The Canadian Armed Forces have started an intensive 10-day program aimed at getting more women to enlist. Sarah Boesveld slips on the camo to see how this ambitious marketing campaign is shaping up.
IT’S DEAD QUIET in this scratchy, dry-cut field west of Barrie, Ont., and I’m lying on my belly, under the mid-August sun, taking slow, deep breaths, in and out. In with the smell of gunpowder and freshly cut grass, out with any nervous energy. On my third inhale, as instructed, I squint through the scope, settle my paper target in the crosshairs and gently pull the trigger of the first gun I’ve ever fired in my life.
Shell casings (from the gun) and expletives (from me) fly as my body recoils from the power of each shot. Though I’ve been told my military-grade C7 rifle is among the “gentler” of weapons typically used during combat deployments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, it sure packs a punch. I look to my right at the civilian partner I’ve been paired with today at CFB Borden, on the sixth day of a Women in Force program from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), to see if she is as anxious as me. Nope. Nineteen-year-old Courtney Mayer, her blond braid trailing out from under a camo helmet, flashes me a grin, completely relaxed, having already fired a weapon a bunch of times in her young life. In fact, most of the 21 women in my group responded with enthusiastic thumbs-up when our facilitator asked if we were ready to hit the range. I found a more kindred spirit on the field in Cheryl Shiers, a 35-year-old mother of two who forfeited eight days’ pay at her Belleville, Ont., factory job to be here — neither of us felt stoked about handling a weapon designed to kill.
I somewhat gingerly push myself up from the firing position, trying to pretend every muscle doesn’t ache. Yesterday, we sweated and swore our way through the physically demanding FORCE test, short for Fitness for Operational Requirements of CAF Employees. It simulates real-life tasks that members have to perform, and they must pass it each year to remain qualified to serve. We hauled 40-pound sandbags, dragged 250-pound dead weights, squatted deeper than a body probably should and grunted louder than is appropriate in polite, rank-and-file company. But for all the pain, it feels totally badass to discover just how much power my body can generate, surrounded by a group of women cheering me on. Even at target practice, once I get over the shock of firing a weapon, I feel strong, resilient. It gives me a high I’ve never felt before.
That’s exactly what the CAF are trying to accomplish during this pilot project, which is a key part of their push to boost representation of women in the army, navy and air force. The 10-day, sleepover-camp-style program is designed to woo potential recruits, offering a no-commitment crash course in what military life is like and all the possible career paths it offers. It’s the CAF’s most ambitious marketing effort to date, meant to bolster the “Dare to Be Extraordinary” ad campaign that launched in June, highlighting “over 100 full- and parttime jobs” in fields like engineering and health care.
This targeted push is a reset for a military desperately shy of where it wants to be when it comes to the representation of women, people of colour and Indigenous people. And it arrives as the CAF contend with a shortage of qualified candidates for a number of specific positions. A report from the Department of National Defence tabled in the House of Commons in 2016 showed recruitment levels at a precarious low. As of June 2017, total enrolment was at 66,795 members, an increase of fewer than 700 bodies in more than two years — in part, top officials agree, because they haven’t done a good enough job selling their many career opportunities to half the population. Right now, women make up roughly 15.3 percent of the ranks.
By 2026, the Canadian Armed Forces hope, they will bring that number up by 10 percentage points. With such an aggressive goal, they need more than an ad campaign — they need boots on the ground. The Women in Force program enlists female soldiers to stand in front of potential recruits and systematically challenge the many barriers, both real and perceived, that have prevented women from enrolling in the past. To counter the notion that the physical requirements are too demanding, we complete the FORCE test and a “confidence course” that focuses on balance, agility and trusting mind over matter. To upend the assumption that military careers are not “family friendly,” nearly every military woman we meet emphasizes the fact that she’s a mom. And they are unified when it comes to the benefits of a life in uniform. “Do not be fearful,” Warrant Officer Krista McKeough tells us during her pep talk at the range. “If you choose to be a librarian or something in your life instead of [joining] the Armed Forces, you’ll regret not taking the opportunity.”
The session I took part in was for Ontario residents, but a parallel pilot program occurred at Quebec’s Saint-Jean-sur- Richelieu training base around the same time, and in October, both bases will offer a three-day version of the same program. According to Brigadier General Virginia Tattersall, one of the rare women in the top brass of the military and the lead on this ambitious recruitment plan, the four sessions focus on educating women about the variety of possible careers, their opportunities for travel and advancement and the financial security that a military career affords (annual salaries range from $35,000 to more than $200,000, depending on rank, but a raise every year is guaranteed). It’s an expensive strategy — the CAF estimate the sessions will cost more than $106,000 in total — and it remains to be seen whether it will be an effective one. Still, hopes are high, and the Department of National Defence has a researcher shadowing the program, so no time is lost tracking the results. If it’s a success, the Women in Force program could be repeated, across the country, between now and 2026.
But the military’s problem goes beyond education. The Forces have been excoriated for fostering a culture that’s openly hostile and demeaning to women. Media investigations between 1998 and 2014 led by Maclean’s and L’Actualité found multiple cases of sexual misconduct in the military, including both harassment and assault, compounded by a power structure that makes it especially hard to come forward without being punished. There are multiple ongoing class action suits filed by LGBTQ members and women who claim they faced discrimination in their careers. Those investigations triggered an external review by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps in 2014. A year later, she issued a damning report, which called the Forces a “sexualized environment” in which jokes, innuendo and inappropriate touching flourished, one that required “comprehensive cultural change” to set right. Among her key recommendations: Do a better job of integrating women.
“I figure the only way to really change something is to be a part of it. So I think this program is really good.”
Yonique Barnett, 28, from Brampton, Ont.
Top Canadian Armed Forces official General Jonathan Vance responded by launching Operation Honour, the military’s first crack at comprehensive cultural change, which will try to transform the Forces into a much more diverse outfit that better reflects Canada. The military has created an independent body to take sexual assault complaints outside of the chain of command. It’s reversed the practice of transferring the complainant from the workplace, and will remove the alleged assailant instead until the matter is addressed. And that ambitious target to boost the representation of women by 10 percentage points in 10 years? That’s one of the core goals of Operation Honour, and one of the reasons Women in Force was born. Despite this, the only formal mention of Operation Honour during the 10-day camp is a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. The anti-harassment advisor running the brief session, however, is unequivocal about the likelihood of success: “When we go on operations, we do not fail.”
There’s no question the Forces are serious about these camps being more than just a fun exercise — and just like at most traditionally male office environments, there’s recognition that gender diversity, with the broader range of skill sets and perspectives it brings, is key to a strong and productive workplace. But how serious are the participants? My group includes civilians from all over the province, whose ages span about 20 years. On one of the first days, organizers ask for a show of hands to see how many of us are truly interested in joining. Only three hands go up.
I ARRIVE AT CFB BORDEN at the beginning of day 2 of the program. The others in my group have had a chance to meet one another, throw their bags down in the nicest barracks on this 35-square-mile base and get their bearings. (As a reporter, I’ve been granted permission to observe and participate in many of the week’s activities, but not to stay in the barracks.) The chatty and upbeat crew are surprised by the VIP treatment. Nineteen-year-old Olivia Terenzio tells me she expected bootcamp-style barracks — more bunk beds, fewer private bathrooms.
In age, circumstances and ethnicity, the women around me are surprisingly diverse. There are 17-year-olds weighing the Forces as a next step after high school; there is a mother raising her toddler alone, and another with teen girls who are considering careers in the military themselves. There are former military brats following in family footsteps and women who find themselves at a crossroads in their professional lives and are open to something very new. They come from centres like Ottawa and small towns like Omemee, looking for both a challenge and a place to feel like they belong. And in this group of 21, a full third are women of colour (by comparison, people of colour comprise only 7.6 percent of the CAF at large).
The packed program has its thrills: trying on military uniforms for the first time, learning how to march, taking selfies with a Griffon helicopter, riding in the back of a light armoured vehicle, smearing our faces with camo paint, eating the same freeze-dried meals that infantry soldiers fuel up on in the field. We get a drive-through of the base’s Pleasantville-esque community and check out the multi-faith centre, where a friendly spiritual leader known as a padre keeps any concerns members might have about, say, mental health or sexual misconduct confidential from the chain of command. But since the focus is career tourism, most of the days are spent in lecturestyle information sessions, making connections with dozens of bright, successful, passionate women in uniform.
I first meet up with the group at the Borden family resource centre, where the kids of military members (yes, they stress, a career in the military is family-friendly) tool around in toy cars in what is partially-covered daycare. Next, we spend an hour seated on bleachers in a cavernous drill hall as Sergeant Scott North runs through the many rules about military dress and proper conduct: no chewing gum, ever; no visible tattoos on your hands or neck. There’s a lunch in what has to be one of the most orderly cafeterias in the country. The Health Services Centre on base is next, a gleaming, state-of-the-art building where we learn that military-issued health cards cover all medical care for members and you rarely have to wait around for a doctor to deliver basic care.
“My interest in the military is not just the money or a steady job — it’s the family aspect, the belonging. Every base is like its own little community.”
Lauren Tudhope 25, from Orillia, Ont.
Up until this point, the day’s been interesting, but you can tell the group isn’t entirely enthralled. There’s a lot of folding of arms and leaning against door jambs as we hear people talk about their jobs. Everyone snaps to attention, though, when Sergeant Michelle Parnell strolls in. The tall, striking and soft-spoken dental hygienist, who has a tattoo of a sparrow on her neck (so much for those rules), delivers a pitch that makes them stand a little taller and makes their eyes light up. It’s her own story.
Parnell joined the military with a young son at home after a decade of trying to make it as a dental assistant on civvy street, which is what military people call the world outside. “Between rent and daycare, I wasn’t making enough money to support myself. So at 38, I got smart: I got into the military. I was the oldest person in my platoon. Do not let that scare you. Do not let basic training scare you. Basic training, if you go in with the right mindset, is a game.”
Those first tough 12 weeks — which are paid — “fly by,” she says. “You get in the best shape of your life, you get all the food you want, and you learn to eat quick.” But the most appealing part of Parnell’s message is her financial independence. “I own my own house that I bought myself. My car is paid for, that I paid for myself. I own a Harley-Davidson that I bought and paid for myself. Being on civvy street, I’d still be in an apartment. I’d still have bills that aren’t paid.”
Shiers, the 35-year-old mother of two, is listening intently, her big blue eyes wide. Earlier, she had admitted that she felt too old for this place, but I can see that conversation start to fade into the background. “It seems to be that there are a lot more people joining as they’re older,” she says. That’s the power of meeting people face to face, in an opportunity like this.
LIKE PARNELL, MOST OF THE WOMEN IN UNIFORM we meet here, usually standing in classrooms lined with photos of men, tell their full story, from their decision to sign up to the joys and challenges of their career choice. They concede that it can be tough to have a family — you can get deployed or reposted without a lot of notice, and military exercises can keep parents away around the clock — but they say it can be done, and emergency child care helps. They admit the tasks seem daunting, but on-the-job training teaches you absolutely everything you need to know. “When I joined, I knew what a screwdriver was and I knew what a hammer was — that’s it,” Master Corporal Stacie MacNeil, an air force mechanic, tells the women. “I walked out with the best mark in the class.”
But for all the talking up of trades, putting only successful, happy women in front of the group ignores some realities of life in uniform, a fact not lost on the participants. Even a human resources consultant can be called into combat, if the situation demands it. (The military calls this scenario “dire straits.”)
“It’s really important for individuals to understand what they’re signing [up for]. I was in a recruitment centre after the program, and this kid came in and was like, ‘I read about it on the website…where do I sign up?’ And I’m thinking, you don’t know the life impacts [this decision will have].”
Olivia Terenzio, 19, from Toronto
During a lecture on what it’s like to be in the military police, Sergeant Nicole Laidlaw mentions seeing one of her comrades on a tour to Afghanistan lose three limbs. Yonique Barnett, a 28-year-old Jamaican-born Brampton resident, raises her hand at the end of the session, looking to dig deeper. What was that like to witness? Laidlaw matter-of-factly answers, “It was hard…When that happens, it makes you more paranoid: ‘Do I want to go out, is it really worth it?’ But we continued on.” Later, Barnett would tell me she feels the program “kind of glossed over” the risks that they’re effectively asking any military member to be prepared to assume. The army section of the CAF is the likeliest to fight on the battlefield; it also has the lowest proportion of female soliders, at 12.4 percent.
Drawing fire on the battlefield isn’t the only risk in the Forces: A military-commissioned Statistics Canada study released in November 2016 found that, at 1.7 percent, the rate of sexual assault in the military is nearly double that of the regular population. But when I ask my group whether they have concerns about sexual harassment or assault, most of them aren’t unduly worried. They say it happens everywhere.
In the fire academy, where we try on intense chemical firefighting gear, including gas masks, we meet Master Corporal Emelie Pilon, an impressive Forces veteran who won a meritorious service medal from the Governor General for her searchand-rescue work during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. “I’ve had 20 years in the Forces and never once have I experienced any ill will towards me. Nothing,” she says. “So if you’re worried about being treated differently being a woman in the Forces, it really doesn’t happen.” There are only 17 women firefighters in the Canadian military, she tells the group during her pitch. The Forces “don’t throw you any favours” as a woman, she says, but everything that’s asked of you is completely doable.
Mayer, my blond-braided fire-team partner from the shooting range, is furiously taking notes. A native of London, Ont., who lives at home with her sister and her dad, she wants to be a firefighter too. On one of the bus rides after lunch, Mayer says she craves the kind of structure that can feel so out of reach in civilian life. “I like organization. And maturity.” She references our lunch break: “When you leave that cafeteria, there’s no mess. People clean up after themselves.”
It is impossible, however, not to notice that as a group in the cafeteria, we’re the odd ones out. Seated together, we are surrounded by rows and rows of mostly men in uniform, with the occasional woman seated among them, all shovelling in their food like they learned to do in basic training, and returning for duty. The women’s exposure to men is limited during this program, Tattersall says, because “if you were to show up and you’re only talking to men, you’re not going to see yourself.” You might not also see what it is truly like to be one of the few women in your platoon, should you choose to sign up.
OVER THE NEXT FIVE DAYS the mix of lectures, work site visits and physical tests stays the same, but a notable shift takes place in the participants’ engagement. What began as slightly cautious curiosity evolves into confident interest. The exhilaration that comes from experiencing mini personal victories is clear: Eighteen-year-old Eriel Strauch from nearby Barrie conquers her fear of heights on the obstacle course. Barnett doubted herself heading into the four-task FORCE test, “but I passed by the skin of my teeth,” she announces with a smile. Even Shiers comes out of the gun range test with a certain amount of bravado. “It wasn’t as scary as I thought,” she says.
On the final day, the women gather in an airless classroom to fill out the researcher’s survey. They’re tired but chat animatedly. Strauch makes a heartfelt speech to the teachers and presenters, thanking them for their time. “Seeing your determination, your work ethic and your compassion has been a key factor in many of us choosing to take the next steps in starting our actual military careers,” she says. Organizers ask again whether anyone thinks she might sign up for a life in the Canadian Armed Forces. This time, all but three raise their hands.
Seventeen-year-old Brook-Lynn Byrne has always wanted to join the army; she is one of the women whose hand shot up on the first day too. “Coming here,” she says, “made me realize that there’s so much more than just combat arms — this is just a big family, it’s such a giant community.”
Terenzio, a high achiever who excelled at all the military exercises, keeps her hand down. She says she loved the experience but worries about how an unpredictable military life could affect her family. A few weeks later, however, she had a change of heart and started the process of potentially joining the reserves. Barnett also visited the recruitment office, eyeing the role of logistics officer. Shiers is now studying for the aptitude test.
There is some skepticism outside the base as to whether a program like this can actually succeed at changing the hostile culture that has been allowed to flourish for so long. “At the upper level it appears there’s sincerity [in trying] these programs out,” says Raymond Wagner, a Halifax lawyer representing claimants in one of the class action lawsuits alleging gender discrimination in the military. “I’m skeptical of how effective they’re going to be [because] there’s this culture that’s still there, and cultures are very difficult to change.” Even with an infusion of new female recruits, it will take years before many of them reach positions of any real influence.
Mayer, however, is wholly convinced. She was just weeks away from attending her first year of university for peace studies, but she has called to cancel her spot. “It’s not what I want anymore,” she says. Mayer plans to do a chemistry and math course and keep working out in preparation for firefighting school applications opening up in April. That’s when she’ll go to a recruitment office and sign up for a life in uniform — a life of order, discipline and service as one of the few female military firefighters in Canadian history. She leaves the base with her shooting range target in tow, to hang on her wall at home.