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COMMENTARY: Could Canada’s next chief of defence staff be a woman?

A Canadian flag patch is shown on a soldier's shoulder in Trenton, Ont., on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014.
A Canadian flag patch is shown on a soldier's shoulder in Trenton, Ont., on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

Divining who might be the next chief of defence staff after the departure of Gen. Jonathan Vance is like predicting which cardinal will cause white smoke to rise from a chimney in the Vatican.

The white-hot question of the moment among the 68,000 Canadian men and women in uniform is whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will seek to burnish his progressive credentials by naming a woman as the CDS. If so, there are three leading possibilities.

The most experienced woman in uniform by far and the only one who is personally well known to the prime minister is Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross. The others are Lt.-Gen Frances Allen and Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan.

Read more: Gen. Jonathan Vance stepping down from role as Canada’s top soldier

Trudeau seldom interacts publicly with the Canadian Forces so it is hard to know what he might think about any of the dozen prospective candidates.

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But it does appear that the prime minister does not have a lot of time for the Canadian Armed Forces. This can be seen in his recent rejection of Vance’s candidacy for NATO’s top military job in Brussels, his cavalier treatment of the F-35 file, the purchase by the Royal Canadian Air Force of 35-year-old Australian F-18 fighter jets, his approach to NATO commitments and UN peacekeeping and his empty pledge to NATO allies to increase Canadian defence spending to two per cent of GDP.

What is better known about the prime minister is that he has been an ardent proponent of the international state of diversity and gender balance. There has been widespread speculation in the Forces that Trudeau wanted to be the first leader of a NATO country to appoint a woman as his country’s top soldier. But Slovenia beat him to it in 2018 by naming Alenka Ermencas as chief of the general staff.

Maj.-Gen Christine Whitecross attends a committee on the external review into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces in Ottawa on Monday, May 25, 2015.
Maj.-Gen Christine Whitecross attends a committee on the external review into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces in Ottawa on Monday, May 25, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Lt.-Gen. Whitecross is a Royal Canadian Air Force airfield engineer, the senior engineer in the Canadian Armed Forces, and a Balkans and Afghan veteran.

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Whitecross recently put in her retirement papers after three years as the first woman commandant of the NATO Defence College in Rome. Before that, the 57-year-old soldier earned public praise from Trudeau as the head of military personnel and as commander of the Canadian Forces Strategic Response Team on Sexual Misconduct.

Whitecross can be tough-minded and is famous for playing her cards close to the vest. She has never publicly sought the CDS job.

Whitecross officially remains a serving officer until September. When we were last in touch a few weeks ago, Whitecross was happily contemplating retirement with her husband Ian and building up their new home on a lake to the west of Ottawa.

Lt.-General Frances J. Allen
Lt.-General Frances J. Allen. Department of National Defence

Lt.-Gen. Allen is a recently promoted three-star. A cyberwarfare and information warfare expert, she is on her way to Brussels this summer where she is to become Canada’s military representative to NATO. Until recently, the air force officer was the deputy vice-chief of defence staff in Ottawa.

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Several colleagues of many years described Allen as a highly capable and wonderful leader. But there is a feeling that she has not yet had enough time as a senior commander to deal with more experienced three stars.

Brigadier-General Jennie Carignan of the Canadian Armed Forces joins soldiers during a lunch with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ont. on Monday, July 15, 2019.
Brigadier-General Jennie Carignan of the Canadian Armed Forces joins soldiers during a lunch with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ont. on Monday, July 15, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

That is also said of Maj.-Gen. Carignan, who is the other woman regarded within the Forces as a potential CDS.

Though Carignan is not a three-star, there is no technical reason why the prime minister could not bump her up two ranks and give her the job. A combat engineer, she is the senior Canadian woman in combat arms.

Carignan is currently the commander of Canada’s training contingent in Iraq. During the Afghan years, she served as the task force engineer. It was during that time that a U.S. navy Seabee commodore told me she’d done a brilliant job of making Kandahar City safe for civilians and for NATO troops.

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Like Allen, Carignan may lack the breadth of senior command experience required to become CDS at this time. Both are young enough that they could be considered for CDS when the job is open again in three or four years’ time.

However, it might be a poisoned chalice for any of these three women to accept Canada’s most senior military appointment. As highly qualified as these women are and as unfair as it may be, their selection by Trudeau would be regarded by some as gender-based.

Click to play video 'Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, retires' Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, retires
Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, retires

There is a roster of highly competent male candidates for the CDS position, too. The four most obvious of them are Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, who is the new vice-chief of staff, and the commanders of the army, air force and navy: Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger, and Vice-Adm. Art MacDonald.

Rouleau began his foreign career as an artillery officer in the Balkans. He was for years a senior special forces operative and then commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. Regarded as a visionary and sound strategic planner, it is unclear is whether Rouleau’s hard-charging style would click with the prime minister.

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Eyre is an infantry officer, current head of the army and widely regarded as the most cerebral of the potential chiefs of defence staff. Formerly number two with United Nations Command in South Korea, he is well connected to the senior American military leadership. Another Afghan hand, he is something of an introvert, which might hurt him with the media and some other soldiers, but could be what Trudeau wants in his top military adviser.

Meinzinger is a helicopter pilot who commanded Canada’s air wing in Afghanistan and was commandant of the Royal Military College before taking over the RCAF. While well-liked, there is a feeling he may lack the breadth of experience that some other potential candidates have.

Another outlier would be MacDonald, who heads the Royal Canadian Navy. His primary appeal to the political echelon might be that he is not a typical army hard-nosed combat guy. However, he has been responsible for shifting some of the navy focus to the Indo-Pacific.

Aside from these seven candidates, one recently retired lieutenant-general and former vice CDS, Jean-Marc Lanthier, could be brought back. He is, in the words of a two-star general, “the total package.”

Commentary: Retirement of Gen. Jonathan Vance is a big loss for Canada on the international stage

There are four serving two-star generals with Afghan tours who are highly regarded but may have to wait another few years. They are Maj.-Gen. Pete Dawe, who commands special forces, Maj.-Gen. Michel-Henri St. Louis, recently back from Kuwait, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who preceded Carignan in Iraq, and Maj.-Gen. Joe Paul, who is a member of the Wendake First Nation and the highest-ranking Indigenous soldier in the Forces.

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With at least these dozen senior officers to choose from and no clear favourite, the prime minister has lots to consider as he decides who he will his choice to take over from Vance sometime this fall.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.