In early 2015, unsettling reports of sexual assault in the Canadian Armed Forces came to the forefront of the military when a General who had been complicit in avoiding reports for nearly four years began an inquiry of the forces.
As a result of the reports, Supreme Justice Mme. DesChamps was chosen by the government of Canada to investigate the state of affairs for women in the forces. What came next was a 104-page report suggesting that the Canadian military was as traditional in its value-set towards women as Canada was 50 years ago.
In an interview with the Muse, the Minister of National Defense, Harjit Sajjan said that the Canadian forces are working hard to implement the recommendations from the DesChamps reports.
“General Vance is constantly reviewing progress and if things aren’t progressing, he adjusts accordingly,” said Sajjan.
Sajjan continued, “We need to make sure that we create the environment in the Canadian forces that ensures that women have the confidence that they can be a part of this and not have to worry about any type of threat of sexual violence.”
Shannon Lewis-Simpson, Lieutenant Commander, said “The naval reserve is the best across the board, any ship you go on is about 60/40 for women.”
“It’s very much dependent on element and trade for women’s representation.”
Lewis-Simpson says that she joined in 1992 and she didn’t particularly remember there ever being a problem with her class. She suggested that it likely had to do with the fact that they were all university graduates and they all “kind of got along.”
“I remember the captain once when I was a JOUT, said ‘I don’t know how to treat you’ and I said ‘treat me like a normal JOUT’ and he did and it was fine and I will never forget that.”
Lewis-Simpson said that being a Newfoundlander most likely affected her ability to see the sexism and misogyny that was perpetrated in the Canadian Armed Forces, as the culture in Newfoundland and Labrador is very much traditional towards women raising children, cooking, cleaning, and doing the family rearing.
“On reflection, going back and seeing what happened, I probably went along with it to fit in. That’s what you did because you didn’t want to make a fuss, you wanted to be included, was that the best approach? Probably not. But it was the approach to get by.”
The language used in Newfoundland and Labrador, too, was rather colourful and often would make Lewis-Simpson visionless to the problems that she and her female colleagues would face. She says that the movement towards understanding that verbal abuse is in fact abuse has changed the face of the military and has been a great eye-opener to the issues of discrimination that people face in the military.
“I think now, we’re starting to understand concepts of privilege – of socio-economic, of rank.”
While the hierarchy of the military can help perpetrate sexism and misogyny, Lewis-Simpson, said that it is paramount to leave the hierarchical structure intact and deal with the other problems that are associated with sexism and misogyny which would, in turn, ensure that people in positions of power in the military don’t perpetrate that form of discrimination.
“People are becoming more mindful and aware of their circumstances and their privilege. I’m hopeful and very optimistic that things will get better and constantly improve.”
While women do not make up the majority of the Canadian Armed Forces, Lewis-Simpson said that they are a growing contingent. Though she questions why some have left.
“A lot of people do leave, and you have to go back now and ask why? Is it a natural attrition thing, maybe someone’s moving on to another job, that’s normal. But you have to dig in a little more and see if something happened that we could do better.”
Sajjan said, “All trades in the military are open up to women. In 1989, the military opened up all combat trades. There cannot be anything that is a restriction for women in the military.”
“It’s not just about us saying ‘hey it’s open’, now we need to be able to go out and recruit from half of that population. It’s about making sure that we tell people you can have a career in the military and if you chose to have a family, you can carry on with your career as well.”
“Our goal right now is to increase drastically the number of women in the military because the percentage we’re at right now is not enough. We need to do more.”
While women may have not always been a priority to the Canadian Military, leaps and bounds have been made both in policy decisions surrounding women and actively encouraging women to be involved and to become a part of their military.