How far we have come – The Elsie Initiative

Commander Annick Fortin, the Commanding Officer of HMCS WINNIPEG, and Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Sue Frisby, Coxswain of HMCS WINNIPEG attend a Women, Peace and Security Dialogue in Bangkok, Thailand during OPERATION PROJECTION on Saturday October 8, 2022.
Photo: S1 Melissa Gonzalez, Canadian Armed Forces Imagery Technician

Capt Christine MacNeil, 
HMCS Winnipeg PAO

The Elsie Initiative.

Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy.

National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.

Many Canadians may not be familiar with these important initiatives while living in a peaceful country. However, for the countries HMCS Winnipeg visited during Operation Projection, these topics are very much front and centre.

With a female Commanding Officer (CO) and female Coxswain (Cox’n), HMCS Winnipeg was in a unique position to provide speakers on these topics. In several ports, Commander (Cdr) Annick Fortin, the CO, and Chief Petty Officer First Class (CPO1) Sue Frisby, Cox’n, spoke at Women, Peace and Security (WPS) events about their experiences as women leaders in a male-dominated environment, and what the Canadian Armed Forces has done, and continues to do, to promote equality.

For the Winnipeg’s CO and Cox’n, the issue around Women, Peace and Security was distilled down to a grassroots level: “What is it like to be a female leader in a male-dominated environment?”

Thirty years ago, HMCS Nipigon was refitted to become the first destroyer to accommodate the first Regular Force women as part of the ship’s crew. Now, women serve on all RCN vessels, and in all positions. Although the path ahead of us is likely as long as the one behind, we should still take time to pause, reflect, and acknowledge how far we have come and how much we have achieved. Canada as a nation continues to recognize the need for both equity and equality, aiming for a future with equal opportunity.

As the WPS discussions continued throughout several port visits, it was an eye-opening reminder of how other nations look to us as an example of what can be.

At the Women, Peace and Security dialogue in Jakarta, Indonesia, Colonel Nely Indraningrum of the Indonesian Armed Forces shared that she had never been asked to speak publicly. Meeting Cdr Fortin and CPO1 Frisby and witnessing their confidence as they spoke both inspired and impressed Col Nely.

In Singapore, the CO was invited to an academic roundtable that included Women, Peace and Security in the agenda. She was the only female there.

In Malaysia, the CO and Cox’n, along with four sailors, were invited to speak to 500 students at an international school about being women in the Navy, a male-dominated field. The students had questions that ranged from cyber-security to “were you scared the first time you went on a ship”. The real impact of this was especially notable after the presentation, as students came up to get photos with the speakers; many of the students spoke of being inspired and more confident in setting their future goals.

In Thailand, the CO and Cox’n were invited to another Women, Peace and Security event. Other speakers included Colonel Jiraporn Chomsri of the Royal Thai Army, and Commander Chittrathip Warnpeurch and Captain Mathusorn Lertpanich of the Royal Thai Navy (RTN). In the RTN, women can only serve in support roles, they cannot go on ships. Cdr Chittrathip said in her speech, “It is my happiness to see Cdr Fortin here, captain of a warship, and know that it is possible for men and women to sail together”.

At all these events, guests wanted their photo taken with RCN women, stories were shared, and visions for the future emerged. These conversations have been an excellent reminder for us as Canadians to take a step back and appreciate how far we have come.

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