What I Learned About Women in the Canadian Forces (it’s not what you think)

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Let me start by sharing this.

Never, not one time, have I ever considered enlisting in the CAF. It’s not a career for everyone and it’s not for me. The women who make up the CAF amaze me every time I meet them, they’re phenomenal in their strength and perseverance.

Sgt. Meg Kennedy. The friend who is entirely responsible for convincing me to live on base for 3 nights and get up for 0700 breakfast. She’s very persuasive.

 

That being said, I see the CAF from my own perspective as a spouse of a member and also one that spends a great deal of time working around and interacting with other military families. I went at this conference from an odd direction: knowing a great deal about the Forces but only from one side. Definitely the outside. I’m nowhere near an actual member.

So when I was invited to the Woman’s Influencer event by the Canadian Forces Recruiting Center Prairies and North, I was not totally sure how I ended up there. But there I was, living at the base hotel and starting bright and early after breakfast with a FORCES 101 class.

I was laughing, because I’ve taught Canadian Forces 101 classes before at the MFRC, but this was different since it was geared to recruitment. What made it particularly interesting, however, was that our presenter was one of our recruiting center hosts, Sgt. Jamie Brown. Sgt. Brown is an Infantry soldier with a number of overseas deployments, one who is clearly passionate about her job and the opportunities she feels it has given her. The sense of pride that she showed during the presentation gave more insight than any of the actual slides. It was obvious that the CAF had made a profound and positive impact in her life.

Sgt. Jamie Brown giving the Forces 101 Briefing at the Officer’s Mess at CFB Edmonton

In fact, all of our hosts for the event were the same. While we knew that not only the recruiting center but also every unit we visited had put forward their best and brightest and specifically their female members for us to speak with and ask questions to, what I didn’t expect was that every single one, even the ones I just spoke with quietly afterwards, seemed more than happy to share their experiences. Many of our hosts came from communities not often seen represented in the forces: Women, both in support and combat trades, visible minorities, indigenous persons and those from the LGBTQ community.

So while I would guess that most of my counterparts on the tour were curious about the job opportunities for their students that the Forces offer, I started looking at it differently. I started looking for the stories from these members we met.

And I’ll admit, I asked some pretty direct and probably inappropriate questions. It wasn’t the fact that some of the members we met were gay, or part of a visible minority group that fascinated me, because it’s 2017 guys, but more because I was looking for the loophole. I was so convinced, by the stories I’ve heard through social and conventional media, that there had to be more than what they were saying. I mean, I’ve always heard that female military members are universally harassed and that the Forces is an adverse atmosphere for gay and lesbian members. Because of that I am pretty sure all my awkward came out in full force with the questions I asked.

What I came away from the event having learned, however, was for those I spoke with, all of them said the same things.
Yes, there had been challenges.
Yes, progress can still be made.
But more than that, absolutely, it’s only getting better and they are proud of their uniform and feel that overall, the CAF is a positive place for everyone. 

I even wrote down some quotes specifically.

“I feel safer in the halls of the Regiment than anywhere else.”

“My being gay is really a non-issue at work.”

“I am treated as a military member and a pilot, not a ‘female military member’ or ‘female pilot.'”

“No matter my skin colour I feel like in the army everyone is green.”

Which was amazing to hear, because that’s not the overall impression of the Forces that we tend to hear from the outside.

And this is not at all to minimize the negative, hurtful and damaging experiences that some people have had within the military. At all. the world needs people who speak up about mistreatment and abuse where it happens.

What this is, I guess, is a sign that out there are also the positive stories that can be told. It’s just that those stories don’t gain traction like the negative ones do.

There’s no viral report about Sgt. Jamie Brown and how her experience in the Forces has been so positive she’s currently encouraging her wife through the enlistment process.

Sgt. Jamie Brown along with Sgt. Brian Crowhurst give us a quick introduction to the C9 Light Machine Gun at the Small Arms Trainer range. While the training was great, all targets were safe from any attempt I made to shoot them.

You won’t find an overshared FB post where Corporal Alison Sawyer describes how well she feels she fits in her male-dominated combat Regiment, or the trust she has in her brothers and sisters in arms.

With Cpl. Alison Sawyer as my fake crew commander I definitely shot the crap out of the fake moving tanks.

It is unlikely that the news will pick up a story simply telling how happy Captain Leona Ahn has been with the opportunities the Canadian Forces offered not only for her professionally but for her family as well.

Captain Leona Ahn was part of our CAF Recruiting Hosts for the days we were on base and was fantastic.

At our final dinner General Trevor Cadieu, Commander of 3rd Canadian Division, spoke to us briefly, but he was clear. He’s an “old” (his words, not mine) white guy. And while he is married to an incredibly strong woman, and was raised by one, he can’t speak for women in the Forces, and so he asked some of them to do that themselves.

One of these women was on maternity leave and came in to speak to us of the time she’s served, the challenges she’s reached and the opportunities she’s had. It was incredible to hear this new mom share about why she loves her job.

Major Hilary Forbes came in to our dinner from her maternity leave to tell us about her phenomenal career in the Canadian Forces

The other, Lt. Col. Heather Morrison, gave a compelling talk about her career from the time she enlisted in the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering trade, the time she spent at the Royal Military College, all the way to her service with the British Military overseas, as well as on deployments to Kosovo, Bosnia and Kandahar.
In short, she’s a total badass. And her pride in her accomplishments, her service and the Canadian Armed Forces could not have been faked. She encouraged everyone to support girls like her, who don’t seem to fit in the conventional routes mapped out, to consider jumping head first into a career like hers. A career she has clearly rocked. It was an honour to meet her.

Lt. Colonel Heather Morrison was our Key Note speaker and absolutely inspiring to women and girls anywhere forging their own paths.

Positive stories are out there, and we don’t give them the credit they deserve because they’re just not the loudest voice.
I hope that I can help them be heard just a little bit more.

I learned a lot about the opportunities the Forces offers during my time with the Women’s Influencer.

But it was when our little group took part in the Force Test, the annual physical requirement for CAF members, that I figured out what this article would be about. While watching as Sgt. Brown and Sgt. Martin-Quevillon demonstrated the test before the start and then encouraged each woman as she completed it on her own.

I have taken a lot of fitness classes in my day. Kickboxing, BJJ, Kettlebells, TRX, Boot Camps and Spin Classes. A lot. And while the instructor is (usually) very encouraging, the individual members of the group rarely are with each other. Generally, everyone is there for their own fitness and have the expectation that the instructor will take care of everyone else.

That isn’t how fitness works in the military.

They come along side their teammates while they work. They cheer, clap, egg on and a lot of times even just drop beside them and do the exercise with them, even when they’ve finished theirs.

Watching them do all of this with the other ladies in our group, I realized that it’s not just fitness. In the military community, this is how life works.

This was reinforced sometime around 3am on our last night. I know because the photos on my phone from that time mostly involve all of us laughing in our pyjamas. I’m pretty sure I’m almost entirely to blame for the party that went at least two hours longer than it should have, but I have no regrets.

And while I know the Canadian Forces brought me along on this adventure so I could tell you about all the fabulous educational and professional opportunities that they offer, I’m (not surprisingly) going in a different direction.

The opportunity I saw wasn’t just badass jobs and the potential for free education.

The opportunity I saw was for community.

I can’t think of another job out there that comes with a family.
Not just that, it fosters the leadership and personality traits that members keep with them their whole lives, in and out of the Service, traits that empower them to build community wherever they go.
It comes with the atmosphere that grows humans who care for, support, and encourage each other.

Whether it’s at a fitness test or getting you to your room closer to breakfast than bedtime.

If it shows how truly I believe it, my oldest son will start the enlistment for the Reserves this summer, the moment he turns 16, like he’s planned for years and following in the five generations of service before him. And even though our family has over 18 years of experiencing military life so far, four deployments, 3 moves and all that has come with it, he’ll still do it with mine and his father’s wholehearted approval.

I can’t think of a better endorsement than that.

Oh, and just in case General Cadieu reads this, or his Aide does, don’t think I have forgotten about that Griffin ride you promised.

General Trevor Cadieu has known Dh since Dh was a Trooper and he was a Captain. He’s one of the most phenomenal leaders I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. That won’t stop me from bugging him until I get my helicopter ride, though.

 

 

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