Christina Hutchins on her role as senior director of the new Office of Women and LGBTQ2 Veterans

August 25, 2020
Christina Hutchins.
Christina Hutchins, the senior director of the Office of Women and LGBTQ2 Veterans at Veterans Affairs Canada, joined the WREN team to discuss her plans for the role.

In June 2020, the Women Veteran Research and Engagement Network (WREN) sat down (virtually) with Christina Hutchins, senior director for the Office of Women and LGBTQ2 Veterans at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), to talk about the development of this crucial new office and its mandate. The conversation was hosted by Sayward Montague, advocacy director with the National Association of Federal Retirees and WREN co-chair. The following transcript was edited for length, style and clarity.


Today, WREN is joined by guest speaker Christina Hutchins, the senior director in charge of the Office of Women and LGBTQ2 Veterans at VAC. Christina, we know your time is limited today, so let’s get started. Could you open things up by telling us a bit about yourself, your background and what led you to this exciting role with VAC?

Certainly. First of all, thank you for inviting me and Kaye Low, a member of my staff!

So, I’ll start with a little bit about myself. Folks that know me know that I am a veteran with 21 years of service, beginning as a direct-entry officer in 1987 then trained as an army logistics officer with a specialization in finance. I spent most of those 21 years bouncing around the typical army bases, like Gagetown and Petawawa, along with some time spent in Kingston and Toronto attending Canadian Land Force Command and Staff College and later Canadian Forces Command and Staff College. I also spent some time in the US in Washington, D.C. and then came back to Canada for postgraduate sponsored education in London, Ontario at Ivey School of Business before settling in Ottawa, at National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ).

I retired in 2008 and transitioned into the public service through an executive trainee program called the Career Assignment Program. I spent my first term with National Defence and then moved over to Correctional Services Canada for three years as their director of finance, followed by a brief stint with the Treasury Board Secretariat. And then for personal reasons, I transferred to Veterans Affairs in Charlottetown, P.E.I. in 2013, to be closer to family.

Used to being moved every three to four years in the military, by 2019 I was long overdue for a change and not knowing what my next move would be, I decided to take leave and went back to school at Queensland University in Brisbane, Australia. There I obtained a post-graduate certificate in International Peace and Conflict Studies. I was thinking that women's peace and security would be of interest if I were to retire a second time, and would be an area that I could do some volunteer work in.

And during my career, I managed to find the time to get married to an armoured corps warrant officer and have two children. They are not children anymore, they're both young adults.

In 21 years, you must have had some great assignments and met some challenges. What were some stand-out experiences for you?

Early in my career, I was attach-posted to the Airborne Regiment in Petawawa in preparation for pre-deployment training for Western Sahara – but I ended up being selected for the first Canadian contingent deployed to the former Republic of Yugoslavia instead. So here I was in Petawawa, being trained to deploy with the Airborne, then suddenly chosen to be sent over to Lahr, Germany for a month to train with the 4th Combat Engineer Regiment (4CER) not knowing a soul and being the only female officer tagged for deployment. I spent six months in now Croatia on an all-male camp, with the exception of a few locally engaged staff who were female ( i.e. translators, cleaners and kitchen staff).

At that time, there weren’t a lot of female officers, especially on army bases, so I was kind of used to being the only one. Being deployed for almost eight months in total with all men, I thought was not going to be any different than being on a base with mostly men. But that deployment had its unique set of challenges as well as opportunities.

Probably my most exciting job and posting was with Deployed Operations at NDHQ, where I spent three years travelling to places where we had troops deployed in North America, like in the Northwest Territories, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. or internationally like the Golan Heights, Bosnia, Croatia, and Afghanistan. I would go in and out usually for maybe a week or two or up to a month in some cases, depending on what I was there for – that could be command comptroller inspections, staff assistance visits, technical assistance visits, or more formal boards of inquiry, those types of things – each representing its own unique experiences.

So, when the opportunity to start up an office like this came in 2019, I was both surprised and excited. It’s a very unique opportunity. I never thought I'd have the chance to represent women veterans in my public service career so it's a great pleasure of mine to be in this role.

The Office of Women and LGBTQ2 is a new section within VAC. Can you tell us about how the Office has evolved so far?

So, the office was created following the first Women's Veterans Forum that was held by VAC in May 2019 in Charlottetown, P.E.I. Unfortunately, I was in Australia still going to school at that time, so I didn't get to participate in the forum. But I did receive a phone call from the Deputy Minister [Walt Natynczyk, Gen Ret’d] while still in Australia saying that he sees a need for Veterans Affairs to focus on the needs of women and LGBTQ2 veterans in a new way.

When I came back to Charlottetown in July 2019, I was the first and only person on staff at the new Office of Women and LGBTQ2 veterans – I really got a clean slate!

Starting from ground zero was the chance to build something from the ground up. I started out by going back to the record of decisions from the Women's Veterans Forum and reading through the documentation to understand what was being asked of the office.

And then I really started looking inside the department because I had been away for six months and had missed a couple changes of ministers during that time and I had to understand where the department was at.

Shortly after I got there, I had one staff member returning to the department who joined me, so we were a team of two and began a preliminary scoping exercise across Veterans Affairs to understand what was happening, and then with other government departments to see what else could be done in terms of supporting women and LGBTQ2 veterans. This was really to get ourselves grounded in what we could do within that space.

It was clear to me that there was the need to address the kind of systemic issues and challenges that could contribute to inequities in access, treatment benefits and potentially outcomes for women and other marginalized groups.

At the same time, a lot of work was going on to determine how to integrate Gender Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) into the work of the department. GBA+ was the policy direction supporting such new initiatives as gender-inclusive services applicable across the government of Canada. As we were trying to get our feet wet in our new role within Veterans Affairs, we found that more and more work was coming our way to support the department on GBA+, too.

Can you share a little bit about the mandate and role of your new Office?

The mandate of the Office of Women and LGBTQ was clearly articulated by the Minister [Lawrence MacAulay] in March 2020. The focus or mandate from Minister MacAulay is on identifying and addressing the unique challenges and experiences that women and LGBTQ2 veterans and their families face. We will work towards equitable treatment and services for all veterans, regardless of their biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other identity factors.

Even though the office is named Office of Women and LGBTQ2 Veterans, we are very much focused on intersectionality. We're trying to get at the systemic issues that prevent all groups of veterans from having equitable access, treatment benefits and outcomes based on the programs and services that we have to offer – whether that’s due to gaps that need to be identified, or challenges that are inherent either in our policies, decision processes or instruments.

Much of what we are working with was originally based on legislation that existed to respond to the needs of traditional World War veterans, who were and are typically male. With more women coming into the Canadian Armed Forces and more women in the veteran population, we realize there is a need to modernize and to take that deliberate, I think, approach to incorporating all aspects of intersectionality into everything we do – from the very beginning with the research and data collection that’s needed, to tapping into evidence from other sources, including international perspectives on policy development and program design and delivery.

There's a big, huge amount of work ahead of us, and we're going to chip away at that.

That’s ambitious, exciting and so necessary. Can you tell us how the new Office of Women and LGBTQ2 “fits” within the Veterans Affairs structure?

Our office was set up to work horizontally across the department. So, we don't have the functional authority to write new policy or to develop new programs, but our role is very much to influence the work that's going on in the department. I report directly to the assistant deputy minister of strategic policy and commemoration. We were initially authorized up to five dedicated positions, including myself as senior director.

I see the Office of Women and LGBTQ2 as being part of that bridge or intermediate area between stakeholders and veterans with lived experience, and the department. We’re here to understand their issues, challenges and concerns, and to bring those back into the department where we can help our colleagues have those conversations, to ask difficult questions, to push the thinking in the department a little bit to say, “Have you looked at all the multi-dimensional facets of what you're putting forward? Is it impacting certain groups differently or disproportionately? Is it reaching the intended audience? Is it having the right effect that you intended it to have to the right people?”

These dialogues are happening now across the department, and we try very much to get involved at the grassroots of any new discussion. If there's a new policy being developed, or a new program being considered, we want to be at the table early rather than at the tail end – which means intersectionality is applied at the start of the process. Applying the necessary lenses at the start of the process means VAC will be set to fully meet the Government of Canada’s commitments to GBA+ principles, and that’s going to mean better outcomes for the veterans we serve at VAC.

Some veteran women have wondered about the name of the new office. The office is focused on intersectionality and getting at the core of what leads to inequitable outcomes, including outcomes for racialized veterans. Do you feel that the name of the office may be a barrier to the intersectional work that you plan to do? Would the office be better named as an Office of Equity, for example?

That's not the first time this question has come up.

Again, we were starting with a clean slate, and I think we are still evolving as we go. Early on, as we were getting off the ground, I indicated that we may want to revisit the name, once we were on solid footing.

We want to solidify some foundational pieces that will guide our work, like the first GBA+ strategy and framework document, which was just finalized at the beginning of April and will be rolled out soon.

We've also relaunched the web pages for our office and provided more info to frame the context of how we're operating. Something we’re also working on is an action plan, which is really the meat of this whole thing. We’re basing it on our initial scoping exercise and a literature search, and it looks at areas for change. That plan will drive our efforts, what our short term, medium term, long term goals will be, and how our office will align with the work that's already going on based on government and departmental priorities. And, we also have to consider how we’ll leverage the work of stakeholders and partners, and bring that work to influence and incorporate the GBA+ lens – which includes gender, diversity and inclusivity principles – into the bigger conversations, not on the side, not after the fact, but really integral to the whole discussion framework in the work we do at Veterans Affairs, as a department.

That action plan is under review now, and it really is a preliminary action plan – it’s a place for us to start and we know we will be learning as we go, relying on the expertise that exists inside and outside the department to really hit in on the key issues and which ones we can move. Some are easier to move. Some will take more time. Some are within the control of the department, while some will require partnership with other government departments or even outside of government to really make a positive difference.

My goal is to bring those foundational pieces together during our initial full year of operation. And then we could go back and revisit the name of the office if necessary.

Also, we are still doing the handoff of some of the key responsibilities like GBA+, and this will be a transitional, formative year. I think that there is more to our office than what may be perceived in the name alone. We are not focused only on women and LGBTQ2 veterans but rather the various impacts of intersectionality that may lead to bias and discrimination of under-represented sub-groups of veterans. That is really what we want to get at.

Does the action plan include racialized experiences?

Yes, we speak to it in very general terms. When we did our preliminary scoping exercise, we found that barriers and challenges are amplified according to how many different layers of intersectionality individuals present. So, we really need to unpack it, understand the different layers of intersectionality and what kind of implications each of them has individually and in layers or combined impacts.

One of the challenges that we're finding is that we don't necessarily collect all the data elements that we need to do a rigorous analysis. So, in our action plan, we’ve put focus on looking at data collection, data acquisition and data usage.

And if anything, I would say COVID-19 is just highlighting the gaps or inequities that can be present in data. Good data is what allows us to truly understand different segments of the population, how some are disproportionately impacted, and whether or not the programs that are being offered are reaching the targeted populations and having the effect that they are intended to have.

That's a long answer, but yes, we focused on sex, gender identity and sexual expression to start, with the intent to unpack the intersectional components of GBA+ as we move forward, build more data and the research base we need to have that evidence to inform what we're doing.

Touching on research, you’ve mentioned the need for solid data and research. We know there are so many gaps and things that just haven't been studied or tracked adequately for veteran women. How does Veterans Affairs handle research for women veteran specific research gaps? Does your Office do that research or do you work with colleagues at Veterans Affairs to make sure that research is prioritized and done?

Our Office itself does not do research but we have a research Directorate within our own branch of Strategic Policy and Commemoration. We’re having conversations with those colleagues to think about research that would support the GBA+ goals or the intersectionality lens or would give the information needed to ensure we’re able to support women and marginalized groups or underrepresented groups. My team is working closely with them through knowledge transfer and exchange to really understand what it is that they're doing and how that's being utilized in terms of designing new policies and programs and services.

There’s also the connection to other organizations like CIMVHR, the Canadian Institute of Military and Veteran Health Research. We are also working with the Canadian Armed Forces and National Defence and have made connections with our counterparts there on the GBA+ side. We really want to try to start looking at issues from upstream, to help put more focus on prevention and mitigation by better understanding the causal relationships of service to illness and injury.

Again, this puts another kind of twist on how we collect the data, what our privacy and regulations are around using that data, who we can share that data with. But these types of conversations are now being had.

And I would say there’s even more of a sense of urgency to get good data with COVID-19 unfolding, to really understand what data exists and what's preventing the people that need it for good, the common good, from accessing it. For example, the Government of Canada just put tools out to help departments implement GBA+ with additional questions around COVID-19, like “How do you apply the GBA+ in a COVID-19 or pandemic environment?” So again, a lot more conversations, a lot more people engaged and a lot more interest, and certainly new situations highlight the importance and significance and the value of doing a proper GBA+.

Thanks for sharing all of that, Christina! I think today has shown us that a half hour goes very, very quickly. If you're open to it, and we haven't been too hard on you with some of our questions, it would be great for you to reconnect with WREN in a couple of months to talk about the progress and the milestones that you've been reaching and what success is starting to look like for you.

Yes, I am open to that. 30 minutes goes by quickly and I talk fast. I’d be very happy to continue the conversation, and I’m happy to connect with WREN members if there are specific questions or somebody wants to have a dialogue around systemic issues or research in particular, if that's your area of interest.

Super. Our WREN co-chairs (Dr. Karen Breeck, Dr. Maya Eichler or I) can facilitate any connection with Christina and her team. Christina, I think each of the questions or the areas we wanted to focus on could have well involved a half an hour of discussion on its own! We're really glad to have had this overview on the Office of Women and LGBTQ2 at Veterans Affairs. I think this is the start of many more conversations. And with that, we will let you go!

All right. Thank you very much for having me.