The sacrifices of Canada’s female military trailblazer

Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross explains how she made it to the highest reaches of the Canadian Forces—as she heads for a new post with NATO

Canadian Forces Lt-General Whitecross in Ottawa September 29, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Canadian Forces Lt-Gen. Christine Whitecross in Ottawa on Sept. 29, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross explains the culture of the Canadian Forces—the organization that has simultaneously shaped her adult life and exactly fit who she was all along—not by citing a moment of triumph or satisfaction. Instead, she locates the heartbeat of the Canadian military in deeply conflicted and difficult moments of her own life. “When I was about to be deployed to Bosnia, my children were four, three and not even two. And people asked me, ‘How can you leave them for a year?’ It really hurt when they said that,” she says. “But my answer was consistent: ‘I signed on the dotted line to serve my country, and if I can’t do what my country wants me to do, then I’ve got to take the uniform off.’ ”

The personal cost of that duty can be steep, and revelations of sexual misconduct over the last few years make it clear there is a dark underbelly to military culture. But to Whitecross, the power of the organization lies in what you can accomplish when you bring together thousands of people who operate by that sense of commitment. “And it’s not always on deployments, it’s not always on operations, it’s not always when you’re facing a hostile enemy,” Whitecross says. “Sometimes it’s about missing your child’s first birthday because you’ve gotta go and do something else. Or not being able to teach your oldest daughter how to ride her bike. Or sometimes it’s the high school allowing you to watch your daughter graduate through Skype, and it’s the middle of the night wherever you are.”

Captain Jordan MacKintosh demonstrates the moulage casualty make-up to Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross and Lieutenant-Colonel Bethann Meunier during Exercise Collaborative CANUK at Canadian Forces Base Kingston on September 17, 2015. (Cpl Mark Schombs/DND)

Whitecross is the Canadian Forces’ chief of military personnel. Here, she watches a demonstration of casualty make-up during Exercise Collaborative CANUK at Canadian Forces Base Kingston on Sept. 17, 2015. (Cpl Mark Schombs/DND)

It’s difficult to rhyme off Whitecross’s career highlights without resorting to a litany of glass-ceiling-busting clichés. She is Canada’s first female three-star general, current chief of military personnel and the point person handling the response to allegations of widespread sexual harassment and assault in the military. She was just named the next commandant of the NATO Defense College in Rome; she’ll take up that position next summer, giving Canada unique influence at the nexus of international training and networking.

Whitecross is a chemical engineer and an airfield engineer by military training. Her career and life have taken shape in the tension between what might have been expected and what she chose for herself—along with the internal drive that set her on that path.

Now 54, Whitecross describes her upbringing as “a traditional family of the ’60s and ’70s”: an Air Force father who ruled the roost, a mother who thought her daughter would make a fine nurse or kindergarten teacher. Whitecross was born in Germany, then she and her three older brothers and younger sister lived in Bagotville, Que., North Bay, Ont., and Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley over the course of her father’s postings. Her brothers were in the cadet pipe band, so Whitecross joined, too. Something clicked: she loved that hierarchical, structured society. “You’re probably not surprised to know I’m a Type-A personality—bold, underscore,” she chuckles, recalling running family jokes about her dishing out orders as a child.

When the family was living in North Bay, her Grade 9 science teacher told her father she should be an engineer, so he came home and told her. “I was quite put out that he would think I would want to drive a train,” she deadpans. Some time later, her father was in Kingston, Ont., for training and was captivated by the Queen’s University engineers, with their golden jackets and palpable pride. He came home and announced: “Chris, you’re going to go to engineering at Queen’s.”

Asked how that Type-A personality fits with fulfilling many of the early life plans her father cooked up, Whitecross sighs with thoughtfulness and irony. Her sister-in-law’s joke is that she is the son her father always wanted. “I think I would have gone there anyway. Science and math are my forte, and they were back then. I knew I would be going into engineering of some sort; it was almost a fait accompli,” she says. “I didn’t have an issue with it. And I’m happy about it, the decision was right.”

She was 19 years old and in her second year at Queen’s when she threw a curveball at both her parents. On a wintry day, Whitecross was walking down Princess Street when she noticed a military recruiting centre. “Hmmm,” she thought. “Yeah,” and walked in the door. Within a month, she had enlisted. As a prototypical engineer, she is not given to impulsivity; she was acting on something that had long been sitting in the back of her mind.

But in telling this story, Whitecross backs up and relates a part of it she’s kept hidden: “The truth is, I tried to join out of high school.” She had gone to a recruiting centre in Halifax with some classmates, but enlistment out of high school required a very high grade on an aptitude test, and she just missed the mark. “I was absolutely mortified,” Whitecross says. And so two years later in Kingston, she still wanted to try for a military career—and there was something to prove. Because she was now enrolled at Queen’s, Whitecross wasn’t required to write the aptitude test. But she insisted anyway. “I absolutely did it,” she says with a crooked grin. “And I aced it.”

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A few hours before she was sworn in, she called her parents to tell them. “Sworn in for what?” they asked. When she filled them in, there was deep silence on the line. She realized later that her father had just come off a night shift and her mother was trying to process the end of her dream that her engineering-bound daughter would yet become a kindergarten teacher. But after that, her parents became the “biggest fans” of her career choice, she says. Her father is a Rotarian—as she is—and he happily pays fines to his club each time his daughter does something in the news.

Even as she finished her degree at Queen’s, Whitecross loved the clarity of military life: the chain of command, the ladders of ambition to be scaled and—even at the most junior ranks—people looking to her for advice, help and acknowledgement. “I like the fact that people rely upon me to make good and qualified decisions,” she says. “I like it when I can say something and people will do it.” There is a powerful identity in that. It’s one of the reasons senior military people have a hard time adjusting to civilian society when they retire, she thinks: you’ve always been someone other people looked to for answers, and then suddenly, you’re not. “I knew the second I put my uniform on that I would have a group of people I would be responsible for,” she says. “It’s a truly humbling effect to know that people look to you to ensure they’re taken care of, their safety is at the forefront and that you’re considering them and their families in the day-to-day decisions of the work they’re doing.”

Over the course of her career, Whitecross has been posted to Germany, Bosnia, Afghanistan and nearly every Canadian province and territory. Her roles have included engineering officer, director of infrastructure and environment, and commander of a joint task force. She was awarded the Commander of the Order of Military Merit as well as the U.S. Defense Meritorious Service Medal for her work in Kabul. Though she’s grimacingly aware that it’s not brand-consistent, away from work, she loves to cook and bake. If she hadn’t landed in the military, she figures she would have become a chef, because it’s a similarly structured life with long hours. And she likes creative outlets: she makes quilts and gives away the results of the painstaking work to family members and select co-workers who get married or welcome new babies.

Whitecross is very aware of the added layers of meaning that go along with her career trajectory. “I am a bit of an anomaly, and I get that,” she says. “There’s some responsibility that comes with being an anomaly.” But while there’s little doubt part of her liked blazing trails, mostly the roles she’s taken on were simply what she wanted to do. “The truth is, for a lot of them, it was just the right thing to do and it interested me,” she says. “I never thought I’d make it back in the day, that I would be the first female three-star general in Canada. That never was part of my psyche. Every promotion kind of surprised me.”

Whitecross’s husband, Ian, was also military. While she was deployed to Bosnia when their children were small, he was posted to Winnipeg and moved the family across the country from Goose Bay, N.L. She knew from her own experience how difficult it was to ask her kids to pull up their roots and start over, again and again. “It’s hurtful for me as a parent to see them go through that, every time,” she says. “We moved a lot—every one to two years.”

The day before she returned from Bosnia, Ian resigned from the military. “We felt that it would be better for our own family if one parent was at home,” she says. “And in discussions, the decision was actually pretty simple—though difficult in its execution, because back in the ’90s, very few men stayed at home.” A few years later, Whitecross and her husband began taking in foster children, ensuring they were always younger than their own children. Whitecross’s parents had been foster parents, and she and her husband loved kids and wanted to “pay it forward.” Over the years, they took in 33 foster children, most of them babies. When a move for a new posting was imminent, Whitecross noticed an emotional retreat in her own kids that was similar to the tug of foster kids being moved around.

Her face glows when she talks about the friendship she and Ian share, and how their teamwork at home is the foundation on which her career is built. They’ve been married 28 years and share three grown children—Christopher, Shaynah and Brianne—along with Natasha, Whitecross’s stepdaughter, and two little grandsons. “I wouldn’t be where I was if it wasn’t for him,” she says. “He’s been stalwart in his support. He’s been there for me through thick and thin, through difficult times and happy times.”

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Whitecross has been based in Ottawa for the last eight years, the longest she’s spent in any one place. In her latest role, she is confronting the ugliest facet of her organization from within, while also serving as the public face of the battle against sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. In February 2015, she was placed in charge of a strategic response team established before the release of former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps’s report.

Years ago, Whitecross endured “name-calling or people taking liberties that they should not have on a very young, naive lieutenant captain.” At first, she simply put up with it or even laughed it off. But eventually, she tried to put a stop to it—something that took enormous “moral courage,” she found. Whitecross won’t discuss the details of the complaint she made, but while it “didn’t go necessarily the way I wanted to,” it gave her the ability to stand up for herself. She knows that’s not how it goes for everyone. “I knew if it could happen to me, it could happen to someone else,” she says. “And then I was blessed with being promoted and put into positions of authority, which gave me not just the authority but the confidence to do something about it.”

So when the Deschamps report found that the Canadian Forces are plagued by “an underlying sexualized culture,” Whitecross was “irate” to find that what had been done to her was still pervasive. “I couldn’t believe it was still happening, because it was 30 years,” she says. “Like, honest to God.”

To Whitecross’s way of thinking, there needs to be “institutional change”—policies, training, official channels—on top of profound “emotive change” within people. That part will take longer. “It’s a lot of work, but I don’t care,” she says quietly. “It’s got to happen. We just can’t have this.” The military is providing regular progress reports on investigations and consequences. The latest, in August, revealed that in the first half of 2016, there were 106 complaints that warranted investigation; that represents a 22 per cent rise over the previous year. “That ticks me off, because people aren’t getting it,” Whitecross says generally of ongoing problems. “We need to find those people and either kick them out of the military if they won’t live to our values and what we believe in, or we need to change their behaviour.”

Maj.-Gen Christine Whitecross (left) and Marie Deschamps, former Supreme Court justice, attend a committee on the external review into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces, in Ottawa on Monday, May 25, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Whitecross (left) and Marie Deschamps, former Supreme Court justice, attend a committee on the external review into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces, in Ottawa on May 25, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Under the auspices of Operation Honour and in the face of stark public criticism, the military is attempting an overhaul. Measures include the establishment of a sexual misconduct response centre outside the chain of command, with 18 investigators across the country; a new policy that requires military police to consult with prosecutors if they decide not to lay charges, as well as providing a written report to victims; and efforts to ensure that one prosecutor handles a case so a victim doesn’t have to tell their story over and over to different people. Statistics Canada was also hired to survey 40,000 Canadian Forces members on the prevalence of sexual misconduct, with a report expected later this month.

Now, Whitecross worries about how much they can fix before she leaves for Rome next summer and relinquishes her role as chief of military personnel overseeing this file. She hopes her successor will be okay with her checking in regularly. “It will be very hard,” she says of leaving this fraught task unfinished.

Her new job as commandant of the NATO Defense College was decided by a vote among the 28 member nations; as with every one of her promotions, Whitecross says she was caught off-guard by this one. “I’m absolutely elated,” she says. “What an opportunity. For me personally, and professionally, for Canada, for NATO.” Established in 1961, the college is where candidates for senior NATO roles—military and civilian—go for education, professional development and high-level global networking. “It really is an influencer,” Whitecross says. She is the first woman to run the school, and the first Canadian since 1992.

She hopes to bring her last few years of experience handling sexual misconduct in the Canadian military to her NATO post—once again finding meaning in one of the most difficult aspects of military life.

“We’re not the only nation that deals with this, at all,” she says. “I’ve had some nations tell me they don’t have a problem, and then a day later, you read something in their papers.”

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