In The Media

Trudeau cabinet: Military experts see opportunity for female defence minister

by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. David Perry)

November 3, 2015

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau has promised to appoint a gender-balanced cabinet Nov. 4, which many in the Canadian defence community see as a golden opportunity to appoint Canada’s second-ever female minister of national defence.

With the Canadian Armed Forces recently coming under fire for a culture of sexual harassment, a strong woman at the head would be seen as signalling a commitment to change.

But that choice would also pass over one of the men who might come quickest to mind in Ottawa cabinet speculation: Andrew Leslie, the new member of parliament for Orleans and ex-lieutenant-general in the Canadian army. 

Though Lt.-Gen. Leslie is well-respected in military circles after a 35-year career, and is known to have a good relationship with current Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance, he is seen as being associated with controversial transformation policies. 

As well, the last defence minister to be a general was the first person named to the job by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Brigadier-General Gordon O’Connor's short term was seen as achieving only limited success.

Campbell's claim

Only one woman has served as defence minister. In January 1993, Kim Campbell took on the defence file. Six months later, she became the first female prime minister, taking over from Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney after he announced his retirement from politics. She lost the election and her own seat in a Liberal landslide that November.

With some surprises expected at Rideau Hall when cabinet is announced, Mr. Trudeau has an opportunity to “mark a new turn in Canadian politics” and “keep that image of a breath of fresh air,” said Thomas Juneau, now at the University of Ottawa after a decade-long career as a DND strategic analyst.

It would be “a very interesting development,” according to Ferry de Kerckhove, now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa after a long career in the foreign service, "in terms of not just giving family affairs to a woman and defence to a man. And saying, listen, I look at [male and female candidates] and they’re equally capable."

One name repeatedly mentioned by people in the defence community is Joyce Murray, the re-elected MP who most recently served as Liberal defence critic and previously held cabinet positions in British Columbia’s provincial government.

A strong female voice is needed to implement changes in national defence and the military justice system that can crack down on systematic sexual harassment and assault and “clean up that bloody mess once and for all," said Ottawa military lawyer Michel Drapeau.

Difficult not to ‘out-soldier the soldiers’

Meanwhile, with the military built on a strict culture of respect for the chain of command, it might be awkward having a three-star defence minister leading a four-star chief of defence staff, experts say.

And though most in the military would agree that Lt.-Gen. Leslie is hard-working, competent and intelligent, “he was also a very controversial guy, and not universally appreciated, both on personal and professional grounds,” said Mr. Juneau.

Mr. Drapeau said “whoever’s appointed a minister has got to take his uniform off. It’s easier for some than others, and very difficult, for some, to take the uniform off and not try to out-soldier the soldiers.”

He said the department should be seen from the prism of civilian eyes, not from the habits of a military mind.

Still, 12 of the past 40 Canadian defence ministers had military backgrounds, Mr. Drapeau noted, though only Mr. O’Connor since the early 1980s.

‘Most intimate knowledge’ of defence

Before retiring in 2011, Lt.-Gen. Leslie was chief of the land staff. He also served in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

But he is best known, today, for his tenure as chief of transformation and his wide-ranging Report on Transformation 2011, which outlined recommendations to make the department more efficient.

At the time, the Harper government was looking to save about $2 billion out of the department’s $20 billion budget, but placed heavy restrictions on which parts of the budget couldn’t be touched, explained David Perry, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. This made for a gruelling job—“extraordinarily difficult” given the constraints, Mr. Perry said.

“It was the most significant, detailed and expansive look into how DND actually goes about conducting its business,” he said. “He had, at that point—in 2010-2011—probably the most intimate knowledge of how national defence works.”

Because recommendations inherently involved cuts to budgets and personnel, they left some in the department unhappy. Cutting tail to have more teeth is easier said than done, said Mr. Juneau. It created resistance and tension within the bureaucracy.

Mr. Perry associates a desire to please everyone with inefficiency. “If you aren’t willing to make people unhappy if it’s the right thing to do for the institution as a whole, even if it negatively affects individual units and departments,” he said.

Mr. de Kerckhove said he thinks more of Lt.-Gen. Leslie’s “intelligible and understandable” recommendations should be implemented.

About a third have already been implemented, department sources told him. But there’s more work to do.

Leslie and Vance ‘very close’

“An individual like Leslie would have a say in matters of defence and, for that matter, foreign affairs, and that in itself is a good thing because it brings a wealth of knowledge and good ideas,” said Mr. Juneau.

One thing that Lt.-Gen. Leslie can bring to the table is a close relationship with Gen. Vance.

Gen. Vance served in the infantry while Lt.-Gen. Leslie was an artillery officer. Rising simultaneously through the ranks to impressive military careers, “over the years they’ve developed a very, very close relationship,” said Mr. Drapeau.

Gen. Vance, then Brigadier-General, led Canadian troops in Afghanistan twice while serving under Lt.-Gen. Leslie, then Chief of the Land Staff. Lt.-Gen. Leslie sent Gen. Vance back to Afghanistan after his successor was put under investigation for an alleged affair with a female soldier.

Now, as Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Vance is amping up Operation Honour, an effort to crack down on sexual harassment and assault in the military.

Mr. Drapeau said he believes it would be unusual—and improper—for the two to liaise on defence matters if Lt.-Gen. Leslie is put on another file.

But if they do work together on defence, as Mr. de Kerckhove puts it, “it could work very well, so I’m not worried.”

Gen. Vance spoke to Embassy recently about his plans to involve gender advisers in military operations planning, but declined to speak about political issues. The Liberal Party did not respond to Embassy’s requests for an interview with Lt.-Gen. Leslie.

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