Commodore Laraine Orthlieb: Breaking barriers and inspiring change

Commodore Laraine Orthlieb. RCN

Commodore Laraine Orthlieb: Breaking barriers and inspiring change

By Lieutenant (Navy) John Foster and 2nd Lieutenant Joel Breton

In the tapestry of Canadian military history, certain people stand out as trailblazers who shattered glass ceilings and forged paths for future generations. Commodore (Retired) Laraine Orthlieb is one of those people. As she recently marked her 85th birthday, it’s an opportune moment to reflect upon her extraordinary contributions to the Royal Canadian Navy and the lasting impact she has left on the community through her involvement in The Naval Museum.

Cmdre Orthlieb’s journey to become the first woman in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve promoted to the rank of Commodore spanned a lifetime of remarkable achievements. Born in 1938 in Saint John, New Brunswick, she grew up in an era when gender roles were firmly entrenched. Yet, from a young age, Orthlieb displayed a resolute determination to break free from the conventional norms that sought to limit her ambitions.

While she had first enrolled in the navy as a nurse in 1959, she chose to raise a family and work as a civilian Registered Nurse – until 1974 when she rejoined the Naval Reserve. She then reclassified to a trade known as “Naval Control of Shipping,” as she hoped to go to sea. Little did she know, this desire was to be one of her first steps in a significant career shift. When asked, Cmdre Orthlieb recalls one situation, which demonstrates her willingness to push the boundaries that were firmly set in place at the time:             

“An early memory was when I heard that the training at sea was canceled, as there were not enough seamen available. I had asked many times over the years to go to sea. I was always told that women did not go to sea in the navy. I proposed to the Commanding Officer (CO) that the women in Tecumseh could augment the crew. He said it was not possible. One of the many reasons he mentioned was that women could not sleep aboard ship. I asked the Seaman’s Mess for funds. They came to our rescue and donated the funds for night accommodation ashore. 

I made a detailed plan, and after several attempts to convince the CO, he agreed that the women could augment the crew. We knew that if we did not perform well, we might never get the chance again. The other women and I did an excellent job onboard the ship! That was the beginning; that first experience of finally getting the opportunity to go to sea.”

Her determination and willingness to go above and beyond earned her higher levels of responsibility. In 1983, 24 years after her enrolment, she took command of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Tecumseh, a Naval Reserve Division (NRD) based in Calgary, Alberta. This appointment was historic, as it made her the first woman to assume such a high-ranking leadership role within HMCS Tecumseh.

Orthlieb’s tenure as Commanding Officer of HMCS Tecumseh from 1983-87 was marked by a commitment to excellence and a passion for fostering inclusivity. Under her guidance, the NRD flourished, achieving new levels of professionalism and readiness. This excellence was noted. In 1985 HMCS Tecumseh won the Award for Best Naval Reserve Division. They won the award for demonstrating excellence at both the leadership level and at every level below. Her dedication to the proud men and women under her command earned her the respect and admiration of her colleagues, setting a high standard for future leaders.

Breaking barriers wasn’t without its challenges. Cmdre Orthlieb faced skepticism and resistance along the way, but her unwavering resolve and competence silenced the doubters. Her rise through the ranks sent a clear message: gender should never prevent someone from achieving their full potential. As proof of her determination, she was promoted to Commodore in 1989, making her the first woman to achieve the position of Flag Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy.

Beyond her distinguished naval career, Orthlieb’s contributions extended to preserving the rich maritime heritage of Canada. She played a pivotal role in the establishment of The Naval Museum of Alberta, a vital component of The Military Museums complex in Calgary, Alberta. Her passion for naval history, and her dedication to sharing it with the public were instrumental in making the museum a reality.

The Naval Museum of Alberta is a treasure trove of artifacts, stories, and memorabilia that pay homage to Canada’s naval history. It’s a place where visitors can explore the nation’s maritime past and gain an appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who served in the Royal Canadian Navy. Orthlieb’s vision and tireless efforts ensured that this institution would endure as a lasting tribute to Canada’s naval heritage.

Commodore (Retired) Laraine Orthlieb’s journey is a testament to her determination and capacity to transcend barriers. Her pioneering spirit paved the way for countless women and men who aspire to lead in the Canadian military. Her legacy is etched not only in the history of the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve but also in the hearts of those who have had the privilege of serving under her command and those who have explored The Naval Museum of Alberta.

As we celebrate her 85th birthday, let us recognize and honor the indomitable spirit of Commodore (Retired) Laraine Orthlieb — a trailblazer, a leader, and a guardian of Canada’s naval heritage. Her story serves as a reminder that courage, dedication, and a pioneering vision can reshape the course of history.