On Thursday, April 4, GJIA spoke with Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Jillian Bishop, outgoing Deputy Commander of Operation PRESENCE-Mali, about her experiences as a female peacekeeper in United Nations Multilateral Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as well as her thoughts on how women can continue to be integrated into peacekeeping operations.
GJIA: Why did you decide to join the Canadian armed forces, and what led you to peacekeeping?
JB: I joined the Canadian forces quite a while ago, in 1986. To me, it really represented a way to serve my country, find a bit of excitement, and do something to potentially make a difference in the world. [MINUSMA] was my first time on a peacekeeping mission. I had always wanted to be involved in a mission, peacekeeping or otherwise, because you really get to make a difference in the world, so this was a unique opportunity for me. Canada has not recently been as involved in peacekeeping as it has been in the past, as Canada has a great history of being heavily involved in Peace Operations. So, when this deployment came up, it was very exciting to be involved in Canada’s return to peacekeeping in a more meaningful fashion. I was quite excited when my commander phoned me and asked if I wanted to be the Deputy Commander, especially given the significant role we had in Mali. The role we were given was to provide Medevac capability to the other peacekeeping nations around Mali, and that made a significant contribution in saving lives. That’s a role I was quite proud to be part of.
How did the inclusion of women make a positive difference in the peacekeeping operation in Mali, and why was it so important for women to be active participants in that mission?
In any conflict, violence affects men, women, and children differently. Quite often, especially on the military side, there is a misunderstanding of how conflict affects women, so it’s very important to include women in peacekeeping operations to keep that understanding is included in how we plan and execute operations. Canada took a leadership role when we deployed to Mali; [our Commander] Colonel McKenna was adamant that we would have a gender advisor within our force. The gender advisors on operations are often out there connecting with the communities, making sure people understand the mission and collecting information on how conflict is affecting men, women, and children differently. In the context of our role in Mali, our gender advisor wasn’t able to do that, because our force wasn’t out meeting the population given our medevac role. But he and our force commander were able to demonstrate significant leadership, in that they made sure to connect with all of the gender advisors in all sectors and force headquarters. He worked to establish working groups to ensure we were moving forward with our UN partners in the same direction. So, in that capacity, we were able to provide quite a bit of leadership. Additionally, if the numbers of women are higher in the force overall, especially in leadership, then movement forward in terms of gender perspective is felt at all levels. For MINUSMA, it was important that troop-contributing nations have a significant number of women – at least 15%of their forces – especially in leadership roles. In Canada, we don’t selectively pick women just to meet that number, so we actually had 12% women on our force, a number which reflects the makeup of our tactical helicopter community. That said, our force still recognizes the impact that women in leadership positions have on decision making; within Task Force Mali, 23% of the officers were women, and of the senior officers, 28% were women. Of our forward aeromedical evacuation personnel – those are the people doing the hard job of saving the lives directly – 50% were women. I think within Canada’s task force overall, women were very well represented, and I think we demonstrated to the other nations how women can be involved and make a difference, especially in leadership positions.
You mentioned that you don’t just recruit women to meet quotas, but rather continue to recruit, as with men, from the qualified candidates who already serve within the forces. That said, how do you think individual countries, including within UN peacekeeping missions, can improve recruitment and retention of females so that those quotas are met simply by effect of having more women involved in general?
Every country is very different in how they engage women in their own forces, so it’s hard to overlay Canadian values on some of the other countries that we were working with in the UN. For example, some countries only have women in very specific roles in their militaries, and it depends on the numbers they have in leadership as well; some countries don’t believe in deploying women within their forces at all. I think the only way we can really affect that is to be an example for other countries, so they can see that women can deploy, and they can be involved in all levels of leadership. In the Canadian forces, we don’t limit any military roles to men only, and I think this is the best way to serve as an example.
Did you or any of your female colleagues face any challenges, in peacekeeping or in the military, that were unique to being a woman in those occupations?
Throughout my career, I’ve always felt very much respected and treated as an equal. I have seen that in the last 10 years, our military has really realized that there is more work to be done to make sure women are represented adequately, especially in leadership positions, and that there are some barriers that need to be overcome to enable that. It’s not just a women’s issue, either; I see a lot of men within our military who understand that perspective now, and who have become champions for us as well. From a woman’s point of view, I’ve grown to realize over my time in the military that I can be an example and inspire the junior women in our forces, when new and trying to find a way to make a difference towards a rewarding career.
What advice would you give to young women today who are interested in peacekeeping and other more traditionally male-dominant security careers?
First, you definitely need to set your goals. I always wanted to be involved in peacekeeping and operations right from the beginning; it took me quite a few years to get there, mainly because I wasn’t at the right place at the right time, but I had a goal in mind. Set goals for what you want to do and how you can make a difference, put a plan in place for how you want to get there, and involve your leadership in that decision and in enabling you to get there. If you do that, there’s no limit to what you can achieve. Early in my career, I never thought that I’d be Deputy Commander of a force in a peacekeeping mission; but I was able to get there, so anything is possible. There is nothing out there that will limit you in achieving your goals.
Note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Jillian Bishop is a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force. She joined the force in 1986 as an aerospace engineer, and has spent her career in support of tactical aviation, including a tour in Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan in 2009. Upon her return, she served for five years in the 400 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in Borden, Ontario; in 2015, she took over as the unit’s first female commander, responsible for maintenance of Canada’s CH146 Griffon helicopters. In July of 2018, Lieutenant-Colonel Bishop was appointed Deputy Commander of Operation PRESENCE-Mali, the Canadian contingent to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. Lieutenant-Colonel Bishop received her Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.