Canada came within a whisker of losing its place in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the fall of 2018 because of the military's inability to consistently deploy enough women to meet the world body's guidelines.
For the Liberal government, the political optics would have been horrible had the UN's department of peacekeeping carried out its threat to "reallocate" the post in the critical international mission in South Sudan.
The government has made the recruitment of more women for peacekeeping operations a policy priority — something that was mentioned prominently during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent tour of Africa, where he attempted to drum up support for Canada's bid for a Security Council seat.
In 2018, the UN was talked out of dropping Canada from the Sudan mission by Canadian officials who assured the world body that a better rotation system was being put in place by the Department of National Defence — one that would see the required number of women attached to the mission.
That near-miss, however, points to the Canadian military's wider struggle to recruit women in large numbers, and to the extraordinary pressure the UN guidelines have imposed on the existing pool of talented, qualified female soldiers.
UN guidelines mandate that, for observer missions like the one in South Sudan, 15 per cent of each country's staff officer and military observer positions must be filled by women. (Deployed operations, such as the recently concluded mission to Mali, have different, less strict metrics.)
In order to boost representation on the observer missions, the UN peacekeeping department even relaxed the rules for each country, allowing for women lower in the ranks (such as lieutenants and warrant officers) to be counted, where previously they had not.
The UN reviews countries' mission representation every quarter. In the fall of 2018, Canada was told it would lose its deployment to South Sudan, documents obtained by CBC News reveal.
"Canada failed to meet the target in the last quarter, and as a result, at the end of September the UN advised that the CAF position in UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan) was going to be reallocated to another country. The UN has since indicated that it will not reallocate the position, given the measures the CAF is putting in place to rectify the situation." said a briefing note for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan dated Oct. 29, 2018.
Canada gets an exemption
The Canadian office at the UN was notified of the decision by fax and it set off an immediate response. A defence official with knowledge of the file said Canada wasn't the only nation to receive the warning in the fall of 2018.
Once the UN's department of peacekeeping was told about the measures the government was putting in place, an exemption was granted, said the official, who spoke on background but was not authorized to publicly address the issue.
Canada's inability to meet the recruitment threshold had been a long-standing issue, according to the briefing note.
"Initial reporting has shown for over a year that we have not been consistently meeting the 15 per cent target. For example, we were at 8.7 per cent in October 2017, 15.8 per cent in May 2018 and 4.8 per cent in August," said the document, obtained by CBC News through access to information legislation.
The report goes on to note that, "based on the amount of UN officer and military observer positions allocated to Canada, Canada needs at least five women deployed" on observer missions at any one time. At the time the briefing was written, only one woman was in the field.
Despite the government's political pronouncements, the Canadian military is still getting used to looking at deployments through a gender lens.
A 'strain' on the Canadian Forces
The "process for identifying the right member for deployment is aimed — above all else — [at] ensuring the selected member has the right qualifications, skill set and experience for the position at hand," said the briefing note, adding that having a larger pool of women serving throughout the military eventually would solve the problem.
Stefani von Hlatky, an associate professor of political studies at Queen's University, said the issue is about more than just recruiting more women — it's also about having women with the right skill sets.
"There is typically a high demand [on UN missions] for infantry officers and that is not a trade where women are particularly well-represented," she told CBC News.
"If Canada is to meet, consistently, targets that are imposed by the UN when it comes to the representation of women in UN missions, then it is constantly going to be a strain for the Canadian Armed Forces."
Women already serving in the Canadian Forces could face unique pressure, given their limited numbers.
"There is the consideration that if the Canadian Armed Forces is asked to constantly meet that target and simply doesn't have the numbers to consistently hit the 15 per cent target from rotation to rotation, there might be more pressure on women to deploy more often and might impact the career trajectory of individual women," Von Hlatky said.
The defence minister said he recognizes the challenges and the amount of work it will take to ensure there is meaningful representation by women on UN observer operations.
Harjit Sajjan also defended the government's record.
"We've worked very hard to ensure that if we've been telling other nations to have more women in peacekeeping operations, that we're going to lead by example, and we have," said Sajjan, who noted Canada has put women in charge of NATO operations and in senior posts within the military alliance.
But NATO, said von Hlatky, does not impose specific gender targets on its missions — and Canada's soaring rhetoric and promises have created expectations.
"I definitely think there is a gap between the rhetoric and the practice," she said.
"I think Canada, in terms of its rhetoric, should be careful to adjust that rhetoric to its means."