Navy to let women sail on submarines
Last all-male bastion of Canadian Forces
to be integrated on new vessels next year
KEVIN COX AND JEFF SALLOT
Friday, March 9, 2021
HALIFAX and OTTAWA -- Master Seaman Sophie MacArthur got her first look at the cramped quarters and complicated technology inside Canada's lone operating submarine yesterday -- and began seriously thinking about signing up for the service.
"I like to try new things. I don't know if I'd want to do it for the rest of my life but I definitely want to have a try at it," the 10-year veteran, now serving as a naval communicator on HMCS Montreal, said shortly after the navy announced women would be eligible for service on submarines.
"It's very different working on a ship. On a submarine you have to basically be able to perform any job on board in an emergency so it takes a lot of skills just to be a submariner," said MS MacArthur, gazing down from the dock at Victoria, a refurbished British submarine recently bought by the Canadian navy.
In the face of strong opposition from male sailors, the navy said women would be eligible for service in the last all-male bastions in the Canadian Forces, following Norway, Sweden and Australia in opening submarines to women.
The announcement caps an 11-year effort by the Canadian Forces to comply with the equality provisions of federal law and to topple barriers to women serving in every type of combat role from fighter pilot to infantry soldier.
Integrated sub crews will become a reality next year when the first women volunteers complete specialized training for service aboard Canada's four new Victoria-class submarines, said Vice-Admiral Greg Maddison, chief of the navy.
HMCS Victoria was commissioned last December. Its sister ships are expected to arrive at six-month intervals over the next two years.
The new British-made subs are roomier than Canada's now-retired Oberon-class, thus allowing separate change rooms and toilet facilities for men and women.
MS MacArthur was going home last night to consider signing up for service under the sea -- which involves month-long voyages in close quarters with little privacy.
She doesn't foresee any problems with privacy issues, even though men and women would have to sleep in the same area -- segregated sleeping quarters were ruled out because of the expense of renovating compartments.
"There's concern [with privacy] on any ship, whether it's a submarine or a surface vessel. As long as everybody is adult about it there shouldn't be any problem," she said.
But the problem may not be the 50 people working in the submarine. It may come from suspicious and skeptical spouses on land.
At a briefing on board the Victoria yesterday, several sailors expressed concern about their wives' reactions, said Commander Bill Woodburn, who skippers the Victoria.
He said there are many questions about how women will be integrated into the operation of the submarines.
"Is it doable? Yes. Do we have all the answers? No," Cmdr. Woodburn said.
Rear Admiral Bruce MacLean, commander of the Maritime Atlantic Force, said women would have a chance to take a look at life on a submarine before they literally take the plunge.
"It is going to be a challenge both for our men and women and in how we deal with the concerns of their spouses at home," Rear Adm. MacLean said.
"But I am absolutely convinced you simply can't deny 50 per cent of the population an opportunity to serve Canada on a submarine."
Rear Adm. MacLean said the privacy issue has been dealt with in other branches of the Forces.
"We have men and women sleeping in tents in Bosnia for months at a time. Is that any different type of privacy situation than on a submarine? I don't think so," he said.
Vice-Adm. Maddison said integration will require "cultural changes" among male submariners, and there may be "issues about how you deal with relationships that may develop" aboard the subs, but the navy believes its sailors are adult professionals who can adapt.
Canada's other warships -- indeed all Canadian Forces combat units -- were ordered integrated in 1989 by the Canadian Human Rights Commission. But the cramped Oberon submarines were exempted because of the lack of privacy.
Vice-Adm. Maddison said the four Victorias -- each with a crew of 48 officers and sailors -- afford men and women a measure of privacy, thus eliminating the last barrier to mixed crews.
He acknowledged there will be strong opposition from male submariners who are used to working in their skivvies on long undersea voyages.
They enjoy being in a "male-dominated culture where they could wander around in a submarine with a certain level of clothing on or off," Vice-Adm. Maddison said. "That will change."
A survey of 256 submariners found that fully two-thirds opposed the idea of mixed crews. Many of the men said they believed their wives would object because of the possibility of extramarital relationships developing. (Military regulations forbid sexual contacts in the workplace, including aboard ships.) The survey was conducted two years ago when the Canadian Forces began studying the issue.
Male sailors also strongly opposed integration of frigates, minesweepers and other surface ships in 1989, but mixed crews have proven to be a success, Vice-Adm. Maddison said.
"There really is a behavioural change, an attitudinal and cultural change, when men and women are serving together. And it's all positive," he said.
The navy has about 10,000 sailors. About a thousand of them are women. The women tend to be in onshore administrative and clerical jobs. There are only 475 women in the so-called hard sea trades, shipboard jobs that range from sonar operators and electricians to cooks and carpenters.
The navy surveyed the women in the sea trades and discovered that 27 per cent were interested in submarine service.
The Canadian Forces rejected the idea of trying to make one of the crews of the four new Victoria subs all-female because it would take too long.