This Woman’s Army
Today, the first female cadets at Canada’s oldest military college finish their first and toughest year By Neil Louttit
A warm breeze blowing off Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence snaps the flag atop the administration building at Royal Military College. Spring has arrived in Kingston, bringing with it final exams for the 600 RMC cadets. Two first-year cadets, breaking off from their textbooks for Sunday lunch, “double” – run, in civilian English – across the parade square is a tradition for first-year cadets that square is a tradition for first class in 1876. And though traditions live on, times change. The two cadets who have just “doubled the square” are not the traditional gentlemen cadets referred to in the college’s regimental march. They are the lady cadets of RMC, two of the first 32 women who were admitted to the college last fall.
“We’re not making men out of ladies, we’re not trying to’” says Brigadier-General John Stewart, commandant of RMC. “We will make good officers of them, but they will be ladies.” Stewart pauses, casting a squinting glance outside where the bright sunlight is bleaching winter’s grey from the limestone and granite buildings. He returns to the subject of female cadets: “They are very typical young ladies from a cross section of Canadian society. They are as feminine as any other women.”
At this year’s colorful graduation parade, with its scarlet tunics, split-shone boots, full regalia and glitter punctuated with military precision, the male graduates will have to share the spotlight with the women. These women have proved they belong by making it through the toughest year at RMC, the year in which cadets must submit to the discipline that no one is fit to command who has not learned to obey. Only two of the original 32 have dropped out; one failed the academic program and the other was released for health reasons, “An extremely low attrition rate for first year,” says Stewart.
In January 1979, Barney Danson, then minister of defence, announced an expanded role for women in Canada’s armed forces. In order to have enough female cadets for a viable program, 53 places were allocated at two military colleges: 32 at RMC and 21 at Colllège Militaire Royal in St.-Jean, Quebec. With the program successfully underway, the numbers this year will be cut back to 16 at RMC and 18 at the college in St.-Jean, quotas established to reflect the ratio of women to men in the services as a whole.
Stewart, a pilot and engineer who graduated from the college in 1953, says the program introducing female cadets has worked well, mainly because the move was carefully planned. Complete integration of men and women is the cornerstone of the program. Female cadets are required to maintain the same exacting standards as male cadets. They run the same obstacle course – a mandatory ordeal for which first-year recruits earn the right to wear the RMC uniform. They also compete in mixed intersquadron sports, whether it’s playing a rough game of water polo, soccer or lacrosse. “We have one lady with her brown belt, and there’s no way I’d want to tangle with her,” says Stewart, who stands well over six feet.
Last fall when the women arrived, they were assigned in groups of four to each of the eight squadrons of about 75 cadets each and lived two in a room in the same dormitories as the male cadets. Rules state that the doors to cadets’ rooms cannot be closed if there is a member of the opposite sex in the room, and dating between cadets is allowed only within a one-year range: a first-year cadet cannot date a third-year or fourth-year cadet.
Stewart says the conduct of both male and female cadets has been nothing short of proper. “We thought that perhaps the lady cadets would feel harassment or pressures from other cadets, but it was just the opposite. The other cadets, but it was just the opposite. The other cadets treated them in a gentlemanly fashion and did everything to avoid problems.”
In fact, having women in the college was an education for graduating class that ran the cadet wing during the year. “Our fourth-year cadet officers have never had the experience of working with ladies, and while there was the odd mistake, it was a learning experience for them.” The odd mistakes referred to by Stewart were trivial, like forgetting to stock such items as panty hose in the canteen. There were delays in getting some of the uniforms, and there was the case of the thin bathing suits.
“When the bathing suits arrived they appeared somewhat thinner than we had expected,” Stewart explains. “We had some of our officers take them home to have their wives wet-test them in the privacy of their own homes. Well, we found out that they were quite acceptable in the privacy of a home but not for the female cadets. The suits were all sent back and the male cadets were left somewhat disappointed.”
While tradition and military discipline remain a large part of the RMC lifestyle, the emphasis is on academic achievement. Stewart, who, as he speaks, gestures toward the portraits of all previous commandants staring sternly down from his office wall, stresses that graduates of RMC have excelled in both military and civilian life. “We’re proud of this college and what it has done and is doing. The records show that we have produced outstanding leaders for Canada.”
All cadets must study general arts, science and engineering during their first year, regardless of what their ultimate programs might be. RMC has long been a school of engineering, and 26 of the 30 female cadets say they plan to uphold the tradition. Cadets are also required to be fully bilingual by graduation, and most courses are offered in both languages.
“It’s very military here and there’s a lot of stress, but the ladies have performed very well,” says Stewart. “During the eight-week basic officers’ training course in Chilliwack, B.C. last summer, two of the top four cadets were ladies. During this weeding-out training period, the stress factors were increased constantly so we could get an indication of their potential. They showed no difference when compared with men.”
Chilliwack is a military boot camp. Cadets, many of them plucked from town and cities, are thrown into rifle drill, map reading exercises and route marches. They sleep under the stars or in in tents, crawl through mud and underbrush, and qualify in a host of military subjects.
The cadets are constantly under stress. Not only is there rigid discipline and the pressure to excel academically, but each is under assessment at all times for leadership potential or ability. For the women there’s another source of stress: the exposure to the media. Being novel, they are now newsworthy. The college has taken a firm hand and controlled access by the media. The cadets interviewed by Today were carefully selected by the college, and an officer and a senior cadet were present during all interviews. Says Stewart: “They really want to be left alone and treated as any other cadets.”
The female cadets may be pioneers in their fields, but they wear nothing on their sleeves to indicate they are feminists. Their badge is the badge of RMC and that says it all – they are equal to the men, An RMC education is said to instil in gentlemen cadets the principles of the college moto: Truth, Duty, Valor. Now they also apply to women.
Leading Ladies of RMC
‘Maybe I can get onto the space shuttle and hop onto a career out there’
JACQUELIN POTHIER, 18, Of Tusket. Nova Scotia, hopes that her RMC experience will someday lead her into outer space.
“I wanted to be an engineer,” she says. “I have an uncle who is a professor here and when he spoke of RMC and said it was going to accept girls, I thought it was great. It really sounded different. My parents didn’t think I was serious until they had to drive me to Halifax to enrol.”
She is hoping that perhaps she will make it into space as an aeronautical engineer. “I really want to be an astronaut or fly a fighter, but my eyes are not good enough for aircrew. Maybe I can get onto the space shuttle someday and hop onto a career out there.”
But right now it’s RMC. She likes all the sports and extracurricular activities. “I know that if I had been in university, I wouldn’t have done as much. Here, they want you to experience your life the social sense as well as the academic sense.” Her biggest complaint was having to double the square on a full stomach. “I was totally civilian. And I wasn’t used having so many guys around. But now my friends are here and I only get home twice a year.
‘I plan to get my private pilot’s licence while I’m doing French immersion’
KATHY ARMSTRONG, 19, of Abbotsford, B.C., who is already a qualified glider pilot, would like to become a transport pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“I like it here, but I didn’t know what to expect, and I have felt in the minority at times.” She smiles shyly as speaks. Like the other cadets, she will not sit until asked to, and stands at attention when greeting strangers. “You always try to think cadet, but it’s hard. You have to decide that you want to make it.”
Armstrong is pursuing a degree in economics and commerce. She finds the mathematics required for the engineering subjects difficult, because in British Columbia she was not introduced to calculus in high school. The saving factor has been the individual attention available from the teaching staff.
“This summer I plan to get my private pilot’s licence while I’m doing French immersion. There just isn’t time now.”
Asked if she would recommend RMC to her sister, she pauses briefly and replies, “That would all depend upon what my sister was like. I’ve liked it here, but I’ve never felt any special responsibility on my shoulders.”
‘It’s a type of friendship that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else’
KATHRYN HAUNTS, 19, of Toronto, attended St. Joseph’s High School, a Catholic school, and liked the discipline.
“I like the regimented lifestyle, the compulsory sports and the academic program here. At university it is so impersonal. The classes are so big that I wonder how anyone can get much out of them. I went to a class at Erindale with my boyfriend and I was told that for some classes you have to get there half an hour early just to get a good seat.
“Here, everything is on a personal level. The classes are small [the student-teacher ratio is about 4.5-1] and you get private tutoring from the professors. In fact they will come to you if they feel you might need help.”
The transition to military college from high school was difficult in many ways, but she says it makes her feel that much more proud of what she’s doing. ‘This is completely different because the friendships and camaraderie are unique. It’s a living and working type of friendship that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else. Take the obstacle course, for instance. That’s one thing, one step. You get through that and then you meet the next step. A group of us might decide to go on a Wolfe Island howl [a group party on nearby Wolfe Island] or decide to stay in and devote our time to academic study; they’re the sort of things you do together.”
Haunts, who was active in track and field at high school and whose high jump record still stands at St. Joseph’s, has been training with the track team at Queen’s University. She is working toward an honors degree in economics and commerce, but right now the first thing on her plate is a summer of French immersion in St. Jean.
‘I see us in the forefront of a field we have been kept out of too long’
LAURA BEARE, 20, of Winnipeg, had been considering a career in the forces for a long time. When she heard that the doors of RMC were opening to women, she jumped at the chance.
“I see us in the forefront of a field that we have been kept out of for too long. Women haven’t been allowed to do this before, and it is certainly a step in the right direction. When I first heard about it, I thought it was about time.”
Beare is working towards an honors degree in English or history. Although she thinks women in RMC may be long overdue, she is not anxious to see them placed in combat roles. She isn’t concerned about the fact women may be killed or injured, but she feels that men couldn’t function with women besides them in battle. “It worked fine in the field last summer, but under fire it would be different. Women in that situation would keep men from functioning properly. The men wouldn’t look at us as just soldiers; they would worry about protecting us.”
If she were a man, her first choice would be to go into naval service on a warship. But that option isn’t open to women. “I’ll probably go into transportation administration or logistics,” she says.
”I went to Queen’s last year so I had some idea of what I was getting into. But I didn’t realize it would be quite this heavy. It’s a lot of hard work, but I’ve enjoyed it.”
‘The challenge is greater. I like military engineering’
MARIE-PIER CLOUTIER, 18, of Quebec City, had “a little” military experience in cadets and was interested in attending military college as soon as she heard it was available to her.
“The challenge is greater,” she explains. “It’s different from civilian college in that you know what to expect. I like the military engineering. The more you learn, the more you are motivated.”
Cloutier has done well. In Chilliwack she came first in her company, and at RMC she has been a class leader. “There have been no problems with the male cadets accept us – they’ve had no choice,” she says with a slight smile. “But seriously, when they see we can do as well as they can, accept us with no problems.”
Cloutier is keen on the sports part of the program. “Any sport here asks for discipline and conditioning. I fence three times a week for an hour and a half each time. Next year I hope we have a full-time coach because I need a lot of improvement.” She says the obstacle course was “great, but it wasn’t easy. It was a good occasion to find out what you can do. You find you need friends, someone to help you. It’s an experience everyone should have.”
Cloutier has only one complaint about the RMC experience: “The time is going to fast. The year is already over.”