On May 17, 2006, in a firefight with Afghan Taliban insurgents, Canadian forces lost an artillery officer hit by shrapnel. She was Captain Nichola Goddard, the first Canadian woman to be killed in action since her country’s 1989 decision to admit women soldiers into combat.
For a nation already divided about participating in the US-led Afghanistan war, Goddard’s death was a particular shock, and two more Canadian women have since died in combat. However, Canada remains in the small group of countries — including Israel, France, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and now the US — that have opened their fighting ranks to female soldiers.
Canada’s change did not come easily.
“There was definitely heated discussion among my peers whether we should be there” in combat, said Lieutenant Colonel Jennie Carignan, who enlisted in 1986.
However, the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms made it inevitable and the armed forces began a series of trials. The initial result was not encouraging for champions of full equality. The trials indicated that almost half the male rank and file viewed their female counterparts as “women first, tradespersons second and soldiers never.”
It was feared that unit cohesion, esprit de corps and morale would suffer.
Final word came in a 1989 ruling by Canada’s Human Rights Commission ordering women to be admitted to all combat roles except aboard submarines. The submarine ban fell three years later.
Chief Warrant Officer A.P. Stapleford, who had enlisted in the Canadian infantry in 1975, said some initially questioned whether women were up to the task physically and whether the men would feel obliged to protect them.
“It was a shock at first and we overreacted at first, but we learned to adapt and work with them. They were going to be there anyway so we just got over it and it wasn’t an issue to integrate them into units,” he said.
Nowadays, he said, male soldiers take the presence of female combatants in their stride.
The Canadian military says 2.4 percent of personnel in combat units are now women — 145 officers and 209 enlisted soldiers. Overall, 9,348 women serve in the Canadian armed forces, 14 percent of all personnel.
Officers today speak of having adapted swiftly to women in combat, and officers and enlisted soldiers, male and female, whom reporters sought out for interviews, insist they have no problem with the change.
However, some in the civilian sector disagree with the principle.
While supportive of women serving in the military, columnist Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail, a Toronto daily, wrote following the US decision of Jan. 24: “The sheer physical demands of war (to say nothing of group cohesion, and all the rest) mean that fighting capability and performance are simply not compatible with gender equality.”
Gwen Landolt of REAL Women Canada, a socially conservative advocacy group, said: “It was a politically-correct decision. The problem is women are just not equal physically, they can’t perform in combat to the same degree as men can.”
Landolt supports women serving as noncombatants and was the first female lawyer to serve in the legal department of the Canadian Forces. She said REAL Women waged a lonely battle to head off the 1989 decision.
“If the tribunal hadn’t come down in 1989 and smacked them so hard, maybe the military would be more objective,” she said. “Feminism was at its height in Canada in 1989 and [feminist organizations] would hit back fast and furiously when we raised objections.”
Both she and Wente also cite issues of pregnancy, motherhood and sex, as well as male instincts of protectiveness of women.
Carignan, the veteran from 1986, said the first 10 years of integration were difficult, but after a review of anti-harassment policies and a revamp of the military’s code of ethics in the 1990s, things improved significantly.
“When I first entered into the forces I heard, ‘women aren’t strong enough,’ so I just hit the gym harder,” Carignan said. “Then later I heard, ‘I’ve never had a woman as a troop commander’ but OK, so now let’s move on. And we did move on, never looking back.”
In 2003, she became the first woman to hold deputy command of a combat unit and was Task Force Kandahar’s senior combat engineer in 2009.
Captain Ashley Collette, during her 10-month deployment in Afghanistan, led a 50-strong all-male infantry unit providing security to villagers. She had close calls with roadside bombs and two of her soldiers were injured. Now 28, she received the Medal of Military Valour, Canada’s third-highest military honor, for her leadership in the Panjwaii district near Kandahar — the district where Nichola Goddard died.
“Afghanistan was challenging, no doubt,” she said. “The heat and desert conditions are intense, taking casualties is intense.”
“But it’s no more intense for me than it is for a male soldier; we’re both in it for the same reasons, to do the same job, and that’s the way my fellow soldiers saw it too. My leadership was never questioned,” she said.
A male corporal, Kyle Schmidinger, said his unit could not have asked for a better commander than Collette.
“She did what any leader would do. She fought for us and she took care of us. There was never any doubt she couldn’t do the job as well as a male commander,” Schmidinger said.
The soldiers said having women on hand also proved helpful in dealing with Afghanistan’s strict code of gender segregation because they could conduct searches of women and talk to the wives of Afghan chiefs.
Carignan said while it took time and some struggle for women to get where they are today, “now, the men who initially were opposed are defending female combatants because they know in the end, it’s all just about how you do your job.”