On Wednesday, December 9, 2015, three women from the Canadian Forces and Toronto Police Service took part in a two-hour panel discussion to share their experiences as high-ranking women in security and peacekeeping roles.
The event took place at Ryerson University and was jointly organized by the NATO Association of Canada and the International Issues Discussion Series. Decked in purple clothing and ribbons, the audience was excited to be part of Women in International Security Canada’s 16 Days Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.
The first speaker to take the stage was Commader Michelaine Lahaie of the Royal Canadian Navy. Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, Cdr Lahaie spoke about gender and the impact that it had on her career. She recalled how her father, a steel worker, would come home with stories of frustration because a lot of women in his work were not treated with equality. She experienced this first-hand when she joined the navy in 1987. Working on warships with a predominantly male crew, Cdr Lahaie described her experience as living in a “fishbowl” and, at first, she constantly felt the need to give 150% effort all the time, while downplaying the fact that she was a woman.
Despite these initial inhibitions, Cdr Lahaie realizes the importance of women in hig-ranking roles. This became especially apparent to her when she assumed her post as Commandant of the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. Because she is a woman, many students and parents going through difficult times felt more comfortable speaking to her, and she was able to relate to and resolve their issues. Cdr Lahaie also recalled how many female students were encouraged by her presence at the school, as it maintained their morale when they were ready to give up. The most important thing she learned over the years is that you have to be yourself.
Staff Sergeant Kimberley O’Toole of Toronto Police Service was next to speak. SSgt O’Toole emphasized the need for women to help other women, and explained that it only takes one woman to forge the path in order to achieve greatness. According to her, the struggle to level out the playing field is a battle that has to be fought daily.
She also discussed her time in Afghanistan as part of a European Union Police Mission in 2013, where she mentored the Afghan National Police, the Attorney General’s Office and the Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan on issues surrounding gender and human rights. Although she wanted to develop strategies and training initiatives to create a more secure environment for women, some of the main struggles that she faced there was gaining the trust of the population, and the slow pace in which things operated and progressed.
Despite these challenges, she was grateful that she being a woman meant that she had access to 100% of the population, as over 80% of incarcerated Afghan women were there on charges of adultery. According to SSgt O’Toole, women of the Afghan National Police face the same challenges that women working for the police in Canada have.
Our last speaker for the night was Colonel Jennie Carignan of the Canadian Armed Forces. After describing her background, Col Carignan decided to approach the topic differently. Rather than discuss her position in the Armed Forces as a woman, Col Carignan spoke of her duties in rebuilding the infrastructure of Afghanistan as a combat engineer, and the importance of teamwork and leadership in the field.
When she first joined the army, Col Carignan never thought that being a female could be viewed as a disadvantage. She outlined three prevalent biases that act as obstacles for women in the military: the assumption that women are inferior to their male counterparts with regards to the application of violence, that women are weaker when it comes to physical and mental strength, and that women cannot be mothers while serving in the military. Col Carignan explained that a career in the military is physically and mentally difficult, and that trouble occurs when people are unaware of their biases.
This interesting discussion continued during the question and answer period.
How do we change institutions to value women? How is fraternization in the military looked upon between sexes? Was the course of action pursued in Afghanistan effective, and what would be a more effective method?
These were just a few of the questions our eager audience posed to our panelists.
Overall, the speakers provided much food for thought that could apply to many workplace situations. The presence of women in peacekeeping and security roles is not only important, but also necessary, and must be embraced by organizations in order to secure a safe community.