Although similar, equality and equity have different implications in policymaking. Equality is defined as “providing individuals with the same share of resources regardless of the background or needs”, while equity is “allocating resources to those who need it the most so they can succeed”. True equality across society can only be achieved if we prioritize providing resources to historically underfunded, disenfranchised, and historically underrepresented groups. When comparing outcomes, wellbeing, and access to resources, women in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) face a lack of equity. Especially when considering that the CAF faces a personnel shortage, recruitment and retention goals take on an additional dimension for women who are interested in pursuing a career in the military. Therefore, if the CAF is to survive the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis, explicit language that outlines equitable outcomes for servicewomen is needed in the upcoming defence policy update. 

Despite these desperately needed reforms and the CAF’s widely publicized scandals about their top leadership, the Trudeau government continues to fail in their promises to create feminist policy in the CAF For example, responses from both the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party to the Liberal government’s A Force for Change: Creating a Culture of Equality for Women in the Canadian Armed Forces document suggest the Liberal government failed to implement recommendations outlined in the 2015 Deschamps Report. While time will tell if the government will successfully implement recommendations from the 2022 Arbour Report, Liberal communications are still largely focused on using “equality” policy, instead of more meaningful “equity” to create sustainable policies and objectives to reform the CAF. 

Feminist Narratives; Disproportionate Outcomes

As part of her historic appointment to the defence portfolio, Minister Anand’s mandate stated that she would “build an inclusive and diverse defence team”. This is reflective of the Liberal Party’s re-election promises to “undertake ambitious efforts to improve the diversity of the CAF, including women, LGBTQ2+, Indigenous, Black, and racialized Canadians, and persons with disabilities” through expanding on and developing new services. Taken together, these goals are expressive of the Trudeau government’s overarching feminist mantra. However, despite these grand political claims, female and female-identifying CAF members continue to face challenges to access basic equity.

Evidence shows women and men in the CAF have acutely different experiences in their military service – namely in active service, in military-civilian transfer (MCT), and as veterans. In active service, women are more likely to retire or release as Officer-Cadets earlier. They are also more likely than their male counterparts to be medically discharged from service due to mental or physical issues. In retirement, women experience MCT differently than male veterans: typically, through feeling as if their skills – despite holding positions that have civilian counterparts – are not as transferable in comparison to male CAF veterans. During retirement, women veterans are less likely to work or only work part-time, citing child-care, disability, or a return to education as reasons why. Moreover, additional sources suggest that organizations and other related resources created to support women veterans are primarily focused on those who experienced military sexual trauma. While this shows that women involved in the CAF are disproportionately affected by sexual misconduct, it also indicates there are limited resources specifically adapted for women veterans who experience MCT. 

Additionally, military servicewomen face inequitable access for health-related issues. Militaries are traditionally male-dominated institutions, the CAF included. One study noted that in this hypermasculine environment, women become invisible. Ultimately, this leads to difficulties accessing both general and sex-specific healthcare. Other historical challenges include ill-fitting gear and uniforms, or even access to appropriate washroom facilities on Canadian military bases. In light of these historical and ongoing challenges, if there is to be improvement for the recruitment and retention, particularly for servicewomen and other gender-diverse personnel, the Trudeau government, and successive governments must recognize the unique challenges servicewomen and gender-diverse personnel have and will continue to face in the military. 

Well Intentioned, Lagging Implementation

Therefore, if Canada truly envisions itself as at the forefront of military gender integration, then Canadian policy dialogue should shift from equality-facing to equity-facing. Achieving 25% gender parity in the CAF must be met with policies designed for women to achieve similar outcomes to their male counterparts. Policies must include more substantive resources for women in the recruitment process, in active service, and in retirement. Other nations do this well. For instance, to support service members and their families, the British Armed Forces offers free “wraparound” childcare on their military bases. By comparison, the CAF only has a strategy examining childcare solutions, with projects that were slated for March 2023, but still have yet to be delivered upon. Notwithstanding the possible benefits provided by the Trudeau government’s national Early Learning and Child Care strategy, the “$10 a day daycare” plan does not eliminate waitlists or address the childcare shortage –  all of which disproportionately affect CAF servicemembers and their families when faced with deployments.  

Even so, there is one promising example that could improve women’s health throughout their military careers: the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services’ (CFMWS) Personnel Support Programs (PSP). CFMWS and PSP are focused on developing a Women’s Physical Wellness and Fitness Program aimed at addressing the “unique needs [women in the CAF] have in their career journey”. This program will focus on improving health outcomes for actively serving women – for example, by providing additional accommodations for pregnancy and reducing susceptibility to musculoskeletal injury. However, despite these promises, this program falls short in two key areas. First, the program’s main priority is supporting women who are pre-natal and post-partum. While beneficial, and can encourage women’s retention, the program must substantially focus on assisting women’s health throughout the recruitment process and beyond completion of active service. This was a key point highlighted as a program outcome, but it is not clear whether the program is set up to deliver on this goal. 

Similarly, funding for this program is only $3.7 million on a recurring basis. In 2022, the Department of National Defence (DND) was allocated $8 billion over five years to support ongoing CAF operations and development with $144.3 million to expand CAF health and physical wellness services for women and other gender-diverse personnel. In short, $3.7 million per year is only 2.5% of the budget dedicated for health and physical wellness services for women and gender-diverse personnel, despite the wide range of benefits the Women’s Physical Wellness and Fitness Program could provide to the CAF more broadly. 

Unfortunately, the defence update for Budget 2023 only included a blanket statement to “further support initiatives to increase the capabilities of the CAF”. As it stands, it remains to be seen if the highly anticipated update to Strong, Secure, Engaged will include new programs and policies specifically designed for improving the services already offered to women and gender-diverse personnel.    

Despite these challenges, there are several successes that deserve recognition. This includes relaxing the dress code for hair colour, face tattoos, and facial hair and other work undertaken by Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan as the Chief Professional Conduct and Culture. Moreover, utilizing a GBA+ Analysis when procuring new gear and equipment ensures that the CAF is responding to the needs of all their personnel. However, beyond these changes, there is more meaningful work to be done to improve equity outcomes within the CAF – especially if women only represent 16.3% of the total population for the Regular Force and the Reserve force combined, which is well below the government’s 25% female enlistment goal for 2026.

As the CAF undertakes the necessary steps to make the organization more inclusive to women and other minorities, policymakers must take this opportunity to reflect on the continued use of equality-facing dialogue to describe desired outcomes and examine whether it achieves the outcomes the CAF requires to stay mission-ready. Recruiting and retaining a critical mass of women – 25% – can realistically only be achieved through policies that emphasize equity in outcomes. Thus, if the Trudeau government is serious about its commitment to feminist policymaking, it should look to equity – not equality – to frame its goals. 

Chloe Dizon is an MA candidate specializing in Security and Defence Policy at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her master’s research focuses on sexual violence prevention in military service academies, while other research interests include civil-military relations and the intersections between law, social movements, and national security. Chloe also holds a Bachelor of Arts (Distinction) from the University of Alberta, where she concentrated in Political Science and Anthropology. She has experience in academic journal management and was previously a research assistant for the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

Picture via Steve Williams

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