The promotion was a milestone in the advancement of women in Canada’s Armed Forces. Defence department officials promoted Capt. Laraine Orthlieb of Calgary to the level of commodore on Feb. 17, making her the first woman to achieve the highest rank in Canada’s naval reserve. She joins Sheila Hellstrom and Wendy Clay of the regular air force, who hold the equivalent rank of brigadier-general. During the three-year appointment, which will likely be her last before she retires, Orthlieb will
advise on all operations of the naval reserve, travel widely and keep in close contact with the 24 reserve divisions across the country. Declared Orthlieb, 50, whose promotion takes effect in August: “It is probably the most interesting time that anyone could have this job, with the expansion of all three forces and the real role we have been given of assisting in the coastal defence of this country. That’s important—and that’s a real challenge.” Her appointment coincided with a key ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Commission that could significantly affect the role of women in the Canadian military.
The three-member, Ottawa-based tribunal ruled that complete integration of women into the Forces must occur over the next 10
years—and that women can no longer be prevented from serving in combat. If the defence department has not appealed by March 2, the ruling will have the force of law. Currently, women—who make up about nine per cent of the 85,000-member Armed Forces—serve only in noncombat roles. The tribunal ruled that there was no justification for restricting women in the Forces.
Still, despite the existing ban on women in combat roles, some female soldiers have already received training that could put them in
frontline positions in the event of war. In November, five women graduated from the Royal Canadian Artillery Battle School at Canadian Forces Base Shilo, near Brandon, Man., as part of a trial to determine the suitability of women for combat roles. Said Maj. AÍ Gallop, the school’s chief instructor: “They are soldiers and they are artillerymen, period. And what sex they are does not matter.”
For her part, Orthlieb said that being female had often affected her career with the naval reserve. When the Saint John, N.B.-born Orthlieb first thought of joining the navy, she recalled: “I had a picture of going to sea. I didn’t realize women didn’t go.” She joined the naval reserve as a nurse in 1959 in Saint John and moved to Edmonton the following year. In 1963, she married Robert Orthlieb, who is now a Calgary-based oil company executive. At the time, said Laraine Orthlieb, senior naval reserve officers disapproved of female officers marrying because they felt that
women’s domestic lives interfered with training programs.
In 1965, Orthlieb resigned from the reserve to raise her three children, who are now aged 19 to 25. In 1974, she became one of the first women to go to sea—before defence department officials permitted women in the regular Forces to serve on Canadian ships. Now, said Orthlieb, “it’s a wonderful time to be in the Armed Forces as a woman because of all the dramatic changes.” For Orthlieb and other women in the Canadian military, the Human Rights Commission’s ruling could open the way to an even more exciting—and hazardous— future.
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