Royal Canadian Navy eyes alternative to 'seaman' rank

The Royal Canadian Navy has decided it's time for the rank ‘seaman’ to walk the plank in favour of a more gender-neutral term.

An internal and external poll by the Royal Canadian Navy to choose an alternative name for its junior sailor ranks wrapped up on Friday at midnight, the results of which have yet to be announced.

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So far, there is not a clear consensus of what that alternative will be looking at the results, said Lt.-Cmdr. Teri Share, the RCN's diversity and inclusion officer. Approximately 8,400 people currently hold a seaman rank, but the poll received interest from a whopping 18,000 respondents, some of whom are currently serving, as well as other veterans and civilians keenly invested in the Navy, she said.

The process has not been without controversy, triggering a statement from Rear Admiral Chris Sutherland, the RCN's deputy commander, addressing “hateful, misogynistic and racist comments” posted on online forums. 

“These comments serve as a reminder of our need to call out cowardly attacks such as these, and remind us also that we should take every opportunity to show support for minority and marginalized groups," Sutherland said in a July 24 statement posted on the RCN's Facebook page.

“To those of you currently serving with these beliefs, I would like to emphatically state you have no place in our Navy,” he added. "If you cannot live by or support the values of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, then you cannot defend them."

Share said while many respondents have suggested interesting rank alternatives throughout the process, some of the inappropriate comments were found in online forums, while others were included in the poll in the blank "other" field. A social media review was undertaken and a Canadian Armed Forces process will be followed if any inappropriate social media comments were found to be posted from serving members, she said.

Krista Johnston, a professor of women's and gender studies at Mount Allison University, said the backlash was disappointing, but not surprising to her.

"It's interesting that a change about gender neutrality also triggered a racist backlash," she said, "There is something that feels threatening that is not only about gender that signals how oppression works in organizations."

She applauded a person of high military rank such as Sutherland calling out these types of comments as unacceptable.

Chief Petty Officer First Class Ginette Séguin held the rank of seamen from 1996 to 2007. She told the Times & Transcript the rank change is “a very worthwhile change”, and may shift views and unconscious bias that a sailor is always a man. When Séguin held this rank, she said there were around 12 to 15 women out of 150 with that rank on a ship. 

Women have been allowed in all the hard sea trades since 1989, she said, but there is a difference between diversity and inclusion. “This is the next step in inclusion for the Royal Canadian Navy,” Séguin said, adding that she was so happy to notice Sutherland’s loud-and-clear statement.

Inclusion manifests in many ways in the workplace and while living together – both one in the same on board a Navy ship, Séguin said. Even simple choices, such as allowing those from outside the majority group to choose a movie once a week instead of the majority always voting on a film to watch, can be cumulatively meaningful in workplace social events, she said. 

“The initiative wasn’t generated because of a complaint,” Séguin said. "It’s not about appeasing a group; it’s about doing the right thing."

Changes to junior sailor titles could have a real impact in recruitment, Johnston said, but "sustained action" is required to ensure that any issues that might be manifesting in the workplace or living quarters are being addressed.

"Otherwise, they might have a kind of recruitment boom, but we might see a huge fall-off in terms of retention," she said.

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