Deacon -- Chris Whitecross has had a remarkable career, including many firsts for women in the Canadian military, retiring in December as a lieutenant-general and the highest-ranking woman in the Canadian Forces, but it is quickly apparent she is finding immense fulfilment in her home on the Bonnechere River, quilting, gardening and cooking in her dream kitchen.
“Wait till you see my quilting room,” she said with a quick smile on a recent visit to her retirement waterfront home.
Her quilting room would be the envy of any amateur or professional quilter with a long-arm quilting machine and several projects on the go, including many deeply personal ones for family members planned as gifts. The peaceful domesticity of the art of quilting may seem at odds with a woman who was twice named to the list of the 100 most powerful women in Canada, but it is part of her multi faceted personality and something she loves to do.
“I have been quilting for 20 years,” she said.
This winter she made an astonishing 15 quilts, so it is clear her drive to succeed is just as present in her personal life as it was in her professional one. For she is a woman who has achieved what few others of her gender have and been a trailblazer in so many ways, yet the importance of family remains paramount and was part of her motivation for settling in this area.
“I was raised in a very traditional 1970s family,” she recalled. “My mother wanted me to be a nurse or kindergarten teacher. However, my father never told me I could not do what I wanted to do.
“He knew I was good at sciences and my father encouraged all of us to be whatever we wanted me to be and encouraged me to get into engineering,” she said.
The daughter of Norm and the late Kay Edwards, whose home is on the south shore of Golden Lake, the retired Lt. Colonel has maintained a cottage on the lake for many years and when it came time to retire, she and her husband, Ian, built their home on a large plot of land on the Bonnechere River.
Raised in a military family, she was born when her father was serving in Zweibrucken, Germany. The country remains a favourite spot for her and her husband.
“Ian and I actually met there,” she said.
Growing up in the military she was exposed at an early age to a military career, but it wasn’t always her plan, although she was in cadets. Her brothers joined the reserves, but she didn’t, although she began to think about going into the military as an officer.
“I did the aptitude test in Grade 12 and did not make the cut,” she recalled. “I was devastated.”
So, she enrolled in Queen’s University to become a chemical engineer. Her second year at Queen’s she was walking down Princess Street and, on a whim, walked into the recruitment office.
“I was in the university and passing and they needed engineers,” she said.
Not one to take a short cut, she also said she wanted to take the aptitude test, even though she would not have had to since she was already in a university program.
“I passed,” she said with a grin.
Service to Country
A very proud Canadian, she said it is both an honour and humbling to be of service to your country in this way. When she entered the military there were very few women and the percentage remains low. As an engineer she was with the Canadian Military Engineers and her first posting was engineer training in Chilliwack, B.C.
“It incorporated everything from infantry and platoon duties and building bridges and mine fields and blowing things up,” Chris recalled. “We were still in the cold war then and understood the Soviet threat.”
At the time when she joined in the 1980s, it was the Canadian Forces with all in green, but in the end of the decade the distinction was made of Navy, Air Force and Army. She became part of the air force.
Early in her career she was posted to Baden Baden and Lahr in Germany as part of NATO. That is where she met her future husband.
“Ian was in the military and we met,” she said. “So, I came back to Canada married, pregnant and as a captain.”
Recalling those days, she said many around her were surprised when she changed her name from Edwards to Whitecross on her marriage, but she said she had always intended to do so. They returned to Edmonton and her upward trajectory continued.
“I did not think anything of being an engineer or a woman,” she said. “It never occurred to me this was odd.”
However, it quickly became apparent she was not the typical captain in the military.
“I was usually the youngest person in the room and the only female,” she said. “The reality is in every situation there were very few of us.”
In the 1980s, the military had about eight percent women. That number has doubled to 16 percent now, but she believes it is still too low.
With career aspirations, Chris continued her upward trajectory in the military, being promoted to major at 29, which is still considered fairly young. She had two children at that time and when they moved to Goose Bay, Labrador she had her third child.
Things became more complicated for the Whitecross family when he was posted to Winnipeg and she was in Bosnia. The children were 5, 4 and 2.
“It was a tough year,” she recalled. “There was no email or skype. It was a challenge personally and professionally.”
Ian was a Phys Ed instructor and when things changed in his career, he decided to retire.
“We decided it was best if one of us was home,” she said. “He said I had a career and he had a job, so he stayed home.”
Officers in the military tend to move more often and she knew this was what she was facing.
Ensuring a stable home environment for the children was important and they both worked to make this happen.
“It was tough and it bothered us for the longest time, but we did it and further in the story we fostered children,” she said. “You get training as foster parents and you hear about grieving. There are six types of grieving and one is moving.”
Learning to adapt and deal with change is also part of moving.
“We saw a lot of our own kids in that,” she said. “There is an ability to transition to new situations and engage new people. There are some bad parts too.”
Following a stint in Nova Scotia, it was back to Ontario for further training at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto equipping her to be a better senior executive member of the military. Her career was on a good trajectory and she was promoted to Lt. Colonel.
First Female Commanding Engineering Unit
While in Moncton, New Brunswick, Chris became the first female in the Canadian forces to command an engineer unit.
“It was one of the big ones,” she recalled. “It felt good, but it did not occur to me to think it was a watershed moment for women.”
Then 9/11 occurred. She continued to climb the ranks, was promoted to colonel and got an office job in Ottawa in the joint engineer for Canada command. Following this she was chosen to go to Yellowknife and was the first female commander and first female brigadier general. This was also a crucial time for the family.
“When we got posted to Ottawa, we promised the kids they could graduate from one high school,” she recalled, but one by one they all joined the family in Yellowknife.
“We had never been to the Artic,” she recalled. “Usually, it takes months to feel welcome somewhere but the people in Yellowknife were so accommodating. There you felt welcome in 24 hours. It was an excellent opportunity and we all loved it.”
Her son graduated from school there and after awhile the family was back in Ottawa where she worked on operational support for people outside the country. In 2010, as a brigadier general she was in Afghanistan.
“It was strategic communications, media, public affairs,” she said. “It was a field I wasn’t familiar with, but boy did I learn a lot. It was a tremendous opportunity professionally, but it was tough personally.”
Her children were in their late teens and early 20s, a crucial point in their life.
While in Afghanistan she was promoted to chief military engineer working on the whole infrastructure portfolio and came back to Ottawa. In 2015, she had the challenging task of team leader on the sexual misconduct inquiry in the Canadian Armed Forces, a challenging issue with repercussions that continue to this day as more allegations surface.
Her last posting came in 2017, when she was chosen as commandant of the NATO school in Rome, Italy. Countries submit names and each country votes. She became the first woman and third Canadian to hold the position. She finished her career there, coming back to Canada last July and retiring in December 2020. While there was some speculation she would be named the chief of defence staff, something no woman had achieved, this did not materialize and after almost four decades of service, she retired with the three maple leafs denoting her elevated rank.
“I do not see myself as a trailblazer, but I understand I am,” she noted. “I did everything that was required. I have a master’s degree. I am bilingual. I worked very hard.”
At the same time, she is happy to have served as a role model for others of what can be accomplished.
“I hope what I have done is not for me but for the next generation,” she said. “Humility is an underrated quality. Maybe I’m humble by fault.”
Encouraging others to achieve their dreams and to not think anything is impossible is important to her, however, even if she does not spend time reflecting on her various firsts.
“I think it is important to be grounded,” Chris said. “I am driven but I would never characterize it that way. I’m passionate about the Canadian Armed Forces and the people there and just doing the best I can.”
Her career trajectory would not have been possible without her family, from her birth family telling her she should use her skills, to her husband of three decades.
“It helped I had a really strong support network headed by my husband,” she said. “I had a very supportive family. I missed a whole bunch of firsts, but they don’t hold it against me. They are proud.”
None of her children followed their parents in a military career, although her son was in the reserves for a bit.
“All our children including my stepdaughter do something that is community service,” she said with pride, noting there is a police officer, teacher, public servant and childhood educator in the family. “They are all about service to other people and I am proud of that. I’m proud we installed that desire to serve others.”
There are also other lives she touched with the 33 foster kids the Whitecross family fostered through the years in several provinces. Her parents set the example as foster parents, having taken in three babies when they were in North Bay. Christine never forgot that.
“That stayed with me and we said we could do this,” she said. “I think it was because I was exposed to this at a young age.”
Their stint as foster parents were when their own children were growing up so sometimes there would be six children in the house and she loved it.
“I managed the work/life balance because I was able to leave work at work,” she said. “We loved having the babies around. It was a pleasure, not a chore. On balance it was a great experience.”
Deeply religious, she was greatly affected by the death of her younger sister, Valerie, from cancer several years ago, as were both her parents. Seeing her peace at the end was both moving and beautiful for them and reinforced their faith. When in Rome she was able to help arrange an audience with the pope for her parents which was significant for all the family.
Ottawa Valley Home
With all the moves during her career, the Ottawa Valley was always a place to come back to. When her father retired from the military, he worked at AECL for some time and the Edwards family bought their home on Hawkins Drive on Golden Lake.
“So, we would all get together with our families there,” Chris said.
With a brother in Pembroke, two brothers in Ottawa and the family of her late sister in Ottawa, it meant all were close by.
“So, we bought the cottage when we were in Goose Bay,” she said. “We wanted the children to know their extended family and we always came back here. No matter where we lived in Canada, we had something here.”
Since the cottage property was too small for a permanent home, they bought the land on the river and built. The house is designed to suit them – complete with the quilting room – and decorated with quilts and art they collected through their many postings. A special feature is the native art from the Artic which is especially important to them.
Now six months into retirement, she has finished a lot of quilts and although COVID has kept some of the family reunions from happening, she is looking forward to more time with close-by family. With two grandchildren in Ottawa and a daughter expecting a baby this fall, she is looking forward to her growing role as grandmother.
As well, she is mentoring individuals at the Royal Military College and some senior serving officers and looks forward to more opportunities.
“We are enjoying being here and hopefully will be able to travel again,” she said, adding a cruise is already in the planning for next year.
In her career she has been to 76 countries around the world. One of her duties with the International Military Sports Council facilitated a lot of fun travel bringing military together on the sports field, not the battlefield.
On a warm summer day, it was evident the Valley is very much home for this couple who has lived across Canada and in various postings around the world. Engaging, open and easy to talk to, Christine and Ian are looking forward to their new lives. As they relax by the river, maintain their property and look forward to visits with family, it appears this new phase in life will be as fulfilling as the last, albeit with no more moves.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader