14390 Kate Armstrong – One of the First 32 – No Regrets

By: Jen Ochej

This weekend, the Class of 1984 celebrated their thirtieth reunion— and theirs is a class with a special distinction: the cadets graduating from RMC in 1984 were the first year, ever, to include women among their ranks. Kate Armstrong was one of those women.

“It was tough [being in the first class with women]. I think there was some support for us to be there, and then of course there were people that didn’t want us there at all. And they tended to be more [vocal],” Armstrong recalls. “I don’t even know what it was like for the guys. The guys in my class were amazing, but I’m sure that they had lots of pressure too.”

Growing up in British Columbia, Armstrong came to RMC in a roundabout fashion. With three older brothers in Air Cadets, she naturally followed suit when, in 1974, young women were allowed to join for the first time. Following a first trip with the cadets to Victoria, Armstrong wasn’t sold on remaining in cadets, but her parents pushed her to honour her commitment.

“When I got home I said to my mom, ‘Yeah, air cadets are not for me,’” Armstrong explains. “And she said, ‘You can’t just join and then take from it, you have to give back. You’re an air cadet now, so you better find something you like.’ And that was kind of the values of my parents, how they were.”

Taking her mother’s advice, the new young air cadet decided to pursue the glider pilot program, obtaining her gliding license at sixteen. That particular choice would lead Armstrong to develop an interest in flying, and to decide to become a pilot.

When it came time to pursue post-secondary options, she borrowed her father’s car and drove to the recruiting centre in Vancouver— where she was told, simply, that there were no women pilots. She was instead encouraged to apply to RMC, which would be her best chance to later become a pilot.

Initially wait-listed, she enrolled at Simon Fraser University and set off for Chilliwack to complete Basic Officer Training the summer after high school— and before summer’s end, she would find out that she had been admitted to RMC after all.

“At the end of first year, I was told that there was an opportunity for me to re-classify to Pilot, because they were opening it up to a trial for women. There were sixteen women being accepted. It was two years’ training, and then two years in the squadron… but I had to quit RMC to go and do that training, and at that point there was no way I was leaving without my degree,” Armstrong remembers. “I knew there was a lot of pressure on us— we were kind of carrying the torch for if women could make it through or not. It didn’t really matter why women quit, it just mattered if they did. So I kind of took that on, that ‘I need to get through here.’ It doesn’t matter how great my reason for not finishing was, I didn’t want to be left with the perception that I couldn’t do it. And also for women who wanted to come behind.”

Following her time at RMC, Armstrong spent nine years in the Forces; first in Kingston, then in Ottawa at NDHQ, and finally in Toronto. At the end of her Short Service Engagement, she elected not to renew her contract and instead moved back to her home province of British Columbia, where she took a position with BC Hydro in Labour Relations.

“When I first got out, I was terrified, because I… honestly didn’t know that I had anything to offer in the ‘real world’. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Armstrong explains. “That’s how I ended up setting my sights toward Labour Relations, ‘cause I had worked with collective agreements, and I was comfortable from the leadership training we had and everything. [But] when I got out, and I got that job, I still totally didn’t understand if I could bring value. [But] it didn’t take long for me to realize how amazing my work experience was.

“By the time I left the military, I had had a job where I had 120 people reporting to me, and I was in charge of [about] eighteen warehouses, and it was a big deal to have that experience. And then at the end, when I was working for Powerex [a subsidiary of BC Hydro]— and this company makes hundreds of millions of dollars every year— we had I think 120 people that reported to our CEO. And that perspective of it was just incredible to me… I had no idea the depth and breadth of the experience that I was having. And then reflecting back on it later, it was just— it served me tremendously.”

In the years since leaving the Forces, Armstrong spent twenty years with BC Hydro and its subsidiary, Powerex, and pursuing other interests such as white water rafting and sailing— even taking a year’s sabbatical to sail to Mexico, French Polynesia, Hawaii, and back. More recently, the ex-cadet has completed a Bachelor’s degree in Counselling and written the first draft of a novel, finally devoting time and energy to the passion for creative writing that sat on the back burner for many years.

Armstrong’s education and career path took many twists and turns and required her to surmount obstacles today’s young cadets need not face, but thirty years out from her graduation it’s clear that she is eminently grateful for the experience.

“The thread of those connections that I made have lasted through my life. I graduated thirty years ago and I’m still close with lots of my classmates, and I have no regrets of having gone [to RMC]. I’m glad that that’s how my experience turned out. It was a good experience.”