Updated: April 12, 2018
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 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.
In June, 2016, Carignan, then 47, was 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.”
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.”
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 was posted to Ottawa the summer of 2016 for her new position, her children moved for a ninth time, the perpetual new kids in places from Kansas to Quebec. “We know how it goes down,” says her then 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.”
Zack, 20 [at time of publication], attends the Royal Military College, and Amelie was scheduled to 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 the Royal Military College will resume teaching ballroom dance.