Meet the world’s first female combat general

The many ways Col. Jennie Carignan is detonating the glass ceiling

Col. Jennie Carignan at the Canadian Armed Forces College in Toronto. (Photograph by Finn O'Hara)

Col. Jennie Carignan at the Canadian Armed Forces College in Toronto. (Photograph by Finn O’Hara)

If Col. Jennie Carignan hadn’t become a combat officer—if she hadn’t served in the Middle East, Bosnia and Afghanistan, and if she wasn’t about to be promoted to the highest rank ever achieved by a Canadian woman from the combat arms trades—she would have been a dancer. “The only other career I seriously contemplated was dancing,” she says, having studied ballet, lyrical and jazz since she was eight years old. “I find it very elegant, very graceful,” she says of her current preference: flamenco. She chose the military for its sense of purpose, but she never lost her grace.

Later this month, the 47-year-old Carignan will be promoted to the rank of brigadier-general (a one-star general), earning the title of chief of staff of Army operations. Although there are other Canadian female generals, up to now they have risen from non-combatant disciplines such as intelligence, medicine, combat support or administration. Carignan is the first woman in Canada—and so far as the Forces can determine, the first in the world—to rise to her rank from the combat arms trades. In the Canadian Army, women comprise just 2.4 per cent of regular force combat arms trades, compared to 14.8 per cent of the overall Army. Carignan is changing that statistic by increasing recruitment of women to combat roles, and she’s doing it her way, as a stereotype-defying mother of four.

“I call it ‘the Jennie effect,’ ” says retired lieutenant-general Michel Maisonneuve, academic director of the Royal Military College. Recruitment of women to the RMC in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu jumped from 10 to 25 per cent between 2013 and 2015, during the two years Carignan met with girls and their mothers at open houses and appeared in the Quebec media. “She can wear a dress or a bulletproof vest,” says Maisonneuve’s wife, Barbara, a director of the college’s fundraising foundation. “That’s a new breed we’re seeing. [In the past,] you would see the female soldiers, and sometimes it was like they were a bit burly. It was like they were fighting to not be feminine. She just proved to a whole generation that you don’t need to do that.”

Carignan belongs to the earliest generation of female combat officers. She enlisted in 1986, seven years after RMC began admitting women. “I knew there were a lot of guys there,” she says. “Yes, it’s the military, but it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be accepted because I’m a woman.” She trained as a combat engineer—a frontline job involving clearing minefields and demolishing and erecting structures. Women were banned from certain combat roles in Canada until 1989, and in the United States until January 2016, when the Marine Corps finally dropped its prohibition. “Knowing the States, knowing the Marines,” says Carignan, “they’re in for a rough 20 years.”

Growing up in the mining town of Asbestos, Que., Carignan never viewed activities as gender-specific. “I was handling the chainsaw and shooting guns just as much as my brothers,” she says. “My mom was not into keeping me back to do dishes while the men were out having fun with the ’dozers.” Carignan’s mother was a teacher who argued for equal pay between genders, her father a police officer, and her three siblings went on to become a nurse, businessman and sugar bush operator (she calls the mixture a “chicken noodle soup family”). She drove ATVs and camped throughout her youth, but she avoided hunting. “I feel sorry for the beasts,” she says. “I just think they’re very cute.”

Col. Carignan in Afghanistan. (Colin Perkel)

Col. Carignan in Afghanistan. (Colin Perkel)

At 23:00 on a July night in Chilliwack, B.C., Carignan began basic training. When the 17-year-old left home, speaking no English and having never flown on a plane, her father cried. “His daughter is leaving to do God knows what,” Carignan explains. “What’s going to happen to her?” At the base, women slept in their own quarters and gladly wore uniforms that helped them blend in. “On occasion, I felt I was on observation,” she says, “but then you think, ‘Well, everyone was evaluated.’ ” She met “tribes” of friends and learned judo. “I like the sweeps; I like the strangulations,” she says. The main gender-related issue she recalls was that the equipment was designed for men—particularly the rucksack, which had a tall metal frame that scraped her lower back. “They’re supposed to be one-size-fits-all,” she says. “Well, they don’t.”

During Carignan’s first year at RMC, she met Eric Lefrançois, an engineering student in her platoon from the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec. He asked her out in the mess one night, and she replied by planting a teddy bear in his room. “When I opened my cupboard, the teddy bear was looking at me,” says Lefrançois. “It was a yes.” They took ballroom dancing together at RMC as an extracurricular activity, although the college stopped offering it in the ’90s. They went to movies and steak dinners, and in fourth year wrote their thesis on a chemistry topic: using alfalfa plants to treat cancer. During the Christmas holiday of that final year, they were married in a courthouse in Sherbrooke, Que., with Carignan wearing a suit because she didn’t have time to buy a dress.

She never tolerated sexism. In 1992, the same year 19-year-old Dawn Thomson was raped at CFB Esquimalt in Victoria—the Canadian military has been battling overt sexism, harrasment and sexual violence for decades—Carignan got her first job. She was 24, instructing engineers in Chilliwack, where a chief warrant officer who reported to her argued against hiring a female plumber as an apprentice. Carignan says he then performed an “unacceptable behaviour” toward her. “The guy was ancient,” she says. “He was also being a bully. There was a terror regime in the [work]shops.” Carnignan fired him without asking her boss. Encountering similar attitudes later on, she says: “I fired people almost every job I had.” Carignan says the military has worked diligently to reform its justice system and policies around sexual conduct, drugs and alcohol after Thomson and other women came forward about sexual assault in 1998. “It always hurts when we hear stories like that,” says Carignan. “It’s not fun, but it forces us to have a harder look at how we run our business.”

Related: ‘I am still alive. This is my thank-you letter’

As Carignan began serving overseas, she balanced the missions with motherhood. In 1993, she served in a United Nations mission in the Golan Heights, located between Syria and Israel. Two years later, at age 27 and weeks before she was to deploy to Bosnia-Herzegovina, she discovered she was pregnant. “I had to cease training and be replaced,” she says. “You’re always worried of being accused of trying to escape the mission.” Yet her boss was supportive; her son, Zack, was born, and she thought to herself, “this child stuff is really fun.” When her youngest daughter, Camille, was two months old, she took her on an exercise in Pennsylvania—along with two relatives to babysit him at a nearby hotel, where she would return at lunch and dinner to breastfeed. “Why not?” she says. “It’s totally feasible.”

Carignan has served in the world’s most violent domains. After having two more children, she deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002, where she coordinated the clearing of explosive devices from NATO training grounds before handing land back to farmers. Her husband retired from the military and took care of the children, while studying for a second career as a high school math teacher. After the birth of their fourth child, and shortly after Nichola Goddard became the first female Canadian soldier to die in combat in 2006, Carignan served in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. Patrolling Kandahar, she witnessed a rocket-propelled grenade attack, narrowly avoided a suicide bomber, saw a vehicle in her convoy lose a wheel to an explosive device and met a child freshly wounded by a landmine. “His hand was basically blown up,” she says. “I never knew if I would come back with missing limbs at the end of the day. You have to be a bit lucky, too.”

In 2011, Carignan became a reluctant feminist voice when Australia’s chief of defence staff invited her to talk about the integration of women. As Australia lagged behind Canada, banning women from some combat roles until 2013, Carignan’s trip felt like time travel. “By 2011, I had had 10, 11 years of peace where I could just do my job without having to talk about that all the time,” she says. The Australian all-male brigades were hostile audiences. “How about female hygiene in the field?” asked one sergeant with a smirk, as Carignan recalls. She replied, “You’re talking about periods?” and the men exploded in laughter. “Women have been dealing with periods for thousands of years,” she explained. “Just because they join the military doesn’t mean they forget how to take care of themselves.” When another soldier asked about men feeling the need to protect women in combat, Carignan reminded him, “she’s got a gun, too. And, by the way, she might shoot the bastard before you do.”

As a leader, Carignan has earned all due respect. “I think she could be chief of the defence staff,” says Michel Maisonneuve, who, aside from his position at RMC, is a retired three-star general with 35 years of military experience. “I rate her one of the best leaders I’ve ever seen—man or woman.” With the sharp edge she brandished in her first job, Carignan knows when to fire people. “To look people in the eye and fire them .. .. ..  . it shows her mettle,” says Maisonneuve. “In the military right now, we have difficulty firing people. For the good of the institution, the good of the mission, you have to make these decisions.” Carignan also knows her troops personally—their family situations, their insecurities—and she trusts them, always asking, “Do you have a better idea?” When she was commanding officer of a regiment in Kandahar, Steve Irwin, a retired brigadier-general, asked her subordinates how they felt about working for a woman. “These were crusty old sergeant majors,” says Irwin. “Their immediate reaction was, ‘Sir, we’re past all of that.’ ” As Irwin explains, “She was clearly the matron of the regiment. There was nobody who wouldn’t have followed her to the ends of the Earth.”

At home, the story is more textured. After returning from her five-month Bosnian mission, her two-year-old son, Ian, didn’t recognize her. “He wasn’t too sure who this lady was,” Carignan says. When he remembered her as mother, she couldn’t leave the house for a jog without the toddler worrying she would never come back. “He has to learn to trust you again,” she says. Her children are now aged nine to 20, and on exercises and trips, she calls them just once a week, usually on Sunday mornings when the teenagers are awake. “I don’t want to be a nuisance,” she says. “I try to call when they would naturally be around. If not, that’s fine. They can catch me the next week.” Upon return from each trip, she drifts back into family life, watching her son’s hockey games, cooking pizza on Friday nights and, at one point, taking classes with her husband in Argentine tango.

Carignan’s family has been her greatest ally. When she is posted to Ottawa this summer for her new position, her children will move for a ninth time, the perpetual new kids in places from Kansas to Quebec. “We know how it goes down,” says her 17-year-old daughter, Amelie. “First of all, we get rid of all our food . . . then there’s the vacating the house when visits happen . . . on moving day, we’re all kind of here when the movers come in case they need help.” Currently, the family lives in a subdivision in the Greater Toronto Area, while Carignan does professional development at the Canadian Forces College.

Zack, 20, is now in his second year at the Royal Military College, and Amelie will begin basic training in July to become a combat engineer like her mother. “I’m someone who’s physically fit, and I’m also interested in my studies,” says Amelie, a gymnast. Her father doesn’t think he will cry to see her leave, knowing the rucksacks are now custom-made and students go through sexual conduct training. Carignan herself is helping to shape that training—another component of “the Jennie effect.” She recently raised the point to her colleagues that the training shows young men how not to touch or speak to women but doesn’t offer them an alternative. Thus, this September, the Royal Military College will resume teaching ballroom dance.


Meet the world’s first female combat general

  1. “the 47-year-old Carignan will be promoted to the rank of brigadier-general (a one-star general), ”

    Canada does not have star generals; either report the news properly, with proper terminology, or don’t report it at all!

    • The army just went back to the maple leaf badges for generals specifically so they can be aligned with the one star- two star system. A brigadier (crown and three “pips”) isn’t a general in the British system. You’d think someone in the army would have known this before they changed to the Brit system. In any event it’s back to the tailors for the armies 53 (!) generals. 53 generals for a force of about 20,000 regulars. A general for every 500 troops. A Col for every 250. A LCol for every 100. That’s the real story here.

  2. She’s a “combat engineer”. She’s not a “combat general”. She’ll be a “combat arms” (i.e. from the infantry, armour, artillery or combat engineers) general. How could the writer not get that right?

    Three operational tours for someone of her vintage is very few- one every eight years. Only one to Afghanistan. That would be a more interesting angle. How do you get to be a general with so little operational experience? How do get to be a general without commanding a brigade?

    • I guess you can only get preggers so many times to avoid deployment.

      • Only a man who has never gotten “preggers” or given birth, breastfed or raised an infant to adulthood would make such a completely idiot comment as that. If a woman wanted to avoid deployment she could just quit like her husband did and become a math teacher. Getting “preggers”, giving birth and raising children is not the easy way out. Those human beings one gives birth to, one takes responsibility for the rest of one’s life. Then ones progeny reproduces and mother becomes a grandmother and so on and so forth. Having children is not an easy out of anything. Get a clue.

        • True, I have never gotten preggers, given birth or breastfed. How astute of you to figure that. I agree motherhood is important, just not necessary compatible with dangerous deployments and competitiveness required to earn such a rank on merit. There is no way a man with so few deployments would get this rank.

    • Michael, the question really is “How do you get to command a brigade without being a general?”

  3. “After returning from her five-month Bosnian mission, her two-year-old son, Ian, didn’t recognize her. ”

    Tours to Bosnia (normally about 6 1/2 months for senior officers) included a three week paid trip home approximately mid way in the tour but this is written to infer she was away from home for five months. Is it possible that a 2 yr old wouldn’t recognize his Mom after her being away ~ 9 weeks?

    • Michael, stop showing off your “knowledge”. I am ancient so my many years in the forces don’t apply anymore. But Whatever, I think it is very significant that a Quebecoise who didn’t speak English is able to have a career in the forces and do damn well. I am very proud of her and the Canadian Armed Forces that she has done so well, even if she was probably fast-tracked.

      • “even if she was probably fast-tracked”.

        If you’re right what about the people she passed because of her sex and being a Franco? Do you really want an armed forces that promotes by quota or to make points with the media for being “diverse”?

        In any event my comment was directed at the writer’s attempt at writing a feminist hagiography.

        • Mike, there were tons of Anglo men bypassed because the flavour of the day was French, whatever. That was history. There is no point in bitching about policy. So the author had a story to tell.

          • How could it be history if such a policy was in place now?

            Could the real story be the CF is panicking over the sexual harassment business and is looking to promote as many high profile women as possible to deflect criticism and win favour with the GOC, especially given the ongoing defence review.

    • 5 months is 20 weeks and yes, It is very possible that a 2 year old wouldn’t recognize a person after not seeing them for 5 months…..even 2 months. Do you realize how long that is in the life of a 2 year old who is only 20 months old? A human adult recalls nothing that happened in their life prior to 3 years of age so what makes you think that toddler can retain memories of their early months? Their brains are developing at an incredible rate. Perhaps do some research into the amount of language they learn in 9 weeks at that age. I am not referring to their ability to speak words but to understand them. As for the armed forces, my brother in law was in the air force. He travelled extensively. He was in Italy during the Bosnian crisis for 6 months. My sister had two young children. It was a struggle for her. He went on other shorter trips as he was a communications expert initially on the Hercules and later on the CF-18 fighter jets. I remember one time he called her when their children were in the bathtub. The kids were 20 months apart. The baby had just defecated in tub and the two year old was picking it up and squeezing through his fingers. My brother in law had a few drinks and my sister was crying and had to hang up because she was literally up to her eyeballs in sh*t. Everytime he went away, it seems their dog had pups. What a crazy life.

      • Michael, obviously you dinosaurs are alive and well and commenting ad nauseam!

    • Ed Markowski – EXACTLY !!! …
      More stories of this kind should be written in publications like MACLEAN’S so people will know and better appreciate what is happening in our armed forces as very little which is as informative as this piece is ever seen in the newspapers or shown on TV news in this regard …
      This sharp lady is a rather well-known senior officer who could well rise to the rank of Major General or Lieutenant General no matter what some of the previous commenters state.

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