By Sally Barnes
Some days you just don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Most days I do both.
A recent example:
For years, our Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have been underfunded, understaffed, under-equipped and crippled by low morale and a revolving door of top brass accused of less than shining behaviour.
Armed service personnel must stay awake at night worrying about the loss of senior personnel, dwindling numbers of new recruits and increasing demand for help from the world’s trouble spots like Ukraine while the supply cupboards for our own needs remain sparse.
In the last seven years, two eminent Canadian jurists have produced damning reports on the military’s handling of sexual misconduct cases and other issues and have recommended a major overhaul of Canada’s armed forces.
The public has the greatest respect for all CAF women and men. They are there when we need them–from pandemics and natural disasters on the home front to foreign wars. They deserve better.
It’s an embarrassment that our military leaders and their supporters go begging politicians for more money to meet our domestic and international defence and peacekeeping obligations.
Well, it seems some changes are in the works to try to keep their political masters and the public happy and reassured. Rank and file CFA members may have a very different opinion.
Justice Louise Arbour concluded after a year-long inquiry that, sadly, the Canadian military favours the appearance of implementation over substance.
An announcement out of Ottawa in recent days is both a head-scratcher and further evidence that Arbour was right. At the very least, it indicates a strange set of priorities.
My favourite quote attributed to Arbour came in a Maclean’s magazine interview in which she said: “If you just recruit white boys who like guns but don’t t like women or anybody who doesn’t look like you, then you’ll perpetuate that culture.”
Perhaps the people in charge regard their most recent move as a response to Arbour’s demand for culture change.
While military headquarters are burning, the people in charge have been fussing over the design of new uniforms and who wears the skirts in this country’s army.
“The appearance of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has not kept pace with the Canadian society which it serves,” said the Government of Canada announcement on the government website.
A decision “not made lightly” involved massive consultation, advice, and discussions and means the fifty-year-old dress instructions will be changed to recognize the need for inclusion and diversity with a particular focus on gender.
The policy affects the uniforms of all CAF members and their deportment and suggests that in future this will not be our grandfathers’ military and presumably reflects the appearance and behaviour of our modern society.
For example, the following text has been removed from the longstanding and soon-to-be mothballed instructions:
“Behaviour such as chewing gum, slouching, placing hands in pockets, smoking or eating on the street and walking hand in hand, is forbidden.”
The new rules say the deportment and appearance of all ranks in uniform or wearing civilian attire shall on all occasions reflect credit on the CAF and the individual but they don’t provide examples of unacceptable behaviour, as did the older document.
My guess is that drafters of the document recognize the minefield in defining and dictating acceptable social behaviour today and were strongly wedded to avoiding as much controversy and offence as possible.
Clothing choice in the services is not restricted by gender. There are female patterns and male patterns in the clothing catalogues and these can be intermixed and are available to all personnel regardless of gender.
This is an ongoing process that would seem to pave the way for further changes in future “to include any elements previously overlooked.” Methinks the authors did not at this time want to venture into the more complicated world of those who do not identify as either male or female.
In the male-dominated and highly regimented world of the military, It could take another 50 years to deal with that one.
For clarity’s sake, in a question and answer document issued with the government announcement, the following information is provided with regard to gender choice:
“Question: References to gender-appropriate uniforms have been removed but traditionally gendered items like skirts, nylons and purses are still part of CAF dress. Does this mean that CAF members who identify as men can wear skirts?
“Yes, it does. The overall aim of the updated Canadian Forces Dress Instructions is to make the policy more inclusive and less prohibitive and to allow CAF members increased freedom to make personal choices regarding their appearance, providing that safety and operational effectiveness are always maintained,” states the government release.
Well, that’s a no-brainer. No one in their right mind—male or female or otherwise– would be out there on the battlefield wearing a skirt and carrying a purse for heaven’s sake.
Hair length and unnatural colouring must also be in line with safety and operational requirements but are no longer restricted. “For example, bright coloured hair may have a negative operational impact during field operations or training.”
Facial tattoos are okay as long as they aren’t associated with criminal activities (e.g. criminal gangs), tattoos that promote and/or express hatred, violence, discrimination or harassment and tattoos that a CAF member knows or ought to know, promote or express racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, or sexually explicit material.
Ear piercings, hoops and spacers are authorized but along with jewellery, the size and number of these are limited.
Can CAF members with eyelash extensions be ordered to have them removed?
The lengthy consultative process produced a position for this, too. “Yes, if they affect operational duties, as in the case of wearing night-vision goggles (NVGs.)
Are CAF members permitted to have long fingernails in uniform?
“Yes, long fingernails are permitted so long as they do not impede the member’s ability to perform their duties. An example of this is being unable to do weapons drills due to long fingernails. Safety and operational requirement must always be met.”
Well, there you go.
Pity the folks who are trying to reform our armed services and replace the generational culture of abuse that has been studied to death and demands money and action to create the change much needed and deserved—especially by the thousands of Canadians who devote their lives to serving and keeping us safe.
The changes to the Canadian Forces Dress Instructions are no doubt well-intentioned but it will take a battalion of gender equity consultants to implement and enforce them. More importantly, the move runs the risk of trivializing and detracting from the seriousness of reform.
It’s difficult to get all worked up over who can wear skirts, carry purses and hold hands in public when we can’t keep our military obligations to international partners and people are dying while we fail to effectively get innocent friends and allies out of Afghanistan and provide the necessary equipment to Ukraine.
First you laugh. Then you cry. And the army keeps rolling along.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s publisher, Hugh Mackenzie, and lives in Kingston, Ontario. You can find her online at sallybarnesauthor.com.
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!