Perseverance and passion

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Crowsnest - Spring 2014 / April 24, 2014

By Darlene Blakeley

She’s a powerful woman according to the Women’s Executive Network. But she’s also a mother, teacher, mentor and citizen sailor.

Captain (Navy) Jill Marrack, Deputy Commander of the Naval Reserve, has been honoured as one of Canada’s top 100 most powerful women, an award that recognizes high achieving female leaders in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. A logistics officer from Thunder Bay, Ont., she received an award under the Public Sector Leaders category “in recognition of her leadership, vision and strategic guidance of the Naval Reserve Formation, and as an example for all women who aspire to executive leadership roles.”

“It was a tremendous honour to be recognized,” says Capt(N) Marrack. “All the women identified were inspiring and reinforced that with a positive attitude, perseverance and exceptional work ethic, we can exceed our dreams.”

Capt(N) Marrack’s dream began in the 1970s when the Canadian government introduced the Summer Youth Employment Program. This program, funded jointly by the Secretary of State and the Department of National Defence, offered young Canadians the opportunity to undergo eight weeks of general military training during summer holidays.

“At the end of the eight weeks, enthralled with the experience of being ‘at sea’ in Northern Ontario and challenged to lead, I was hooked and applied to join Naval Reserve Division HMCS Griffon in Thunder Bay,” says Capt(N) Marrack. 

After completing an honours degree in geography at Lakehead University, she began her career as a teacher while continuing to work in the Naval Reserve at a number of positions on the West Coast. She eventually returned to Thunder Bay as the commanding officer of Griffon, and then moved to Naval Reserve Headquarters in Québec City where she is currently employed as a full-time sailor.

Successfully combining her military knowledge and theoretical understanding of administrative issues while completing a placement with the Singapore Institute of Management, she also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Athabasca University.

Capt(N) Marrack’s busy life is all about balance. While maintaining a demanding work schedule, she rigorously pursues a variety of sports, in particular cross country skiing – she is a three-time winner of the Thunder Bay 50-kilometre Sibley Ski Tour. She also has two sons, and succeeding as a mother is essential. “My children are very supportive and understanding when supper does not make it to the table until 8 p.m.,” she says. “One of the principles I have followed is to live close to work. I have almost always been able to walk to work. This saves time and allows me to arrive home refreshed for evening activities.”

Capt(N) Marrack is passionate about the Naval Reserve and believes it is “critically important” to Canada. “We have a huge country with two principle navy bases [Halifax and Victoria] thousands of kilometres apart,” she explains. “It is the Naval Reserve which fulfills Walter Hose’s recognition that between the two dockyards there is a requirement to inform Canadians about the need for a navy. It is not often that a teacher in Murillo, Ont., for example, reflects on the fact that the fixture he just bought from Canadian Tire would not be on the store shelf without the navy. It is the navy that guarantees the freedom of the sea for merchants.”

Capt(N) Marrack says that with the end of the Cold War, all Reserve organizations have become more professional. “Canada’s Naval Reserve has followed suit. The degree of professionalism is evident, for example, in the work of HMCS  Edmonton in Operation Caribbe – they were instrumental in the seizure in one day of 639 kilograms of cocaine, helping to keep illicit drugs from entering Canada.”

Her pride in Naval Reserve sailors is evident. “There are no finer Canadians than those who choose to serve in the Naval Reserve. They unselfishly put the interests of the organization ahead of their own. This is exemplified in the rescheduling of exams prior to summer training and the lengths they go to ensure their civilian employers will permit them to help during domestic emergencies such as flooding in Quebec in 2011 or tragedies such as SwissAir disaster in 1998.”

Capt(N) Marrack credits several people with her continued success, from her parents and sisters to former commanding officers and coxswains who taught her that if you are willing to persevere and feel passionately about the contribution you can make to an organization, you will thrive.

She also believes that the Royal Canadian Navy has been receptive to women in leadership roles for some time. In 1989, Lorraine Francis Orthlieb became the first woman to hold the rank of commodore; in 2009 Commander Josée Kurtz was the first woman appointed to command a major warship – HMCS Halifax; and in 2011, Jennifer Bennett became the first woman to reach the rank of rear-admiral, as well as the first woman to be appointed Chief Reserves and Cadets, the Canadian Armed Force’s highest Reserve Force position.

Capt(N) Marrack says that other senior leaders such as Rear-Admiral (retired) Ray Zuliani, also helped pave the way by fully integrating women into his ship’s company despite, at the time, a lack of designated shipboard accommodation for female sailors. “I think that the glass ceiling exists in our own perceived limitations,” says Capt(N) Marrack. “I believe that anyone who is committed to hard work will succeed.”

She adds, however, that she would like to work with NATO allies to encourage them to mentor their female officers in overcoming perceived barriers. “The strongest teams comprise men and women, and the defence challenges of the future will require our collective wisdom,” she says.

The impact and experience of growing up in Northern Ontario, serving on the West Coast and living in Quebec has built a huge sense of national pride in Capt(N) Marrack. She also knows that the Naval Reserve has enabled both herself and other citizen sailors to excel as leaders in an organization that demands dedication and hard work, but delivers the challenge, satisfaction and recognition of achievement.