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Collaborating for a more peaceful world

Collaborating for a more peaceful world

[photo of Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross]
The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

Major-General Christine Whitecross in Ottawa in 2015 (before her promotion to Lieutenant-General).

Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross (Sc'84) has always been an early riser. These days she’s up by six, taking in a view of rolling hills from the window of her villa on the outskirts of Rome. By Whitecross’s standards, however, it’s practically sleeping in. “I get up a lot later now than I used to,” she laughs.

Discipline has never been a problem for Whitecross, Canada’s highest-ranking female military officer, who has served the country in a variety of capacities for more than 36 years. Whitecross, who studied chemical engineering at Queen’s and earned a master’s degree in Defence Studies at the Royal Military College, has held staff positions in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Germany, and across Canada, including with the Canadian Military Engineers.

In 2017, she stepped into the top job at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Defense College in Rome – becoming the first woman and only the third Canadian to do so since its founding in 1951. Established in the early days of the Cold War by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the one-of-a-kind institute was established as an international training centre to bring together senior-level members of the military, along with diplomats and specialized civilians, to work together on issues of relevance to the NATO Alliance alliance and its partners. “I was out of the norm in more ways than one,” Whitecross says of being named commandant by a vote among the 29 member countries in late 2016, “but to be completely honest, I think people were enamored with the idea of someone completely different taking over.”

Typically at work by 7:30 am, Whitecross frequently starts her day by welcoming and meeting with the international guests who visit the college on an almost daily basis to give lectures. “Because we are an institution that doesn’t have an inherent teaching faculty, all of our speakers come from around the world,” she says. “These are very current subject-matter experts, academics, and practitioners.” While she likes sitting in on the lectures, Whitecross can also listen to them in her office while she works, thanks to the college’s robust IT system.

By afternoon, she has turned her attention to the business end of running the college, from strategic planning and visioning for the college’s next decade to working with her team. The NATO Defense College employs 150 people from varying NATO-member countries, and attracts an average of 250 students per year who come to Rome to learn key lessons in defence, security, and international cooperation.

We help people learn to think, to be innovative, and to appreciate a diversity of opinions, cultures, and backgrounds.

Whitecross stresses the critical role the college plays in developing people who are able to embrace strategic thinking, devise common solutions for shared problems, and face complex questions of security head-on. “NATO can’t make a decision without the consensus of all 29 member nations, and that’s not easy,” she explains. “We develop the competencies that are required to come to consensus on something. We help people learn to think, to be innovative, and to appreciate a diversity of opinions, cultures, and backgrounds.” Among its many courses, for example, the college runs a 10-week program on regional cooperation, which is specifically designed for people from the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf regions, with a focus on issues like security, counter-terrorism, and the root causes of the region’s instability. recent iteration drew participants from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries, many from outside of the NATO alliance. Whitecross herself has taken the two-week-long Generals, Flag Officers, and Ambassadors course, in which learners divide their time between Rome and Brussels (where NATO's headquarters is based) as they learn more about the organization’s interests, security concerns, and capabilities.

The college’s core business, however, is the senior course – a six-month intensive program field study visits to national capitals. A two-week trip to the United States, for example, includes a visit to the Pentagon, the United Nations headquarters in New York City, and the NATO Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, with a goal of having participants meet senior decision-makers and better understand differing security and defence issues and policies.

“Our students need to be able to take issues down to principles that can be agreed upon by a whole bunch of people,” says Whitecross, who has stressed the college’s role in developing leaders who are prepared to respond in an unpredictable security environment. “They are unique skillsets that are very useful in international relations.”

But these are more than just training programs: for Whitecross, the college, which maintains close relationships with international think tanks, is about providing critical education to help shape tomorrow’s leaders. “As professionals, we need to commit to lifelong learning,” she says. “We need to demonstrate a desire to better ourselves, and as military leaders, and as government leaders, we need to embrace it and model it for people around us.”

Whitecross also stresses the critical networking opportunities that emerge from the college’s intense training situations. “It’s a huge objective of the college,” she says, explaining that besides earning about NATO, the students are establishing relationships with people who will be able to help them in the future. “If faced with a situation, they’ll know someone,” she says simply, describing people who have been able to call on fellow alumni years after meeting on a course. “The whole idea is to create a team and a bond, and it’s actually been fairly successful.”

[photo of Lt.-Gen. Whitecross with a class of NATO's Regional Cooperation Course.]
Lt.-Gen. Whitecross with the 18th graduating class of NATO's Regional Cooperation Course. The course is open to officers of the rank of brigadier-general, colonel, and lieutenant-colonel, and to civilian officials and diplomats of equivalent rank. (Photo: NDC Reproduction Section)


Beyond its various course offerings, the college also boasts a small but rigorous on-site research division, where academics, who are hired on five-year terms, work to develop everything from position papers to books on issues that are of interest to NATO and member nations. Whitecross explains that it is NATO itself that guides this research. “We find out what interests (the organization) has for the next 12 to 24 months, and we include that in the research plan,” she says, describing big-picture investigations designed to make an immediate contribution. (Research papers are available online: www.ndc.nato.int/research/.)

Born in Germany while her father, who was with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was posted there, Whitecross was a high achiever in school with an aptitude for math and science. She performed with a cadet pipe band as a child. Still, it was a surprise to everyone when, while at Queen's, she walked into a military recruiting centre in Kingston and enlisted. “I always thought I would try it,” says Whitecross, who was then two years into her engineering degree, “I was walking down Princess Street one day and thought, ‘Yeah, this is the time.’”

As she worked her way up the military ranks, taking on greater and greater responsibility, her family grew, too. That’s when she and her husband, Ian, who was also in the military, made an unconventional decision: it would be he – rather than she – who would take early retirement in order to stay home and raise their three young children.

“It was hugely rare and not necessarily embraced,” says Whitecross of making that decision in the 1990s. “Men didn’t do that.” Many were incredulous that Whitecross could leave her children, who were then all under the age of five, at home while she headed off on her first year-long deployment to Bosnia. “(Ian) always considered his a job and mine a career,” she says. “For us it was a really easy decision.”

[2007 photo of Whitecross and colleagues standing on a rocky area in Iqualuit on a joint training mission.]
Seen here in 2007, then-Brigadier-General Whitecross, Commanding Officer, Joint Task Force (North), stands near a Canadian flag with colleagues in Iqualuit, Nunavut, for a joint training operation involving army, navy, and air force personnel. Photo: Corporal Evan Kuelz


It was 2015 when Whitecross, who was then posted to the position of chief of staff for the assistant deputy minister (infrastructure and environment) and chief military engineer of the Canadian Forces at the National Defence Headquarters, learned that she had been chosen to lead a team to look into the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the military. “I was disappointed to be chosen,” she admits. “I remember thinking, ‘I am the most senior serving female in the Canadian military. You just picked me because of that.’”

But once she had come to terms with the task, Whitecross realized that she had been given an opportunity to help make a difference in a military environment where sexual harassment and assault are still common and still too frequently underreported. “I got off my soapbox,” she says. “I realized that ‘Hey – I am the best person to do this job and I am going to do the best damn job that I can because this is important. We need this, and it has to be someone who can understand and empathize.’”

The challenging assignment saw Whitecross and a team spend months travelling across Canada holding town hall events at more than a dozen defence bases and wings, including at the Royal Military College, meeting privately with people, answering questions, and having frank conversations with women and men across all ranks about sexual harassment and assault in the forces. This has resulted in new policies and training programs as well as disciplinary action where necessary. “It was difficult, sobering work,” she says, explaining that she is still involved at arm’s-length from her position in Rome, “though it was satisfying in some ways.”

While she admits that Canada still has work to do when it comes to addressing the issue of sexual misconduct in the military, Whitecross also believes that the country is ahead of many others when it comes to creating a culture of equality. She is also proud of what the military has been able to accomplish already.

“I work in an international environment and I can tell you for a fact that Canada is well ahead [of others] in terms of our policies and the way we treat people,” she says, citing the example of gender now being recognized as a non-binary construct. “In so many ways I am so proud of where we’ve come from.” But, she adds, there is still a lot to do. “The best thing we can do is to get people talking about it.”

Whitecross has carried her concerns for equality of all kinds into her work at the NATO Defense College and makes her expectations clear to the community there. “I have made treating people in a respectful way one of my priorities,” she says. Stressing the college’s multinational environment, she says challenges can arise when people arrive with different perceptions around how to treat one another. “I want to make sure that people will be treated well and with respect and for who they are, and that we embrace their talents regardless of where they are from or what their background is.”

Though Whitecross, who typically works at least a 12-hour workday, plans to step down from her post at the college in 2020, there is still much that she wants to accomplish before then: from growing the research division and overseeing a curriculum review to implementing initiatives to make it even easier for people to study, including through courses with shorter time commitments and expanded distance learning initiatives. Ultimately, however, she is focused on broadening the college’s reach and ensuring that it continues to meet the needs of its partner nations in the years to come, developing innovative thinkers and strategic leaders ready to tackle tomorrow’s challenges.

“The nice thing about an environment with so many different nations and genders and cultures is that we get new solutions for old problems,” Whitecross says. “If we continue to learn new ways and new methods of doing business, we will find better solutions to problems. For me, it goes hand-in-hand with leadership.”

On Jan. 23, 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau named Lieutenant-General Whitecross to his newly created Gender Equality Advisory Council, a high-profile group (members include Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai and the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde) dedicated to ensuring that “gender equality and women’s empowerment are integrated across all themes, activities, and initiatives of Canada’s G7 Presidency.” The council met as part of the G7 summit on June 9.

[CP Image: Christine Lagarde, Donald Trump, and Christine Whitecross at the G7 leaders summit June 9, 2018]
U.S. President Donald Trump, centre, takes his seat after arriving late for the G7 and Gender Equality Advisory Council Breakfast, as IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, left, and Canadian Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross look on at the G7 leaders summit in La Malbaie, Que., on Saturday, June 9, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang


The Gender Equality Advisory Council released its recommendations for Canada's G7 presidency, addressing:

  • Societies in which girls and women are equally represented in decision-making bodies, and are free from harassment and violence;
  • Economies that are prosperous, innovative, inclusive, and more equitable;
  • A healthy and sustainable planet; and
  • A world that is peaceful, just and secure.
    Read the council's full recommendations.


Lt.-Gen, Whitecross, first row, fourth from the right, with fellow members of the G7 Gender Equity Advisory Council. ©Her Majesty the Queen in right of Canada 2018


[illustration of Queen's students in 1918 wearing army uniforms and Queen's students in 1968 at a peace rally