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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Canada's First Female Warship Commander

CANADA - Commander Josee Kurtz of the HMCS Halifax is taking on a historic role for the Canadian navy. She's the first female commander of a warship.

The veteran navigator became the first woman to command one of Canada's legendary warships, a development she said highlights the progress females have made since they won the right to serve on naval vessels 20 years ago.

"Twenty years ago, having a woman commanding officer was not on the radar screen of any leadership," says Commander Kurtz as her sailors readied the ship for a brief run through Halifax harbour to mark the change of command. "I think it's a tremendous achievement that here we are, 20 years later, and somebody has been able to demonstrate that a woman can do the job equally as well as her male counterparts."

Kurtz downplayed the significance of her gender to the 225 crew on board the navy frigate, who she claimed cared little about whether their commander was a man or woman. She did however acknowledged that her appointment as commander of the HMCS Halifax might inspire the two dozen female crew members and others who may be new to the Canadian Forces.

Women in the Canadian navy were traditional given communications and nursing roles, fulfilling stereotypes that women should be given roles assisting the men.

"I see myself as no different," she said. "I do realize, however, that because of who I am and because of my place in time, my position is significant to many women... They look up to what I have done," says Commander Kurtz.

Six years ago Lt.-Cmdr. Marta Mulkins became the first commanding officer of a Canadian naval ship, aboard the HMCS Kingston, a much smaller vessel (55 meters) with less armaments (1x Bofors 40 mm 60 MK 5C cannon and 2x M2 Machine Guns) assigned to the Canadian Coast Guard.

Kurtz signed up when the navy was just opening its doors to women on a trial basis after a discrimination complaint led the Human Rights Commission to order the Forces to integrate females in all occupations.

Kurtz admits that she's had to prove herself over and over again as she's moved up through the chain of command, from a weapons officer and then combat officer to the executive officer on HMCS Ville de Quebec. "You are tested and you are scrutinized," Kurtz says. "There was some reluctance when we first joined . . . but when they realize you can do the job just as well, that scrutiny goes away."

Kurtz served on the Ville de Quebec when it was deployed to Somalia last year to participate in anti-piracy and escort duties through the United Nations World Food Programme.

After signing up in 1989 in her hometown of Joliette in Quebec, Kurtz knew then that she was entering a profession dominated by men, but insists the navy has evolved into an organization that accommodates anyone regardless of race or gender.

Kurtz's husband was in the navy for 20 years but is now home taking care of their seven-year-old daughter.

So will there be more female commanders? Canada's navy has 33 warships and submarines. When will we see the first female submarine commander? Or the first battleship?

On May 17th 2006, Captain Nichola Goddard, (Canadian Forces Land Force Command), became the first Canadian woman to be killed in action since World War II, and the first Canadian female combat soldier to be killed on the front lines.

Who says women aren't ready to fight and die for their countries?


The 4,770-tonne, 134-metre vessel is the lead ship in her class, can clock over 30 knots/hour and is equipped with 1x Sea King helicopter, 24x Honeywell MK 46 Torpedos, 16x Sea Sparrow Surface to Air Missiles, 8x Harpoon Surface-to-Surface Missiles, 1x 57 mm Bofors Gun, 1x 20 mm Vulcan Phalanx Close in Weapons System (CIWS) and 6x .50 Calibre Machine Guns. The ship's most recent combat mission was patrolling the Persian Gulf off the coasts of Iraq and Iran after September 11th, from 2001 to 2004. It returned to Canada for a major weapons refit in 2004.

The HMCS Halifax will spend roughly two years undergoing a modernization and technical program to get the new crew combat ready.

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