear people saying, “The last thing anyone wants is for Canada to go around lecturing people on women or gender.” I couldn’t agree more! If someone is lecturing – they’re doing this the wrong way!

In this amazing job of mine, I get to see so many people exchanging. With respect. I see Canadian diplomats, and Canadian Armed Forces members – General Eyre and General Allen lead among them – doing this beautifully. All the time. In every part of the world.

Sometimes the best insights come when we look beyond our usual circles. Bangladesh – can teach us about women and early warning systems for cyclones and flooding. Colombia – about 50-50 women & men at peace talks. Indonesia – about support networks of women peacekeepers. Singapore about cyber gender-based violence. The list goes on. There is also so much that Canada has to offer.

We’ve been using Gender-Based Analysis Plus as a government for over 25 years. It is a national treasure! As is our experience integrating women into all trades of our armed forces. As is the fact that now half of Canadian ambassadors are women. As are the constructive relationships the government has built with civil society networks in Canada, organizations of women veterans. I can’t tell you the level of interest in these from militaries, police, and governments around the world.

I also cannot convey strongly enough what a source of strength it is for Canada when we talk – in a forthright way, and with humility about our challenges, and how we’re dealing with them. There is strength, not weakness – in talking about why culture change has to be a priority.

There is strength, not weakness – in acknowledging, addressing, and apologizing for the LGBTQ purge, the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the Heyder Beattie class action.

There is strength, not weakness – in saying that none of this is easy, that we still have progress to make, but that this is dealing with it is leadership.

Right now, there are lot of institutions that are simply not even trying. They’re not doing the hard work that earns legitimacy and excellence.

Authoritarianism is on the march. We have an epidemic of coups. We’re seeing a reversal of generational gains in women’s rights. And growing attacks on those defending them. I am often asked why this pushback is occurring. If the benefits are so evident, so substantiated, why resistance?

There are many reasons. For some, it is the challenge of change. As the saying goes, “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like discrimination.”

For those embracing authoritarianism – it is a fear of being held accountable by their own people. They don’t want to share power, be more transparent, open up systems. Some, like Russia, are using women’s rights and gender equality as a tactic to divide and weaken traditional alliances. Russia has stepped up its messaging that this is a “Western notion” that the West is trying to impose on the rest.

We need to call out that lie. We can also call out how deeply offensive that assertion is to women in every part of this planet who have risked – and often lost their lives – trying to realize their rights, and live in peace and with dignity.

This year’s Vimy Award may have my name on it, but it belongs to them.

I am enormously grateful to the Women, Peace and Security Network–Canada, for nominating me, and for all you do in your self-described role as “the government’s critical” friend – including for women servicemembers and women veterans.

I am overwhelmed by the letters of support sent to the CDA from men and women working on the frontlines of conflict and crises that I have had the life’s honour to work with. You are all my teachers. Thank you.

There is one who tried to be here tonight but had a travel issue this morning – my dear friend, Kenya’s Alice Wairimu Nderitu. Before becoming the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice was a conflict mediator, leading, as just one example, a successful peace process involving 56 ethnic communities in Nigeria. Before that, she did too many other amazing things to list.

I am grateful to the many, many, many people working across our government – at my home department of Global Affairs, at National Defence, in the Canadian Armed Forces, in the RCMP, and beyond, who advance this work in thousands of different ways.

I am fuelled everyday by the energy, wisdom, hard work, and good humour of my own team, represented tonight by my Chief of Staff, Mary Pierre-Wade, and Lieutenant Colonel Melanie Lake.

Finally – I am grateful for my family.

My Dad, Jack, died less than two months ago, and would have loved tonight.
My Mom, Mary, for whom the term ‘role model’ does not even begin to cover your impacts on me and on this world.

My brother Tim, who used to be very annoying, though I must admit turned out pretty great.

And my husband, Peter Dimitroff. He was a gunner – and is in his element in this room. Young people sometimes ask me for career advice and the thing I always make sure to say is that you don’t have to have a spouse or life partner, but if you do, be darn sure to pick who celebrates your successes as if they were their own.

If you take away anything from tonight, I hope it is that this concept of Women, Peace and Security is not ideological. Not adversarial. And not zero-sum.

And – that it’s not someone else’s work. It is everyone’s. It is ours.

Thank you. Merci. Migwitch.

Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.