We have come a long way

News Article / March 8, 2021

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March 8 is International Women’s Day, an opportunity to celebrate the great accomplishments of women today, but also, those of women who paved the way for the generations that followed them. Women in the Canadian Armed Forces have come a long way in the last century. Over the years, their determination, courage and leadership have brought about important changes in the Canadian Military, Canadian society and also for women and girls around the world. The following article recounts their history and recognizes women who have accomplished great things in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

From RCAF Public Affairs

Women have been involved in Canada’s military service and contributed to Canada’s rich military history and heritage for more than 100 years. We have been fully integrated in all occupations and roles for more than 20 years, with the exception of serving on submarines. That service was opened to women by the Royal Canadian Navy on March 8, 2000.

The number of women in uniform has fluctuated over the years, with the largest number serving during the Second World War, when many performed non-traditional duties. Following the large reduction in personnel after the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army, and the Royal Canadian Air Force again allowed women to enroll in the early 1950s, though their employment was restricted to traditional roles in medicine, communication, logistics, and administration.

The roles of women in the CAF began to expand in 1971, after the Department of National Defence reviewed the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. It lifted the ceiling of 1 500, and gradually expanded employment opportunities into the non-traditional areas: vehicle drivers and mechanics, aircraft mechanics, air-traffic controllers, military police, and firefighters.

The Department further reviewed personnel policies in 1978 and 1985, after Parliament passed the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a result of these reviews, the Department changed its policies to permit women to serve at sea in replenishment ships and in a diving tender, with the army service battalions, in military police platoons and field ambulance units, and in most air squadrons.

Servicewomen of the Navy, Army and Air Force, endured much hardship while serving Canada over the past century. Thanks to their determination, dedication, and professionalism, they opened the door for so many women to join. Those brave women faced many obstacles as they entered what was traditionally a man's arena. Not only did they have to do the job and excel at it, but they had to prove that, given the opportunity, they would not fail. It was a daunting challenge that women met with hope, courage and, most importantly, success. Presently, women serve on a number of global operations ranging from peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance operations to stability, security, and peace-enforcement operations.

In 1987, occupations and units with the primary role of preparing for direct involvement in combat on the ground or at sea were still closed to women: infantry, armoured corps, field artillery, air-defence artillery, signals, field engineers, and naval operations. On February 5, 1987, the Minister of National Defence created an office to study the impact of employing men and women in combat units. These trials were called Combat-Related Employment of Women.

Throughout the 1990s, the introduction of women into the combat arms increased the potential recruiting pool by about 100 percent. It also provided opportunities for all persons to serve their country to the best of their abilities. By 2001, all military occupations were open to women.

Today, all equipment must be suitable for a mixed-gender force. Combat helmets, rucksacks, combat boots, and flak jackets are designed to ensure women have the same level of protection and comfort as their male colleagues. The women's uniform is similar in design to the men's uniform, but conforms to the female figure, and is functional and practical. Women are also provided with an annual financial entitlement for the purchase of brassiere undergarments.

Women in the Royal Canadian Air Force

As of January 2014, the percentage of women in the CAF, Regular Force and Primary Reserve combined was at 14.8 percent, with more than 9,400 women in the Regular Force and more than 4,800 women in the Primary Reserve. At 18.7 percent, the Royal Canadian Air Force has the highest representation of women of all environments, which includes women serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force Regular Force and Primary Reserves.

In 1979, Captain Deanna Brasseur, Captain Leah Mosher and Captain Nora Bottomley were the first women selected for pilot training in the CAF. The first female pilot in the modern CAF was actually Major Wendy Clay, a medical officer, who qualified as a pilot in 1974, six years before the pilot classification was opened to women.

In 1981, Second Lieutenant Inge Plug became the first female helicopter pilot, the same year that Lieutenant Karen McCrimmon became the first female air navigator.

Major Dee Brasseur and Captain Jane Foster qualified as CF-18 fighter pilots in 1989. Major Brasseur has since accumulated more than 2,500 flight hours as a fighter pilot, flying in both North America and Europe, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Hall of Fame on February 17, 2007.

The Royal Canadian Air Force enrolls women in all occupations, which includes operational trades such as pilot, air combat systems officer, aviation technician, and aerospace control operator. In all of these occupations, airmen and airwomen are selected for training and promotions, postings and all career opportunities in exactly the same way, which is based on rank, qualifications and merit.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tammy Harris became the first woman Wing Commander when she assumed command of 9 Wing Gander in Newfoundland in 2006. And, of note, Chief Warrant Officer Linda Smith became the first woman in the CAF to be named Wing Chief Warrant Officer at 17 Wing Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1995.

There have also been several female leaders appointed at the Squadron level:  Lieutenant-Colonel Karen McCrimmon was appointed commanding officer of 429 Transport Squadron in Trenton, Ontario, in 1998, and, in 2010, Lieutenant-Colonel Maryse Carmichael became the first female commanding officer of 431 (Air Demonstration) Squadron, whose members are best known as the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.

The RCAF also has women serving as generals. In 2006, Brigadier-General Christine Whitecross became the first woman to be appointed commander of Joint Task Force North. Major-General Whitecross, an air force engineer, achieved her rank on June 30, 2011, and was posted into the position of Chief of Staff for Assistant Deputy Minister (Infrastructure and Environment) and appointed Chief Military Engineer of the CAF at National Defence Headquarters.

While the occupation of medical officer is not unique to the Air Force, Major Wendy Clay became the first female flight surgeon in the Canadian military in 1974, receiving her pilot’s wings that year. In 1989, she attained the rank of brigadier-general and was named Deputy Surgeon General at National Defence Headquarters in 1992. Two years later, she became the first woman in the CAF to reach the rank of major-general and to serve as Canada’s Surgeon General.


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