What It's Like to Work for the Canadian Army (& Be Deployed)

Captain Chantal Totosy—who joined the army when she was 24—tells us what it's *really* like



Chantal Totosy dressed in her army uniform with her brown hair in a low bun and a Canadian flag on her arm with army vehicles in the background

(Courtesy: Captain Chantal Totosy)

Age: 35
Rank: Captain
Education: Degree in political science and international relations from York University
Length of time in the Canadian Armed Forces: 11 years

You joined the Canadian Armed Forces in during your third year of university. What made you decide to enlist?

A friend and I we went to a career fair and he saw the army booth and wanted to go over. I followed him, not super interested at the time but we talked to the recruiters and I became more and more intrigued by what the military had to offer. I realized that most of my disinterest was due to ignorance; I learned about a lot of programs that the military has to offer in respect to not only just being a soldier but organizations such as Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC). At the time, I wanted to travel the world and I thought, What better way to do that than to be with the army? So, I decided that I would try it out.

What is the process like getting into the army as a reservist?

When I went to the recruiting centre—mind that this was 11 years ago so it may have changed a little bit and my memory isn’t perfect—there was an aptitude test, a physical test and a medical test, and once you pass all of those, then they provide you with a list of trades that you can join. You don’t actually have to have completed high school to join the military, but you have to have a least a grade 10 or 11, so the aptitude test is set for a minimum standard. To join as an officer, which is more of a leadership/management position, you have to be enrolled in university and then you have to go to an officer review board. The review board is three to four officers who are already in the regiment and one from outside; they ask you a bunch of questions about your personal life experience and just sort of get a good idea of who you are as a person and whether or not you would fit into that regiment as an officer.

After you were accepted into the Canadian Armed Forces, what came next?

Basically, you do your basic military qualifications where you learn how to be a soldier and, for officers, how to be a leader as well. In that first course you learn how to march, salute, carry a weapon, clean the weapon and shoot the weapon. You learn how to march on parade, and march in the field. You go out to the field and learn certain field crafts like hygiene, camouflage, concealment. You learn a little bit of military history, what it means to have the military ethos, how to relate to people and how to follow orders and the orders process.

I can see some people being hesitant or unsure about the idea of holding a weapon and being engaged in combat. Was that a struggle for you at all?

Well, I was a junior forest warden growing up so I had held and had fired a shotgun before, so that wasn’t new to me. But they teach you how to be OK with holding a weapon and what the process is and not to baby it. It’s not considered a toy or something to treat lightly, it’s a tool that’s meant to be used. I feel like that training enabled me not to be worried about anything.

You work as a logistics officer; for those who don’t know, what does that entail?  

It’s my job to make sure that everyone on the combat arms has what they need to be able to do their job. So, I’m responsible for the supplies, the transportation, the food, the administration and basically the overall ability for a soldier to accomplish what they need to accomplish. Right now, my job is working as the organizer and planner for the Invictus Games, coordinating and facilitating the Armed Forces’ role in the games.

Do you typically work 9-to-5 hours?

Yes and no. I do have a 9-to-5 job, but when there is anything outside those hours, obviously we’re there to facilitate.

Chantal Chantal Totosy escorting Brigadier General Stephen Cadden, Commander of the 4th Canadian Division (The Army in Ontario) as he inspects the troops. She is in her formal uniform, and the photo is shot through a crowd and she is looking at the general as he inspects the troops

Chantal Chantal Totosy escorting Brigadier General Stephen Cadden, Commander of the 4th Canadian Division (The Army in Ontario) as he inspects the troops (Courtesy: Chantal Totosy)

As a reservist you can also self-identify as wanting to go on a deployment. You did that and were sent to Afghanistan from April to November 2010. What made you decide to put your name forward?

I was finishing school and I wanted to travel and support Canada overseas. I wanted to be a part of the solution—I know it sounds cheesy—to make the world a better place.

When you got out there, was it what you expected?

Yeah, I would say so because my training was very relevant. I was a duty officer so I worked in an operations centre and my responsibility was to manage and control the movement of supplies and personnel to the Florida operating bases so we did a lot of training in order to be well prepared for that. I did two months of training in California before that at a base that sort of emulated what it would be like to be in Afghanistan, and practiced everything that we needed to be doing once we were there. So, I felt well prepared.

What was the environment like when you were there?  

It was really hot. It was very sandy, with lots of wires and cement. I was in in Kandahar Airfield, which was a base of about 20,000 to 30,000 people—from all the nations that were there to support the war. I had very long hours, like 14-hour days, in the operation centre, doing a lot of briefings and maintaining command and control over what was happening with the national support element that I worked for.

Was there anything about being deployed that surprised you?

It’s hard to say because I had already travelled a lot before that point so I didn’t have the same sort of impact of being in a developing country as I might have if I had never seen that situation before. Emotionally, it was a little bit more difficult to manage, but I don’t think I started to realize that until after I got back. I was in an operation centre and removed from the situation, but we had to manage the video feeds from the UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, i.e. drones] that were flying around. So even though it was like watching TV, you knew that it was real so that had an impact. That would maybe be the most surprising. I also stopped dreaming while I was there, which was pretty interesting. 

What was it like coming back to Canada and civilian life after that experience?  

It was almost a year since I had seen my family and friends so, it took me a while to realize that their lives had moved on. My friends’ babies were a year older; their lives had carried on and changed.

Were you able to process what you had seen on the video feeds and everything else you were exposed to while you were over there?

Well it’s good to have a network of people to talk to about it. There’s also a decompression program at a third-party location that everybody goes through for several days post-deployment, so you have some time before moving back to your family and friends. You’re taught about mental health and all the resources that are available to you when you need them; the program also allows you to go out and have a little bit of fun. So, it’s not as abrupt a change in environment and all of that.

What do you get asked most frequently when people find out you’re in the armed forces?

I get asked a lot about women, and the percentage of women [in the army] and the role of women. And there is no mistaking the stigma in certain cases, with the older generations, but I personally haven’t had any strong negative experiences.

Do you feel pressured to work even harder because there aren’t as many women in your field?

I definitely felt that I had something to prove in the beginning. Now I feel secure enough in my own capabilities as a logistics officer and as a captain.

What advice do you have for someone who is considering a career in the Armed Forces?

Ask a lot of questions and do a little bit of research into what it is you would like to do and what is that you want to get out of it—and when you get there, give it your all.

And finally, at the end of your day, how do you unwind?

My subway ride home is about an hour and I usually read a book and that’s how I release what I’ve done during that day. Right now, I’m reading The Other Hand by Chris Cleave.

What It’s Really Like to Be a Maximum-Security Prison Guard
What It’s Really Like to be in the Canadian Armed Forces
Trump Tweets to Ban Transgender Troops—But How Does Canada’s Military Stack Up?