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Canadian military falling well short of its target for recruiting women

The Canadian military has barely moved the needle on its ambitious plan to recruit more women, just over a year after the Liberal government introduced its gender-focused defence policy, new figures reveal.

New statistics also show efforts to bring in more Indigenous, visible minority recruits failing

Capt. Ashley Collette, recipient of Canada's Medal of Military Valour, is seen with local children during a patrol in Afghanistan. The Canadian military still struggles to convince more women to join its ranks. (Associated Press)

The Canadian military has barely moved the needle on its ambitious plan to recruit more women, just over a year after the Liberal government introduced its gender-focused defence policy, new figures reveal.

The stated intention of Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance was to have women make up 25 per cent of the Armed Forces by 2025-26.

Statistics released by the Office of the Chief of Military Personnel show that while the number of female recruits coming through the door has increased slightly, it has not been enough to boost overall representation.

As of the end of April, women made up only 15.4 per cent of both the combined regular and reserve forces.

The story is the same for Indigenous Canadians and visible minorities — those recruitment numbers remain just as anemic as they have been for several years. Indigenous Canadians make up about 2.8 per cent of the Armed Forces; DND has set a goal of getting that share up to 3.5 per cent. Visible minorities make up 8.2 per cent; the target percentage is 11.8.

But the military and the Liberal government have more political capital invested in the effort to get more women into uniform. It's central to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's mantra of gender equality, and to Canada's desire to put women at the heart of a reformed international peacekeeping system.

The drive to recruit more women comes as the military attempts to overhaul its culture in the wake of a damning report in 2015 by retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, who said a "sexualized culture" within the military was behind an endemic problem with sexual harassment and misconduct.

Female recruitment picking up — but slowly

There were 860 women enrolled in the military in the last fiscal year, which ended on March 31 — an increase of eight per cent over the previous year.

It's not enough, said the chief of military personnel.

"Those are still not meeting the number we need to have in order to meet the 25 per cent target and we're conscious of that," Lt.-Gen. Chuck Lamarre told CBC News in an interview.

The slow pace of female recruitment has forced senior brass to take more direct control, he said.

"We recognize it's going to take a much more disciplined approach, a much more targeted approach to go get more women, more visible minority and more Aboriginal folks to come join the Canadian Armed Forces," said Lamarre, who insisted the Armed Forces can still hit the target, which was first established in early 2016.

The direction from Vance back then had been to increase the representation of women in the forces by one per cent per year over a decade. The new statistics show the military has seen healthy increases in the number of women applying to be officers, or to join the navy or air force.

But National Defence is having a harder time convincing women to join the army, and to become non-commissioned members of the rank and file.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said it will take time, but there signs of change, notably the desire of women to become officers and leaders, a cultural shift that the DesChamps report said is necessary. 

"As time goes on, I am confident we will be successful," Sajjan said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning from Vietnam. "We are very happy that we are recruiting women into leadership roles."

Lamarre said he believes the military is fighting against perceptions about the kind of career being offered.

"People have a tendency to self-select out before they give it a shot, and I think that's a mistake," he said, pointing to the military's struggle to get women to consider signing up for trades such as aircraft, vehicle and maritime mechanics.

"We are attracting more women into the officer corps, but I think we need to broaden that even more. Part of it is demystifying some of those occupations. Some of them look to be hard and exclusively centred towards men. That's not the case at all. We have some great examples of women who are operating in every occupation."

Military's image problem persists

Others — DesChamps among them — argue that the perception of the military as a tough place to be a woman hasn't gone away.

Despite the military's high-profile campaign to stamp out misconduct — known as Operation Honour — and the increasing number of sexual assault cases being tried in the military justice system, many say that little has changed when it comes to the macho nature of military culture.

"In the last three years, in my opinion, more could have been done" to stop harassment and make the military a more welcoming career choice for women, Deschamps told the Senate defence committee last week.

"What I have seen is, not a lot of progress has been made."

The federal government has faced two class-action lawsuits launched by survivors of sexual assault and misconduct in the military.

The cases entered settlement discussions last winter after it was revealed government lawyers filed a statement of defence that said National Defence "does not owe members of the Canadian Armed Forces any duty to protect them from sexual harassment and assault."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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