Shining at the highest levels: First woman appointed Judge Advocate General

Crowsnest - Fall 2017 / October 31, 2017

By Darlene Blakeley

Commodore Geneviève Bernatchez has come a long way from scrubbing the decks at her Naval Reserve Division in Montréal.

This summer she was appointed by the Governor General of Canada as the first woman to hold the position of Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

“It was an immense honour to be appointed,” she says. “The competition was very tight among a number of tremendously talented colleagues. It was incredible news for both myself and other women in general to see this milestone reached. And not only for women in Canada, but also internationally, where everyone can see that Canada is leading the way in allowing women to shine at the highest levels.”

The JAG is the senior legal officer in the CAF, responsive to the chain of command in providing legal services, but responsible to the Minister of National Defence for the performance of duties. The JAG has two unique statutory roles set out in the National Defence Act: the superintendence of the administration of military justice in the CAF, and the provision of legal advice to the Governor General, the Minister of National Defence, the Department of National Defence (DND) and the CAF in matters relating to military law.

Cmdre Bernatchez is the 15th JAG, and the second from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

A native of Gaspé, Que., she enrolled in the Naval Reserve in 1987 at Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Donnacona in Montréal. She was awarded her Bridge Watchkeeping Certificate as a maritime surface officer at a time when the CAF was first introducing women to combat arms. During her 10 years with the Naval Reserve, she served in a variety of command, training and staff positions. In 1997, she transferred to the Regular Force and joined the Office of the Judge Advocate General.

Leadership and teamwork

Cmdre Bernatchez is quick to credit the early leadership and teamwork skills she developed to her time in the Naval Reserve.

“There is no doubt that had it not been for my experience as a non-commissioned member and then an officer in the Naval Reserve I would not be where I am today,” she explains. “At a very young age I learned that my leadership experiences could shape who I am. That working for a team, and contributing to a team, looking after the people I was working with and working for, could help me become successful. I started in the RCN scrubbing decks and learned to serve before I learned to lead.”

Cmdre Bernatchez earned a Masters of International Legal Studies degree, with a specialization in National Security Law, from Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), a Bachelor of Laws from the Université de Montréal, and a Diplôme d'Études Collégiales in Administration from the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf (Montréal). She has been a member of the Barreau du Québec since 1993. 

Her career with the JAG office reflects diverse appointments and responsibilities involving the provision of legal advice and services in the areas of operational, military justice and administrative law. These included a deployment to Kosovo in 1999 and the oversight, coordination and provision of legal services to CAF expeditionary and domestic operations from 2000 to 2005. After being promoted to Captain (Navy) in 2010, she became the Deputy JAG for Operations, where she was the senior legal officer responsible for the provision of operational and international legal advice and services to DND and the CAF.

It was also during that time that she co-authored the “Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare”, the first published manual on the legal framework supporting cyber conflicts.

“I have a special interest in all things cyber,” she says. “Cyber certainly continues to develop as a topic from a legal perspective, and the Office of the JAG will have a role to play in this regard in order to support the implementation of the new defence policy.”

From 2012 to 2014, Commodore Bernatchez was the Chief of Staff to the JAG and led the delivery of corporate services and policy development in a challenging time of change and renewal. In the summer of 2014, she took on the responsibilities of Deputy JAG for Regional Services where she oversaw the delivery of legal advisory services across the full spectrum of military law in support of the CAF’s chain of command in North America and Europe.

Priorities as JAG

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the CAF’s Legal Branch; 100 years of military legal services in support of Canada and the rule of law.

Cmdre Bernatchez hopes to maintain the Branch’s long history of service by continuing to provide client-focused, timely, options-oriented and operationally driven legal advice and services.

Her main priorities include assisting Office of the JAG clients in myriad complex legal issues, and supporting the implementation of the new defence policy from a legal perspective.

“We also need to educate parliamentarians, members of DND and the CAF, and the general public about the military justice system,” she says. “We want it to be better understood.”

She plans to work closely with colleagues from the Department of Justice, as well as the legal services of the Privy Council Office and Global Affairs.

“This consultative work will ensure that we provide enhanced legal advice and services to departmental and CAF decision-makers, particularly on matters which transcend pure military law,” she says.

Cmdre Bernatchez recognizes that Canadians “have every right” to expect that their military force will be a disciplined one that complies with both Canadian and international law. “This discipline, enforced by all levels in the chain of command, will contribute to a respectful work environment, one in which members are motivated to give it their all in order to achieve mission success.”

She believes that the Office of the JAG’s service is centred on the confidence that “we can help sailors, soldiers, as well as airwomen and airmen, to do what they do best: protect freedom and justice. This is what I believe - and this is what will drive me as Judge Advocate General.”

She admits that her first few months in the new position have been extraordinarily busy, but that she has the background and experience to manage it successfully.

“Since I have become JAG I have been drinking from the fire hydrant,” she laughs. “But I’ve been around the table of senior officers for some time and that has helped prepare me for the job. I know the people and the issues, and how to deal with it at the highest level.”

Work-life integration

As the wife of  a high-level government executive and the mother of two children (aged 17 and 11), Cmdre Bernatchez is keenly intent on ensuring that both her career and her family life flourish.

“I don’t like the term ‘work-life balance’ as I don’t think it’s possible,” she says. “I call it ‘work-life integration’. My recipe for success has been an incredible husband who believes in my career, and the support of my children as we face together the things that all families face: work, school, getting supper ready, doing the laundry, and so on.”

She also volunteers in the community and is involved with her children’s schools for bake sales, spin-a-thons and other events.

“My parents were both public servants and very involved with community work. From a very early age I learned that each of us has great social responsibilities and we need to prioritize this with all the other things we do in our lives,” she explains. “When I was considering whether or not to express my interest for the job of JAG we had a family council to discuss what it would mean for us, and then we decided to embark on this adventure together.”

During her appointment ceremony, her children saw the Minister of National Defence, the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Deputy Minister of National Defence in attendance and it began to hit home just what was happening.

“They began to understand the responsibility I was taking on personally, but also the one we were taking on as a family. Everything would have to be done as a team. It was very inspiring,” Cmdre Bernatchez says.

She was particularly interested in instilling in her daughter the knowledge that women in the workplace can shine at the highest levels.

“My daughter looks at me working with important people and for her this is normal. And that’s exactly the way I want her to feel; that she, like all men and women, has the power to make a difference.”

Cmdre Bernatchez’s appointment as JAG is for four years, but it is renewable at the discretion of the Governor General. What comes after JAG is anyone’s guess.

“I never thought I’d make it this far, so I don’t think too much about the future,” she says. “I am just grateful for the present. My hope is that my appointment as the first woman to hold the Office of JAG will inspire other women to realize their full potential. To dream big. To truly believe that they can do anything they set their mind to.”