Photo Credit: The Canadian Press
This is the first in a new series of blog entries exploring the work of emerging graduate students examining Canada’s armed forces and defence and security issues. In “Towards a Diverse and Inclusive Canadian Military,” Queen’s University Master’s student, Charlotte Duval-Lantoine explores why the CAF has failed to reach gender integration targets in the past and the role of leadership in facilitating change.
The Canadian Armed Forces’s (CAF) goal to create a military that will “be inclusive, and that [will] provide at all times and all ranks a respectful environment for women” is not new. Indeed, over twenty years ago, the Canadian Forces (CF) – the colloquial name service members used for the organisation in the second half of the twentieth century – went through a decade-long formal attempt at improving the inclusion of women among its ranks, a process known as “gender integration.”
The last decade of the twentieth century represented a turning point in the history of gender integration in the military. In 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) ordered the CF reach “full [gender] integration” within a decade. The order required that the Canadian military open its combat and near-combat units to women. This would have necessitated sweeping cultural change for women to be integrated successfully. In 1989, women represented just 9.8% of the CF and in 1999, they comprised only 10.8% of the ranks. Therefore, the forces fell well short of reaching, “full [gender] integration,” whether the goal was to increase representation or to remove structural barriers to women’s service.
A year prior to the deadline, the Chief of Review Services (CRS) – whose mission is to conduct audits and evaluations of processes or policies within the Department of National Defence– published a report evaluating the implementation of gender integration since the Tribunal’s ruling. Despite some optimism that the CF had reached “full integration” in the “narrowest interpretation possible,” the report’s conclusions revealed overarching problems in the framework, the structure, and implementation of change, as well as leadership engagement with the 1989 order. The CRS also pointed to the absence of a “conceptual model,” upon which to build a sturdy plan. Such an absence severely limited the structural framework needed to effectively pursue change.
The “most detailed plans” included the Combat-Related Employment of Women (CREW) plans. Established in 1987, these trials consisted of creating mixed-gender combat and near-combat units in order to study the impact of the presence of women in combat environments on operational effectiveness in the Regular Forces. The Army and the Navy implemented service-specific CREW plans in 1990, and declared their implementation complete in 1991.
Another plan was Operation MINERVA, whose goal was to address cultural barriers to gender integration in the CF. Although it was put in place by 1994, the CF did not undertake any action pertaining to the plan before 1998. Any other initiative before 1998 to address the gaps in the implementation of gender integration was aborted. The CRS report acknowledged each Command’s decision in 1998 to aim for women to constitute 25% (Army), 29% (Navy), 40% (Air Force) of the recruitment base that year. However, these targets arrived too late to have a true impact on the outcome of gender integration within the timeline set by the CHRT.
The report also noted that the CF leadership distributed responsibility of gender integration down the chain of command and across the organization. More than nine internal agencies, whose lifespan ranged from six months to two years, were involved in the process. The communication of gender integration issues rarely attained leaders above the rank of colonel.
The multiplication of bodies responsible for implementation or monitoring of gender integration contributed to the poor implementation of change. Moreover, the dilution of the issue as a “routine personnel issue” that unit-level leaders had to handle undermined progress. CF senior leaders removed themselves from the process and ignored recommendations made by internal and external monitoring bodies. This neglect from higher-ranking leaders led the Chief of Review Services to qualify leadership attitudes towards the change as a “challenge.”
Why did leaders fail to engage with this issue? According to the CRS report, the CF leadership had to overcome intense downsizing, during which the strength of the military was reduced by 33%. Meanwhile, they had to cope with the repercussions of the Somalia Affair. The revelation that the Canadian Airborne Regiment had killed a Somali teenager in 1993 and the discovery of a cover-up resulted in an appalling leadership crisis.
Having said that, downsizing only started in 1992, and the Somalia Affair erupted in 1993. This is several years after the CHRT’s 1989 order. The framework, the structure, and the implementation of the change in themselves reveal the extent to which leaders were disengaged with gender integration. Without leadership commitment, the communication of values consistent with the culture change could not happen, and this hindered gender integration greatly.
The CAF can learn from the lessons of gender integration during the decade of darkness. To harness diversity in the future, the armed forces need to foster genuine and credible buy-in from senior leaders, who have the responsibility to develop conceptual frameworks and help implement policies effectively from the very beginning.
Charlotte is a Master’s student in Military History at Queen’s University at Kingston (Ontario) and the Assistant to the Executive Director of Women in International Security (WIIS) Canada. Her thesis deals with how the process of gender integration between 1989 and 1999 represents another element of the “crisis of command” that characterized the 1990s as the decade of darkness for the Canadian Forces.