Introduction: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

In February 2021, then Chief of Defence Admiral Art McDonald tweeted the need for more diversity within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF):

Although the intentions behind the tweet were positive, it faced backlash given that the picture used to present diversity showed a white male cadre representing the CAF’s leadership. In fact, 2021 has proven tumultuous for the CAF at large. The institution has seen allegations of sexual misconduct amongst senior military leaders, along with the dissolution of Operation HONOUR, the CAF’s high-profile campaign to stamp out sexual misconduct. These string of events are contributors to a growing lack of confidence towards the profession of arms.

A Recruitment on Numbers: Women, Indigenous People and Visible Minorities

Although Canadian society prides itself as a multicultural mosiac, this reality is not mirrored in those who serve in uniform. The CAF is comprised of a mostly white male population, especially amongst its senior leaders. A quote from a 2019 report by the Parliament’s Standing Committee on National Defence notes “People need to understand that we are recruiting our soldiers from 26% of the population … [where] we recruit mostly white men.”

The CAF prides itself in its attempts to recruit from all walks of Canadian society, yet countinues to face difficulty in recruiting women, indigenous peoples, and visible minorities. 

In May 2006, a report from the Office of the Auditor-General indicated that the CAF had set recruitment targets which looked at shifting Canadian demographics, but also found that the CAF fell short of meeting the targets that they set.

In 2017, Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) released its official defence policy titled Strong, Secure, and Engaged, which sought to place its recruitment priority on attaining diversity. In 2019, former Chief of Defence Staff General Johnathan Vance announced the following target recruitment percentages:

  • Women: from 14.9% in 2016 to 25% by 2026;
  • Indigenous peoples: from 2.6% in 2016 to 3.5% by 2026; and
  • Visible minorities: from 6.7% in 2016 to 11.8% by 2026.

It is too early to tell if the military is on track to meet its 2026 goals. As of 2020, an evaluation on  diversity and inclusion by DND noted that the CAF is made up of 16% of women, 2.8% of Indigenous peoples, and 9.4% of visible minorities. However, numbers alone do not paint a complete picture of what diversity truly means.  

As Al Okros, psychology professor at the Canadian Defence College notes, “We need to stop looking at how otherscan join us, but rather, it’s about changing the us that they are trying to join into.” In other words, diversity is not just about inclusion, it is about changing implicit attitudes/beliefs inherent in the CAF’s culture. 

The Challenge of Cultural Change

Academics of civil-military relations agree that military instititutions have predominately been reluctant and slow to change compared to the societies they serve. Ultimately, military cohesiveness and discipline requires individuals to conform to the implicit traditions of the institution. These traditions come from the legacies of white settler history, along with embedded privileges and structures of power. It is only now that both the CAF and the federal government have come to realize this cultural impact.

Diversity: An International and Domestic Face for Canada

Diversity in the CAF is a key consideration as Canadian defence and foreign policies intertwine. The emerging multipolar international security environment will require going beyond conventional warfighting. For example, hybrid environments requires a focus on shaping social perceptions and political dimensions of the modern operating environment. A diverse military can operate in a much wider range of different cultures and countries. Diversity can assist in removing the tunnel vision from a purely ‘Canadian’ lens.

At home, the CAF places a heavy emphasis of its public perception during domestic operations.

Diversity is relevant given the intersection of the military’s assistance response to COVID-19, increasing natural disasters, and the growing multicultural population that the CAF represent and serve.

Conclusion: The Need for Increased Civilian Oversight of the CAF

Change is inevitable. Signs of change appear evident – for instance, current Defence Minister Anita Anand’s decisionto transfer cases of sexual misconduct from the military to the civilian justice system is a step forward. However, more substantial change will come at a slower pace, and will demand a long-term, cohesive effort from all ranks of the CAF. Other key players would include the civilian government, which can expand its ability to facilitate cultural change and transform accountability standards within the military. 

Ultimately, diversity is an important issue that remains to be addressed in relation to its importance towards CAF’s operational effectiveness, as well as the face of Canada on the world stage.

John Coniconde is a second year MA student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, specializing in Security and Defence Policy. His research interests include Canadian defence policy, UN peace support operations, intelligence studies, and NATO operations. His interests in defence led him to study Military Ethics as an exchange student at the Royal Military College of Canada during his first year of his MA. John brings in his perspective as a person of colour, a public servant with Global Affairs Canada, and as a serving member in the Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve.

Photo Credit: Pte. Daniel Pereira, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

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