Politics·Analysis

Is now the time for a woman to lead the Canadian military?

Ottawa is about to embark on a speculative frenzy now that the retirement of the country's top military commander is out in the open. The Liberals — if they intend to follow recent practice and appoint a woman to the top job — will find the field somewhat thin, but promising.

Retirement of Gen. Jonathan Vance opens the door for next chief of the defence staff

It's no secret that the Liberal government, to further burnish its progressive credentials, would like to appoint a woman to the military's top job. But there are less than an handful with the right rank and experience. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

One of Ottawa's favourite parlour games is about to begin anew.

It's called Spot the Next CDS (Chief of the Defence Staff).

The planned retirement of Gen. Jonathan Vance, announced Thursday, has set political and defence establishment tongues wagging, even though his departure has been widely rumoured, signalled and even expected. 

It is also no secret that the Liberal government, to further burnish its progressive credentials, would sorely like to appoint a woman to head the institution long considered the bastion of masculinity.

It may certainly be time, but the government faces a conundrum in that there are less than a handful of women with the right rank and experience.

A larger, equally impressive cohort, is on the way up through the ranks.

But among the current crop, Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross is already on the way out the door to retirement. And the other, Lt.-Gen. Frances Allen, is a relatively unknown quantity outside of the Department of National Defence and in international military circles, where connections are all-important.

Whitecross, a well-regarded, tough-minded officer, has long been thought to be in the running to replace Vance after her stint at the NATO Defence College in Italy was over. 

"I can't recall too many of the other service chiefs popping up in the PM's Twitter feed," said defence analyst Dave Perry. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has congratulated Whitecross at least twice on social media — when she assumed command at the NATO college in 2016, and last week upon word of her retirement, when he praised her dedication to gender equality. 

Perry also noted that other military officers have been coaxed out of retirement to take the top job: "So, I wouldn't rule her out entirely."

Perry concedes that reading the tea leaves based on the prime minister's Twitter account may seem like a "glib assessment," but he suggests that social media is often a strong indicator of priorities with this government. 

Most of the other major service chiefs, including newly appointed Vice Chief of the Defence Staff Mike Rouleau, the commander of the air force, Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger, and navy commander Vice-Admiral Art McDonald are also thought to be among the interested candidates.

Institutional, political challenges

Whoever takes over will face many of the same institutional and political challenges which have vexed the current inhabitant of the top commander's suite.

Among the demands the new defence chief will face will be continually underlining the relevance of the Canadian Armed Forces to a government that occasionally seems disinterested even as the world becomes more unstable. 

Vance, who has served five years in the defence chief's job, had been considered a potential candidate to lead NATO's Military Committee, but the Liberal government refused to put his name forward for consideration.

There are a number of different factors that go into a decision like that, including personal relationships between the government and the defence chief, said Perry, a vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

"More broadly, getting a country's nominated candidate into that job requires the spending of political capital," he said. "You have to basically convince other countries to take your guy or gal. And I've never taken NATO to be part of this government's core branding. It's not like the United Nations. I've had a hard time thinking this government would expend that kind of political capital."

Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, seen here speaking at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 4, announced his retirement on Thursday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Most of Vance's legacy, according to Perry, is tied up in the reforms he attempted to undertake within the military, including Operation Honour, the effort to stamp out sexual misconduct within the ranks, and the more recent drive to eliminate racist behaviour.

Retired lieutenant-general Guy Thibault, who was Vance's first vice chief of the defence staff before retiring four years ago, said the social challenges his former boss faced were greater than what some of his predecessors contended with, and he tried to deal with them head-on.

The military was — when Vance took over in 2015 — in the grip of a full-blown crisis over sexual assaults and harassment. A landmark report by former supreme court justice Marie Deschamps had exposed a toxic culture and a willingness of senior leaders to dismiss and even look the other way. 

As his first major decision Vance launched a campaign of reform and accountability structured as a military operation, with defined objectives and outcomes.

The intervening years have seen a flood of sexual assault and misconduct charges and routine assessments of the culture.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inspects the troops at the Adazi Military Base in Kadaga, Latvia, in July 2018. (Roman Koksarov/The Associated Press)

Operation Honour has met with mixed success, even in Vance's estimation, when he noted in an interview Thursday with CBC News that changing the culture of the military, as an institution, was a lot harder than he had anticipated.

The data being produced by the defence department shows the needle has moved only slightly in terms of both the perception of misconduct within the military and the number of reported incidents.

Both Thibault and Perry said it will take "a generation" to produce the kind of change Vance was seeking within the span of five years.

"I don't think anyone could have done better under the circumstances," said Thibault, who now heads the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. "He's a hard-charger and tough minded."

Those qualities undoubtedly made him enemies, both inside and outside of the bureaucracy, particularly when it came to the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, Thibault's successor as vice chief of the defence staff.

Norman was charged with one count of breach of trust after the RCMP and the Crown accused him of leaking cabinet secrets related to a shipbuilding deal.

Critics within the military and political world have said Vance did not do enough to protect his deputy from what turned out to be a failed prosecution.  

Thibault said he believed much of the case was "outside of Gen. Vance's hands" and that RCMP was more in control of events.

History, however, will be the judge.

Vance said Thursday he has no interest in writing a memoir and insisted he is "more than good" with the government's decision to pass on the NATO nomination. 

In turning down several television interview requests on Thursday, the outgoing defence chief displayed the determination of many old soldiers to quietly fade away.

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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