H-Diplo Article Review 1139- Davis on Campbell, "How Emerging Trends in Historiography Expose the Canadian Army’s Past Discriminatory Practices and Provide Hope for Future Change"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1139

29 September 2022

Isabel Campbell. “How Emerging Trends in Historiography Expose the Canadian Army’s Past Discriminatory Practices and Provide Hope for Future Change.” International Journal 76:3 (2021): 465-476. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00207020211050330

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Carleigh Cartmell | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Karen D. Davis, Canada Department of National Defence

Isabel Campbell’s brief historiography of past discriminatory practices in the Canadian Army challenges us to take stock of the extent to which accounts of Canadian military history offer potential to provide lessons for the future. This article comes at a time when there is a particularly high priority on socio-cultural change in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), after decades of struggle that have fallen short of sufficient progress to eliminate sexual misconduct and to be fully inclusive of the diverse identities represented among Canadians. The investigation, as described in the introduction, begins with questions regarding the relationship between historiography and priorities related to the participation of women in the military today, and soon extends to analysis that further highlights widespread discrimination that has been experienced by women and men, including those representing different identities rooted in “gender, sexuality, race, language, religion, or culture” (465); that is, those ‘other’ than white, cisgender, and Anglophone men.

As described by the author, the article examines how Canadian histories have reinforced powerful social constructions of women as caregivers and men as warriors. In doing so, the article cites the foundations of Canadian military history, examples of challenges to dominant narratives, as well as contemporary feminist insights. The author describes the beginnings of Canadian military history within the context of Canada’s transition from colony to nation, and as historians such as Charles P. Stacey were challenged by dominant American and British interpretations.[1]  Referencing the historical analysis presented by Tim Cook,[2] for example, the author notes that Canadian historians have expressed concern over American and British accounts that unfairly overlooked Canadian contributions to allied victories. Yet, as noted by the author, Cook’s recent analysis reinforces the historical importance of combat depictions, especially victories, in reinforcing national identity.[3] Notwithstanding, early Canadian historical accounts were dominated by a privileged white Anglophone masculine viewpoint. This continues to predominate today even though French Canadian historians began promoting alternative interpretations in the 1970s. For example, the author indicates that in spite of the introduction of language policy in Canada, an analysis conducted by Francophone historians Serge Bernier and Jean Pariseau[4] reveals evidence within military policies to at least 1987 of Anglophone resistance to related changes. 

Throughout this historiography, the article reflects on who has contributed directly to Canadian military history as participants in activities related to war and the military institution, how that participation is understood within the context of broader Canadian society, and how the documented history has shaped conceptions of that participation. Regarding women, the author notes that there have always been compelling arguments for the contributions of Canadian women to the Army; that is, it has never been a question of if women would serve, but how they would serve. However, their participation, beginning with nursing roles, has been shaped by the social construction of the dichotomous caregiver/warrior paradigm. The historical gender dichotomy breaks down when the notion of war as an equalizer of gender and class is challenged within the article.

Campbell cites Kathryn MacPherson’s analysis of the transformation of nursing in describing Canadian nursing in general as well as within the military as having a long association with white missionary and imperialistic forces, and being significantly limited in terms of racial diversity; this, however, did improve somewhat in the late twentieth century when advocacy groups in Canada promoted the rights of Indigenous and racialized women, among other Canadians.[5] Referencing the works of Grace Poulin and Eric Story, the article claims that even as racial “others” were represented, equality was less real than suggested in historical accounts that typically excluded the perspectives and experiences of racialized military members. The article notes, for example, that even as Indigenous soldiers are celebrated, there is evidence of systematic racial and gender discrimination through the collective channeling of Indigenous women into employment ghettos,[6] and Black men during the First World War into support roles.[7] As indicated by the analysis, an accounting of the sexualization and abuse of women and men within the gendered heterosexual dichotomy also remains underrepresented in historical accounts overall.

While historical interpretations have been limiting in terms of inclusion and understanding of the experiences of women and men who did not meet the white, heterosexual ideal of a heroic soldier, Bill Rawling’s account of medical practitioners and war reinforces the author’s claim that the caregiver versus warrior paradigm has also resulted in relatively little attention to masculine support roles even when there is focus on elite groups such as physicians.[8] The author’s analysis connects a range of challenges which underscore the complexity of sex and gender relationships within military institutions and related social structures, not least of which is the dominance of Canadian histories supporting a near sole emphasis on the representation of combat effectiveness through battlefield exploits. Calling upon analysis of Second World War manpower in the Canadian Army conducted by Eedson L.M. Burns,[9] the author notes:

Canada’s rich military historiography is still so combat-focused that few people realize that at the height of the Second World War in November 1944, less than 23 percent of the Canadian Army in Europe served in fighting units. The majority of men served in headquarters, logistical, and supporting functions in the European theatre, while many engaged in training in Britain and North America (469).   

While Campbell’s historiography highlights the gender-based biases that permeate Canadian history, focus on this material nonetheless leaves the article limited to wartime or the pre-unification of the Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force (to become the Canadian Armed Forces in 1968),[10] with limited evidence of the development of military history beyond the Second World War.

A unique contribution of this article is its introduction of contemporary feminist perspectives[11] within a discussion of Canadian military history, along with the suggestion that these connections be considered as the future of the Canadian military is negotiated. Even so, the article falls short of capturing the persistence of challenges embedded within related sex and gender-based assumptions which have continued well beyond the 1960s. Military institutional resistance to the inclusion of women in combat-related and combat roles throughout the 1970s and 1980s, for example, relied upon a sex and gender-based dichotomy rooted in caregiver/warrior roles, claims to the primacy of a vocational orientation to military service, and combat effectiveness that relied upon the cohesion of homogenous male heterosexual teams.[12] This more recent chapter in Canadian military history provides powerful testimony to the very argument that is presented in this article; that is, that history provides insight and lessons learned for the future.

As noted in her analysis of gender and Canadian military experience after the 1989 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal direction to integrate women into all roles, including Army combat roles, Marcia Kovitz claims that Canadian military resistance to women in combat roles reflects a resistance to the “…potential of challenging and disrupting not only men, but the military’s very goals and methods”.[13]  The challenges experienced by women,[14] LGBTQIA2S+,[15] racialized,[16] and Indigenous members of the CAF into the 2000s further reinforces the extent to which related challenges have endured over time – both before 1970 as reflected in this article, and since 1970 as the CAF has resisted and negotiated the exclusions and inclusions of women, LGBTQIA2S+, Indigenous, and racialized Canadians in a bid to avoid disruption of those cultural dimensions that are highly valued in the combat domain.[17] Arguably, the challenges that continue to confront the military today demand significant disruption and re-thinking of the primacy of combat operations and how gender-based assumptions that support understandings of operational imperatives need to be re-examined.          

Overall, this article is a compelling catalyst for further consideration of how we can reflect on history to address the socio-cultural challenges that the Army, and indeed the Canadian Armed Forces overall, is facing today. History and heritage represent powerful dimensions of military ethos, yet relatively little analysis has been focused on the extent to which historical assumptions and foundations reinforce fundamental aspects of military culture. Indeed, Campbell’s assertion opens the door for many questions regarding the relationship between military history and contemporary change. The analysis presented within the article, along with the suggestion that these lessons of the past offer potential for the future, raises questions regarding the extent to which the future is dependent upon the ability of the military to reflect, to critically examine, to re-tell its history to more fully acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and importantly to be more inclusive of those experiences that have been denied a place in Canadian military history. Recalling the significant contributions of early history to how Canada was conceptualized as a nation further suggests that a re-examination of the past has much to tell us about what it means to be a Canadian today, and importantly the role of the military and those studying military culture in contributing to that discussion.   

In summary, the analysis presented in this article is an important read and should serve to place heightened focus on the extent to which an appropriate range of experiences and contributions are called upon to shape military history. Finally, the article demonstrates the important contribution of critical feminist analysis to historiography and further suggests the potential value of critical race and Indigenous perspectives as history seeks to contribute to the better understanding of the historical foundations that will continue to shape military identity into the future.     


Karen D. Davis holds a Master of Arts in Sociology from McGill University, and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, with a focus on gender, war and society. A defence scientist with the Department of National Defence Canada, she is currently responsible for the oversight of the development of a research strategy to support culture change across the Defence Team.  As a former military officer and as a civilian scientist, she has published numerous reports, journal articles and book chapters, and edited several volumes related to the integration of women, and gender, leadership and culture in the military. Recent publications include: Karen. D. Davis, “Socio-Cultural Dynamics in Gender and Military Contexts: Seeking and Understanding Change,” Journal of Military Veteran and Family Health 8:s1 (2022): 66-74. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3138/jmvfh-2021-0088; H. Christian Breede and Davis “Do You Even Pro, Bro? Persistent Testing of Warrior Identity and the Failure of Cohesion,” in Robert C. Engen, H. Christian Breede, and Allan English, eds., Why We Fight: New Approaches to the Human Dimension of Warfare (Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020); and Davis “Negotiating Gender Inclusion,” in Alistair Edgar, Rupinder Mangat & Bessma Momani, eds., Strengthening the Canadian Armed Forces through Diversity and Inclusion (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020) 36-51.



[1] Campbell cites Roger Sarty. “The American Origins of Academic Military History in Canada: Princeton University, the Carnegie Endowment, and C. P. Stacey’s Canada and the British Army.” Journal of Military History 82:2 (2018): 439-441, 449.

[2] In making these claims, the author cites the work of Tim Cook. Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006).

[3] Tim Cook. The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering and Remaking Canada’s Second World War (Toronto: Allan Lane, 2020).

[4] Serge Bernier and Jean Pariseau. Les Canadiens français et le bilinguisme dans les forces armées canadiennes, tome 1 : 1763-1969, and Le spectre d’une armées canadiennes, tome II : 1969-1987 (Ottawa: Défense nationale, 1987, 1991).

[5] Kathryn MacPherson, Bedside Manners: The Transformation of Canadian Nursing, 1900 -1990 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1006). 

[6] Grace Poulin, “Invisible Women: Aboriginal Servicewomen in Canada’s Second World War military,” in Whitney Lackenbauer and Craig Leslie Mantle, eds., Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian Military: Historical Perspectives (Kingston: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2007).  

[7] Eric Story, “The Indigenous Casualties of War: Disability, Death, and the Racialized Politics of “ensions, 1914-39.” Canadian Historical Review 102:2 (2021): 279-304. 

[8] Bill Rawling, Death Their Enemy: Canadian Medical Practitioners and War (Quebec: AGMV Marquis, 2001).

[9] Eedson L. M. (Tommy) Burns, Manpower in the Canadian Army 1939-1045 (Toronto: Clark et al, 1956).

[10] The Canadian Forces Reorganization Act came into effect on 1 February 1968; the three separate military services were combined into a unified Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). The unified CAF is structured to provide shared authorities and support structures, within which the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force continue to be recognized as unique organizations. This includes, for example, responsibility for training which is specific to their environment (e.g., Canadian Army responsibility for training across the land combat arms occupations).       

[11] In this regard, the author recognizes perspectives that both support and offer critique to the idea that more women is the solution to change in the military. This includes Cynthia Enloe’s work that suggests that women in the military community will simply adopt the values and perspectives of the institution, Andrea Lane’s challenge to body-based gender binaries which restrict women’s roles in the military, and Jasmine Kim-Westendorf and Louise Searle’s critique of strategies to include more women in an organization that places women at risk. Cynthia Enloe Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women’s Lives (London: Pluto Press, 1983); Andrea Lane “Special Men: The Gendered Militarization of the Canadian Armed Forces” International Journal 72:4 (2017): 463-468; Jasmine Kim-Westendorf and Louise Searle “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations: Trends, Policy Responses, and Future Directions” International Affairs 93:2 (2017): 365-387.     

[12] Karen D. Davis “Sex, Gender and Cultural Intelligence in the Canadian Forces” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 47:4 (2009): 430-455; Karen D. Davis “Negotiating Gender in the Canadian Forces 1970-1999” (doctoral thesis, Royal Military College of Canada, 2013).

[13] Marcia Kovitz “The Enemy Within: Female Soldiers in the Canadian Forces” Canadian Woman Studies 19:4 (2000): 36-41.

[14] Nancy Taber “Learning How to be a Woman in the Canadian Forces/Unlearning it through Feminism: An Autoethnography of My Learning Journey” Studies in Continuing Education 27:3 (2005): 289-301.

[15] Carmen Poulin & Lynne Gouliquer “Clandestine Existences and Secret Research: Eliminating Official Discrimination in the Canadian Military and Going Public in Academia,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 16:1 (2012): 54-64.

[16] Tammy George “Race and Belonging” in Alistair Edgar, Rupinder Mangat & Bessma Momani, eds., Strengthening the Canadian Armed Forces through Diversity and Inclusion (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020) 114-134.  

[17] Karen D. Davis “Negotiating Gender Inclusion” in Alistair Edgar, Rupinder Mangat & Bessma Momani, eds., Strengthening the Canadian Armed Forces through Diversity and Inclusion (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020) 36-51.