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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 or development aid. 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 fuels and materials engineer—a frontline job involving clearing minefields and demolishing and erecting structures. Women were banned from certain combat roles in Canada until 1989....