For the first time in Canadian history, the Royal Canadian Air Force will have a female deputy commander.
But for Maj.-Gen. Tammy Harris, whose career has been marked by firsts, the honour she feels heading into her new post goes beyond being a symbol of women’s advancement in the military. It’s more about using her new responsibilities to champion the need for broader diversity and inclusion in the Canadian Forces — particularly when it comes to young people.
“The language that we use doesn’t resonate with the youth of today so we need to get better at messaging that and hearing them,” she said in her first sit-down interview with iPolitics. “I think the military is known for talking in acronyms and talking in short sentences, and you kind of have to be more active listening on what it is that our values remain the same. These young men and women were talking about empowerment, about other people, talking about being the activists or the voice of those who don’t have a voice, serving their country. All the things that we hopefully represent to Canadians in what we do.”
Harris first joined the Canadian Forces as an air traffic controller at 1987, two years before the milestone Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that allowed women to take on combat roles.
Since then, her Air Force career has seen her posted to Lahr, Germany, as well as bases across Canada.
In 2007 she was named the first female wing commander at 9 Wing Gander and in 2009, was deployed to Afghanistan as chief planner for NATO at the Kandahar Airfield.
Harris made headlines again in 2012 when she was named commander of CFB Borden, Canada’s largest training base, and in doing so became the first woman to head a Canadian Forces base.
She left for Ottawa a year later to take on a new role as senior military advisor to the Privy Council Office’s foreign defence policy secretariat, and then joined the office of the Chief of Defence Staff as General Jonathan Vance’s chief of staff.
Now, her latest appointment will see her taking on the challenges of her new role at a time when the Canadian Forces are facing significant challenges in recruiting new members, and as public and political pressure for a culture change within the military grows more intense.
March 2017 will mark two years since former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps issued a damning report on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces that found evidence of a “highly sexualized culture” — where degrading remarks about women and LGBT members often went unchecked and allegations from harassment to abuse often went unreported because of a lack of faith in the military chain of command.
|Maj.-Gen. Tammy Harris, deputy commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force sits down for an interview with iPolitics journalist Amanda Connolly in Ottawa on Friday, January 27, 2017. iPolitics/Matthew Usherwood|
While Harris noted it was too early to talk about specific priorities for her new role since she has not yet taken command, she did stress that continuing her predecessor’s work in supporting that mission will be a top focus.
Having the chance to work more directly with RCAF members is something Harris said she is particularly looking forward to.
“Going back into the air force is exciting for me,” she said. “Now I have a very busy job but my job is to facilitate Gen. Vance’s ability to meet with the troops and make that happen, so this will give me the opportunity to spend some time with some extraordinary men and women and see the great things they’re doing and spending time with their families and getting to know them.”
Harris, a native of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, said being able to help others find ways to succeed has been an important thread throughout her career — because she has witnessed the powerful effects of mentorship first-hand.
Now, she sees her new job as an opportunity to support others who may be struggling to get to where they want to go, or to balance their careers with their families.
“That’s how I lead,” said Harris, who is married to Brig.-Gen. Shane Brennan, soon-to-be-named commanding officer of the military’s Joint Personnel Support Unit, and a stepmother to three grown children. “We can accomplish the mission but how do I help people get to where they want to go and achieve the things that they want to do, and get that balance, which is kind of hard. And it’s okay to have a balance of wanting to have a family and wanting to have a successful career.”
A recent report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson cast doubts on the military’s ability to meet many of its recruitment targets. Harris pointed to the need for the military to do a better job telling its own stories and showing how a career in the Canadian Forces can be a way of achieving many of the goals and desires driving young Canadians’ career choices.
According to surveys and polls conducted over the past several years, young workers repeatedly list factors like the ability to make a difference, to travel and to take on multiple roles and types of occupations throughout their careers as among the most important considerations when choosing a career.
Harris said she had the chance to take part in the recent Prime Minister’s Youth Council meeting and that what she heard from the young people there made her even more committed to pushing for the military to get better at sharing its own stories.
“You can say you’re a mediator, you’re an activist, you’re a leader, you’re a follower, you’re a counsellor, you’re a judge, you’re a disciplinarian, you’re a mentor,” she said. “All these things come together throughout your career. They were surprised by that, so we haven’t kind of shown them you don’t really have one career, you have many careers in one.”
She also said that the military needs to make sure the work environment is one that is attractive and supportive for all, particularly in light of the Statistics Canada survey in November that found that even since the launch of Operation Honour, 960 force members had still experienced harassment over the past year.
“It just means we need to keep working and everybody is still committed to that going forward,” Harris said. “If you can breathe, you have a voice and if you have a voice, I’m listening. That’s my message to people, and I will act on your behalf if you are afraid to act.”