04/09/2021 | Press release | Archived content
Meet Lieutenant (Navy) (Lt(N)) Blythe McWilliam, the Royal Canadian Navy's first, and currently only, Command Cultural Advisor (CCA).
CCA is a brand new position created by the command team of Her Majesty's Canadian Ship (HMCS) Regina as a way of addressing cultural issues onboard.
For example, last year the ship was alongside at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, B.C. Crew members, as people often do, were getting dropped off at work by people they knew. It was typical that they would be dropped off by their partners and rules were written in a way that permitted partners to come on base for this purpose. This seemed to be working for some people, but problems surfaced when one crew member was being held up by extra questioning at the front gate as their same-sex partner dropped them off.
Lt(N) McWilliam heard about this, brought it up to Regina's Commanding Officer, Commander (Cdr) Landon Creasy, conversations were had at higher levels, and within 48 hours the Base Standing Orders had changed to accommodate a wider range of persons dropping members off.
'My job is to keep an ear out and look for instances where members of the crew are being hindered at their job because of some cultural aspect,' said Lt(N) McWilliam. 'I then advise the ship's command team on the issue and I can help provide input to them making a decision.'
'Cultural aspects' include gender, sexuality, family background, religion, or anything related to the unique, personal aspects of a person.
'I often deal with simple things - practical changes that ensure we are respecting the dignity of all persons. We want to make sure people are not disadvantaged because of who they are,' said Lt(N) McWilliam.
Another example involved Sea Training - a fleet-level group that analyzes how ships perform and then disseminates reports about ways in which practices can improve based on these analyses. While these reports are anonymized so that the mistakes of individuals are not singled out, Lt(N) McWilliam noticed they still used gender pronouns. Because there are often fewer women in most ship positions, this meant that a person reading the report could identify from the context exactly who was being talked about when female pronouns were used.
Essentially, women were, possibly embarrassingly, being singled out for their areas to improve while men were not. This was noticed as unfair and unnecessary by Lt(N) McWilliam. As a result of higher-level conversations produced from this, Sea Training Group, which is located on both coasts, now uses gender neutral pronouns.
Lt(N) McWilliam described another situation. For emergency and action situations, ships have section bases - places where first responders on the ship muster during an emergency. One of the section bases in Regina had teams, mostly men, meeting up in Two Mess, which was being used as an all-female sleeping quarters, but is also an ideal location to muster during an emergency.
Because of the 24-hour scheduling on ships, people are sleeping at all times of the day and so, whenever an emergency was called (and they are frequently called as part of the ship's ongoing training cycle), a group of mostly men would suddenly rush into the space and complications would arise from women having to get changed to be ready for the emergency.
This was brought to the attention of Lt(N) McWilliam who spoke to personnel involved to address the situation. The solution: education of crew members and the use of a curtain to ensure that both the safety and dignity of crew members and the operational effectiveness of the ship were maintained.
'We all tend to approach things from our own experience, so having someone who is enabled to come and tell you when something is not working right is extremely valuable to me,' said Cdr Creasy. 'The ship's command team is made up of three, 39-plus white guys and we have to implement policies across a small city of around 250 diverse people. The CCA position is to help us be better at that.'
The CCA role in Regina developed when the Executive Officer at the time, Lieutenant-Commander Darren Sleen, wanted to implement some knowledge he gained at Canadian Armed Forces Staff College. It was modelled after the Gender Advisor role that has been implemented in many headquarters and operational planning groups. Cdr Creasy was supportive of the idea, so it was implemented, and the role has continued on the ship since.
Under Cdr Creasy, culture has become a major focus as he has formalized it in a 'Fighting Culture' statement, a document frequently referred to in the ship's internal communications, and he formalized the CCA position in his standing orders.
'If there is one baseline across all the Canadian Armed Forces, it's culture. Culture is the single most important line of defence. If we want to improve as a military, we have to be prepared to have difficult discussions in this area,' said Cdr Creasy. 'It's not about blame, it's just about solving problems. If you see something going on here that makes you think that you wouldn't want your loved ones coming to work here, then let us know so we can fix it.'