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Reality Check: Is the Armed Forces’ goal to bring on more women out of reach?

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Still embroiled in allegations of pervasive sexual misconduct among its ranks, the Canadian Armed Forces is holding steady on its goal of increasing the number of women in the military to one-quarter of the entire military – the same goal the Canadian Human Rights Commission offered the military in 2011.

The military officially adopted the 25 per cent goal in 2016, when the chief of defence staff announced the Canadian Armed Forces would increase female representation among the ranks by one percentage point each year.

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While applauded in principal, the fact the Forces lacked any specific strategy to reach its goal was widely criticized, most recently in a report from the federal auditor general several months ago.

The low representation of women in the military is a persistent issue for the Forces, though the number has crept up over the years.

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In 2001, for example, women represented 11.4 per cent of the Canadian Armed Forces, according to National Defence. Fifteen years later, in February 2016, the number increased by four percentage points to 15 per cent, or a total of 13,863 women out of 92,617 overall Forces members.

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By contrast, to reach the current goal, the military is looking at increasing female representation by 10 percentage points in nine years.

“It’s really hard to recruit when the culture is one of abuse,” said Ray Wagner, a Halifax-based lawyer representing the complainants in a class-action suit claiming systemic gender-based discrimination in the military.

“The attempts at changing that culture and the goals set by leadership are laudable. But where the problem arises, is how the culture trickles down to the entry-level members and middle management.”

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November’s auditor general report criticized the military not only for lacking a plan to increase female representation, but also for failing to set specific targets by occupation.

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Neither was included in Wednesday’s long-awaited defence policy review.

A senior Defence official on Wednesday said the military is committed to reaching its goal in any way they can. There will be no distinction between women holding full- or part-time positions, nor of those in the regular or reserve forces, he said.

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The white paper on the direction Canada’s military will take over the next two decades has a strong focus on its members – outlining physical, psychological and social supports the Forces is looking to either implement or bolster.

Though there are no specific strategies aimed at increasing female representation in the military, the wide-ranging policy review details several initiatives aimed at changing the “culture” in the Armed Forces and “diversifying” its members.

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“Positive culture change requires a commitment to promoting the respect of all members as equal contributors to the [Canadian Armed Forces] community,” the report reads. “Until this culture change is fully realized, the first priority will remain on taking better care of victims and survivors with responsible individualized support.”

The military has previously said this so-called culture shift will “positively affect the Canadian Armed Forces’ recruiting methods,” and that it gives priority to female enrolment.

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Beyond continuing Operation Honour, the ongoing crackdown on sexual misconduct, National Defence says it will also:

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  • Create military police sexual offence response teams, whose members receive special training in investigating crimes of a sexual nature;
  • Broaden training for the military police to help meet the needs of victims and survivors;
  • Take steps to ensure the sensitive information gathered during an investigation is protected from disclosure.

As it stands, the women who rise in the ranks are predominantly the few who jump over hurdles, fight for their rights and stand up to harassment on a consistent basis, said Wagner, the Halifax lawyer.

So while the long list of initiatives is praiseworthy, Wagner said, what matters more are the outcomes of each.

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“Once the military can retain more women, who rise through the ranks, they can act as role models and positive examples,” he said.

In terms of developing a more diverse military, National Defence said the initiative will result in a force that better reflects Canadian ideals and allow it to “better understand the world” and “respond more effectively to the challenges it presents.”

To that end, Defence officials said they intend to promote diversity “as a core institutional value,” appoint a “diversity champion,” and integrate gender-based analyses in all defence activities across the Armed Forces and National Defence, from the design and implementation of programs and services to the procuring of equipment and operational planning.

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