On the front lines: The changing face of our military
Chris Fox, cp24.com
Published Friday, November 11, 2011 9:22PM EST
The Canadian Forces pride themselves on being an organization that doesn't discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality or race. CP24.com reporter Chris Fox looks into the veracity of this.
The Canadian Forces wants you; even if Uncle Sam doesn't.
It doesn't matter whether you're gay, bi-sexual, transgender or ‘just' a woman, today's military has an open-door policy.
They want you in uniform and increasingly they want you on the front lines, and that is something worth applauding, according to a leading advocate for the LGBTQ community.
"In comparison with what we have seen in the United States with the challenges around gays and lesbians and trans people serving in the military, it certainly is impressive that Canada has taken the posture it has with its military," Cherie MacLeod, executive director of PFLAG Canada, told CP24.com. "It says a lot about the strength and courage that Canada has in creating more inclusion in our society."
In 1992, the Canadian military repealed a law, which made homosexuality a violation punishable by release from the Canadian Forces.
Since then the organization has been steadily rolling out a list of policies aimed at eradicating discrimination and giving LGBTQ soldiers the same rights as everyone else wearing the uniform.
Canadian Forces troops march in gay pride parades, same-sex couples can and have gotten married in military chapels and same-sex common-law partners qualify for the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts.
The Canadian Forces will also cover the cost of gender reassignment surgery for its employees. Since December 2010, transgender soldiers can change their name and uniform without facing scrutiny.
Meanwhile, the United States barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexuals from serving in its military until September and policies haven't quite caught up with the change in legislation.
"They (the Canadian Forces) have done so much more than just posting a poster and saying ‘now we are inclusive'," MacLeod said. "They are actually doing the outreach work that is important and they are actually engaging their members to take note of diversity, to value diversity, to understand diversity and it is that work that truly leads to a more inclusive society."
Of course some challenges still remain.
For medical reasons, the Canadian Forces does not allow people currently entered into a gender reassignment process to enlist, forcing prospective members to wait, sometimes for years, or find another career.
Countless veterans also remain dishonorably discharged from the Canadian Forces because they were found to be homosexual before 1992.
For many of those people, Remembrance Day is a painful time.
"They are our forgotten heroes and for a number of them it's probably extremely painful to this day," Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, told CP24.com.
Kennedy's organization, an advocacy group for the LGBTQ community, wants the Department of National Defence to issue an apology to discharged gay members and restore the benefits they would have received had they been honourably discharged.
"If you are going to make progress, than what better way to do it than acknowledging your mistakes," she said.
A changing role for women
When Karen Davis first enrolled in the Canadian Forces in 1978 she didn't have many trades to choose from.
In fact she didn't have any.
At the time, women were not allowed to serve in combat or even be deployed to warn torn countries in a support capacity, so Davis and other woman who dreamt of serving on the front lines, were directed into a select number of all female trades, ones generally designed to free men for more combat oriented pursuits.
In Davis's case that meant beginning her career as an Oceanographic Operator in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.
Starting out Davis recalls writing letters to her superiors asking to be deployed until she finally got the message.
As a female soldier in the 1970s it wasn't going to happen, no matter what sort of conflict broke out.
"We were quite restricted in terms of what we were allowed to do in our careers," Davis told CP24.com recently. "We weren't allowed to deploy, we weren't allowed to serve on ships and it was really limiting. At the time I don't think I even understood the full picture."
Thirty-three years later much has changed.
Women, albeit a small percentage (2.1 per cent), now serve in combat roles and have done so since a 1989 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling affirmed their right to do so.
There are also signs that more and more women are making the choice to go to war.
There were 310 woman deployed to Afghanistan as infantry during the conflict (2001-2010), up from the 50 or so Davis says were even qualified throughout the 1990s.
Canada also lost its first female combat soldier when Captain Nicola Goddard was killed in a firefight in the Panjwaye District of Afghanistan in 2006.
"That was interesting. Two to three decades ago some of the resistance to putting women in the combat arms centered around how Canadians would react to losing a woman in combat and I think what that proved was that Canadians aren't too happy losing any of their young people to combat," Davis said. "The fact that it was a woman didn't make a difference."
While women at 15 per cent (13,000) of Canadian Forces personnel are still the minority, they are not nearly the minority they once were and on the surface the opportunities available to them are identical to those available to their male counterparts and superior to those available to female troops in many other NATO forces.
About a dozen other countries also allow women to fill ground combat roles, including many European countries, but the United States does not.
For women serving in the Canadian military the final hurdle was cleared a decade ago, when they were allowed onto submarines.
"In lots of ways the proudest moments for me have come since I have taken the uniform off," Davis told CP24.com. Retired from active duty since 2000, Davis now works as a defense scientist at the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute in Kingston and has done extensive research on the changing role woman play in the Canadian Forces. "Realizing how far we have come and realizing the impact some of the senior woman are going to make in the organization is pretty amazing."
In Davis's mind the key to continued success lies in those ‘senior women', a list that includes the likes of Brigadier General Christine Whitecross and Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, the highest ranked women in the Canadian Forces.
"We have conducted six consecutive women in leadership conferences and have had those women that have advanced to senior rank levels speak because they do have an incredible amount of things to share with other woman in the organization," Davis told CP24.com. "To have them candidly talk about what it means to be a woman in a military uniform and to hear about some of the different things they come up against goes a long way."
A military that represents a country
Whether it's gay soldiers, women or other visible minorities, the continued success of the Canadian Forces depends on the organizations ability to represent the country it serves.
With years of exclusionary policies now in the rear view mirror, it seems the Canadian Forces gets that now more than ever, even if there is still some work left to do.
"When you are a soldier, you are a soldier before being a male or a female or a certain ethnicity and they (the Canadian Forces) really try to make that known and respected," Capt. Cynthia Larue, a former member of the reserves who joined the Canadian Forces full time after a 2009 deployment to Afghanistan, told CP24.com. "It doesn't really matter. You are there to do a job and you do your job."