General John de Chastelain: Reflections on the introduction of women into combat roles in the Canadian military

By Joana Cook, Managing Editor, Strife
Interview conducted on 8 May 2014.


Graduating from military college in 1960 with a commission in the Canadian Army, John de Chastelain rose quickly through the ranks. In 1989, he was promoted to General and appointed Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). During his tenure, the Canadian military was involved in the Oka crisis, as well as the first Gulf War and Somalia. He served as Canada’s Ambassador to the United States in 1993 before being reappointed to the post of CDS from which he retired in 1995. Since then, General de Chastelain has served as Chair of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning in Northern Ireland. He helped forge the Belfast Agreement, the blueprint for peace in Northern Ireland signed on Good Friday, 1998. General de Chastelain was named to the Order of Canada in 1993, and a Companion of Honour in 1999.

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Joana Cook: In your time with the military, were you responsible for any initiatives that focused on increasing the number of women in the Canadian forces? If so, what motivated these changes?

General de Chastelain: When I was Commandant of the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston (1977-1980), the government made the decision to change the policy of not having women attend the College – other than in the postgraduate programs.  The policy to exclude women had been in effect since the College was founded in 1876.  It was felt by the government to be still valid up until 1980 as the majority of graduates from the College were commissioned into the combat or combat support classifications from which women were then excluded.  As moves began to open these classifications to women, it was decided to open the College to women officer cadets.  I was involved in the selection of the first class of such cadets who came to the College in 1980.  Women have been fully involved at the College since that date.

In 1980 after leaving RMC I was appointed Commander of Canada’s 4th Mechanized Brigade Group in Lahr and Baden-Soellingen, Germany.  At the same time a trial was announced by National Defence Headquarters to see how women could operate in “near-combat” roles, Germany being considered an operational area.  That meant that women soldiers were employed in the Logistics Battalion and the Field Ambulance unit of the Brigade Group.  They filled roles in these units that were normally filled by men and they went on all the exercises and the major Fall manoeuvres along with our NATO allies.  At the end of the trial it was established that women should be employed in field combat support units without restriction.  It was also felt that the expression “near combat” was a misnomer, since a vehicle technician repairing a fighting vehicle in a forward area was just as exposed to combat as were soldiers in the combat classifications.  I believe it was the result of that trial that gradually opened up the role of women in combat classifications, including flying fighter aircraft, serving on fighting ships and in combat and combat support classifications.

The only limitation that was made was that women candidates had to meet physical fitness requirements for combat and combat support classifications as did men.  As I recall, there was some debate about the physical differences between males and females with regard to fitness testing, but appropriate tests were established and women were enrolled in the combat and combat support classifications on a voluntary basis.

As to how this came about and who initiated it:  I believe it was a combination of circumstances that were a part of the nationwide gradual entry of women into roles traditionally filled by men alone, eg, firefighters, loggers, police, and some emergency services.  There was also an in-house (Defence Department) program to look at the benefits of opening up hitherto excluded classifications to women both as a means of expanding the recruiting base of qualified candidates as well as a sense of fairness.  As technology played an increasing part in military capability, the need for engineers and science-oriented recruits expanded also, and women were equally capable in these fields.

A benefit many sought in joining the armed forces, was the ability to learn and practice a skill that would be of value after leaving the Service.  For this reason there was seldom a shortage of recruits seeking careers in the technical and support classifications, particularly in the Navy and Air Force.  While technical ability was equally important in the infantry, armour, artillery, field engineering and communications classifications, the nature of their work under field conditions made them less desirable to many of the men who applied to join the forces and to many of the women as well.

The one exception to all classifications being opened to women when I left the Forces in 1995 was in the submarine service.  I believe that has since changed (and I believe it changed in the Royal Navy only this year).*

As to pressure for change, while there was pressure from the media and some politicians to open up hitherto excluded possibilities in the military for women. It was most vocal, I think, in the case of the Military College, which provides a paid-for university education for officer candidates entering the Regular Forces.  Why, it was legitimately asked, should women be excluded from such an opportunity?

I’m not aware of what factors, other than personal desire, motivated women in their choice of the military role they wished to play.

In what roles did you see the majority of women take up in the forces? Do you feel that these changed over time?

I don’t know what the situation is in Canada’s Regular Force today.  Certainly up until I left it was largely the technical and supporting classifications in all three Services, that attracted more women candidates, while the Navy and Air Force was more attractive to those seeking combat roles.  That has perhaps changed.  Certainly women have distinguished themselves in army combat roles, commanding units and subunits in the Afghanistan war.  The only Canadian woman soldier killed in Afghanistan was an artillery Forward Observation Officer, killed while directing fire from her armoured vehicle.

It is fairly standard practice for someone to change their classification mid-career (or earlier). Not everybody finds they made the right choice at the outset and if a vacancy in another classification is available they may request the change. Those who have experience in combat units are frequently sought by the non-combat classifications, and those who have served in combat roles and look for a skill to get employment after they retire, may ask for such a transfer.  In my experience, that was certainly the case for the men in the Forces and I assume it is the same for the women.

In International Military Training Operations (IMTO), what roles have women played?

The Forces have conducted a number of training missions in various countries (most recently, and ongoing, in Afghanistan).  Some of these are conducted by Special Forces soldiers and I don’t know if they include women.  I can see the advantage of having women soldiers involved in training missions in locations where male contact with female residents would be unacceptable for religious or societal reasons.

In regards to foreign operations, how did having women in the forces impact relations and interactions with both local populations and foreign forces?

During my time in uniform there was little foreign reaction to the role of Canadian women in operational units, as the numbers were then not large. Many national forces don’t have women in combat roles so there may exist a negative reaction among some to what Canada is doing in this regard (especially in societies where women’s roles are restricted – Afghanistan is an example of this), but I have no personal knowledge of it. In Afghanistan I understand Canadian women soldiers were able to play a unique role in contact with Afghan women.

What were some of the challenges you saw facing female military members? This could include operational, logistical, or social for example.

I suspect (but I have no evidence) that there may still be males who cannot accept that women should be in the fighting classifications and this attitude may still be a problem for women who seek such roles.  At the Military College women equal or outperform men academically, militarily or athletically and I suspect the same is true of women in operational units.  Recent publications in Canada report that sexual assault is a problem and that the hierarchy has been slow in responding to it.  I understand assaults against Canadian women soldiers by foreign soldiers serving in the same overseas operational theatres have occurred. This has nothing to do with a woman soldier’s ability to perform their role and everything to do with the need to deal harshly with the offenders and the mentality that causes it.

What lessons do you think Canada could offer to other countries regarding the integration of women in to the military and onto the front lines?

The lesson that Canada can offer is that it has worked for us and is a conscious demonstration of the belief in the equal status of women in Canada.  There may still be examples when equality of opportunity and pay is far from perfect in Canada, but in the Canadian Armed Forces the pay is the same for males and females.  The glass ceiling may still be a problem for women in industry and business, but there are female General officers in the Canadian Forces.  Canadians as a whole supported the efforts of its soldiers in Afghanistan, including the employment of women in combat roles there.

I think the best contribution Canada can make in this regard is to do what it is doing now, opening up security roles to qualified women;  ensuring that those who resent or try to resist the policy are side-lined or dealt with; and demonstrating to the world that this is who we are and what we do.

* In 2001 General Maurice Baril, Chief of the Defence Staff of Canada, announced  that women will serve in submarines


Joana Cook is a PhD researcher at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London focusing on the role and agency of women in counterterrorism in Yemen. She is also a Research Affiliate with Public Safety Canada and member of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS). You can follow her on Twitter @Joana_Cook

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