International Women’s Day: Canadian Armed Forces women deployed on operations

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Article / March 7, 2014

By Alycia Coulter

The sky is the limit these days for women who serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, but it wasn’t always easy getting there. The first women to enter the traditionally male-dominated arena were challenged to prove that when finally given the opportunity, women were able to take on new positions and succeed at them.

Each year on March 8, the United Nations-led International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the global efforts of women, consider steps for action on remaining gender issues and celebrate the extraordinary work of women in their countries and communities. The progress of women in the Canadian Armed Forces is an achievement worth celebrating.

This year’s theme is “Equality for women is progress for all.” Although the military generally includes more male members, the Canadian Armed Forces sets a global example in its efforts to provide equal opportunities for both men and women. Canadian women currently serve on operations around the world in roles that range from peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance to security and peace-enforcement.

“I feel privileged that many women before me fought the good fight so that I can sit here today, do my job, and be respected for it,” said Sergeant Lou-Anne Bidal, currently deployed on Operation SOPRANO.

Progress began during the Second World War, when women served on the home front in typically untraditional roles such as cooks, mechanics and heavy mobile equipment drivers while the men were deployed overseas. In the early-1950’s, women were allowed to enrol in the Canadian Armed Forces but were restricted to traditional roles like medicine, communications, logistics and administration. The trades available to women slowly increased in the following years and in 1989, all military occupations were opened to women – allowing all persons to serve their country in roles defined by their talents and not their gender. The final exception, serving on submarines, was lifted by the Royal Canadian Navy in 2000.

As Chief Clerk of the National Support Element, Sgt Bidal is currently stationed in Juba, South Sudan. Her many duties include providing administrative and financial support to task force members from Canada that serve with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). She supervises local staff members and ensures that remotely located members of the team receive their mail and morale packages.

She’s been previously deployed to Bosnia, and served as a flight attendant with 8 Wing Squadron in Trenton. For Sgt Bidal, her 16 years in the Canadian Armed Forces have given her many things to be proud of. In 2006, she participated in the Nijmegen Marches – an annual event that brings military members from various nations together to march 160 kilometres in the Nijmegen area of the Netherlands. This ceremonial event has participants walking on terrain where many Canadians fell during the Second World War.

Sgt Bidal would never have had these experiences elsewhere and she continues to encourage several women to consider a military career.

Though the types of roles can vary, according to Sgt Bidal, women who can push themselves to see what they can accomplish are best suited for the Canadian Armed Forces. “Women like me…women who like a challenge [and] don’t worry about whether it’s a man or woman filling the boots,” she added.

A similar desire for challenge, responsibility and adventure is what led Lieutenant (Navy) Dana Wall to consider the Canadian Armed Forces for her career. She was recruited to work as a Maritime Surface and Subsurface (MARS) Officer. Twelve years later, Lt (N) Wall is currently deployed on Operation JADE in Southern Lebanon as a UN Military Observer. She meets with local officials and conducts patrols to monitor and report on activity along the border between Israel and Lebanon.

After three months, she found her niche as the Observer Group Lebanon’s Military Information Officer (MIO). “As MIO, I liaise with the intelligence and information community of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, collate their information with that of Observer Group Lebanon’s, and brief the operations team and Command,” said Lt (N) Wall. “Having a political science background, this is right up my alley and I absolutely love this job.”

Lt (N) Wall sees her gender as a potential benefit in her current role. “When conducting patrols and interacting with locals, no one feels threatened or intimidated by me. They're more likely to be relaxed and speak freely.”

Lt (N) Wall has never found it unusual working in a male-dominated environment. “Thanks to those brave souls who have gone before me, by the time I showed up to my first ship, I was treated like all the other sub-lieutenants and it was never an issue,” said Lt (N) Wall. In her current area of operations, she works with male counterparts and locals in countries where it is not common to see a female in uniform.

Regardless, she has never been disrespected in her work and has a positive view towards working with more men. “If anything, working in a male-dominated environment has forced me to be more assertive and direct, and I think that's a good thing,” she added.

Skills development and an opportunity to grow is what comes with an occupation in the Canadian Armed Forces. For Major Caroline Chartier, her career started because of the chance to quickly move up into a managerial position as a dietician – a path that would have otherwise taken years to attain in the private industry.

Twenty two years later, Maj Chartier works as a Force Food Services Officer for the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Egypt, as part of Operation CALUMET. In a team of two, Maj Chartier is responsible for managing the contracts of two camps in the Sinai Peninsula and ensures that both sites receive food on a regular basis.

When she first started her career, the dining industry was predominately male. This dynamic continues in her current work, where all Egyptian employees in the kitchens are male. The MFO has been in the Egyptian region for 30 years, and local employees have become familiar to working with women in management positions like Maj Chartier’s. “They welcome us and know our culture, [they] get it is different than theirs but it’s certainly not a problem.”

For Maj Chartier, the multinational aspect of her job is the most exciting part. Her work for the MFO directly affects 1,650 soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen from 13 nations, as well as 500 civilians. Her career has also taken her to Bosnia, as well as two tours of Afghanistan before her current position in Egypt.

From her 22 years of service, Maj Chartier has directly seen the progress of women integrating into all roles of the Canadian Armed Forces. “When I joined, you would not have a female boss. It just did not exist. Now we have women that are generals,” added Maj Chartier.

It’s not only the equality of positions that has changed, but also the work environment as a whole for women. “It used to be that I had to fight to defend the right to equal pay, but the sentiment has changed and this is no longer an issue,” said Warrant Officer Nathalie Doyon, a Ship’s Physician Assistant deployed on Operation CARIBBE with HMCS NANAIMO. Changes in policy and overall mentality have sparked progress to combat other equality and harassment issues in the workplace, problems that WO Doyon now interprets as declining each year.

She joined as a Medical Technician and discovered a passion for healing others. Her progression through her trade led her to her current qualification as a Physician’s Assistant. On a warship, her role is to optimize the health and well-being of the ship’s company while deployed. She responds to medical requirements and contributes to the ship’s morale. Like Lt (N) Wall, WO Doyon believes working in a male-dominated environment strengthens character.

WO Doyon first joined for the adventure, but stayed for the pride of serving her country. After 24 years in the military, she claims the progress of women makes the Canadian Armed Forces more successful. “Both genders have a unique perspective to bring to the table and now that we are equal partners in defending Canada, the team and the country are stronger for it,” she said.

Her advice for women considering a military career comes from her years of experience. “Joining the Forces gives you not only pride, but a sense of purpose. It strengthens you, develops you and allows you to be the strong woman that you were meant to be,” she explained.

There are over 10,000 women who currently experience the challenge, development and opportunities that come with serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. This achievement, and the progress of women serving in all roles, is one of the many reasons to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. Whether on land, in the air or at sea, women in the Canadian Armed Forces around the world are driven by the successes of the past, to support excellence and equality in the future.

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