03/12/2013 08:36 EDT | Updated 05/12/2013 05:12 EDT

1st Woman To Lead Air Force Squadron Wants To Lead Liberals


Karen McCrimmon, a veteran of Afghanistan and the first woman to command an air force squadron, would be a star catch for a political party and perhaps that was what she was when she ran — albeit unsuccessfully — against Conservative MP Gordon O'Connor, a retired Brigadier-General, in the Ottawa area during the last federal election.

But since that foray was the sum of her political experience, it's hard to get her say why she aspires to head the Liberal party and potentially become prime minister.

"I have proven leadership under fire," she said in an interview. "I've made hundreds of life and death decisions — that part I know I can deal with."

She also thinks the country is "on the wrong track."

"I want to know that I did everything I could to change the trajectory this country is on," she said.

Served in Afghanistan

No candidate still standing in the eight-member federal Liberal leadership race can afford to say a win is not realistic, but if pressed, McCrimmon, who retired in 2006 as a lieutenant colonel, will identify the portfolio she has her eye on — veterans' affairs.

"I'm working with veterans advocacy groups now," she said. "We are not living up to our obligations to our veterans. It's not working." She admits the new veterans' charter, designed for those who served in Afghanistan and criticized for shortchanging disabled soldiers, was a Liberal construct.

"We should acknowledge that," she said. "It's a mess."

Retired military candidates have lately veered towards the Conservative party, mindful of former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier's characterization of the Chrétien Liberal era of defence cuts as the "decade of darkness." McCrimmon says some of her military friends call the Harper era "the decade of dimness."

"There was a saying in the military. If you want new kit, vote Conservative. If you want pay and pension, vote Liberal."

McCrimmon spent much of her career as a navigator on the C-130 massive Hercules transport planes. She drove the roads in Afghanistan and did a stint as a senior staff officer at NATO.

'I'm not one of those silver-tongued devils'

Yet, despite courses at Harvard Law School and a second career as a conflict negotiator, McCrimmon admits participating in the leadership debates in front of a national audience hasn't been easy for her.

"I probably have a plainer way of speaking. I'm not one of those silver-tongued devils," she said.

Like almost every leadership candidate, she favours legalizing marijuana. Carbon pricing is "something we're going to have to get to."

As for the Northern Gateway pipeline, McCrimmon says she's not a fan, and that oil sold to the U.S. is already discounted.

"China's not going to pay us any more for our oil than the Americans are. So let's keep it at home, let's be energy-independent. Let's ship it to the East [eastern Canada], let's make the investments in refining it ... and create the jobs here at home."

Dropping out 'makes no sense'

On fellow candidate Joyce Murray's proposal for one-time electoral co-operation with the NDP and the Green Party, McCrimmon says, "I wish I thought it would work." She points out that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has said he's not interested.

Even if he were, McCrimmon says, Mulcair will look at the issue tactically and do what's best for the NDP rather than what's best for Canada.

"You're putting all your eggs in one basket, and you're giving it to Thomas Mulcair ... He's a political fighter," she said.

Asked about fundraising and the number of supporters she's signed up for her campaign, McCrimmon doesn't resort to spin. Money raised is "not enough." Supporters number "in the hundreds." But she won't consider pulling out of the race.

"As soon as you drop out of the race, your opportunity for fundraising dies. It makes no sense to drop out. Absolutely none. Zero, nada, nothing. Because you're left holding the whole bag. And then you've quit."

When McCrimmon started in the military as an administrative clerk, she says it was the only position at the time for a woman. But for someone who became the first Canadian female air navigator and then the first Canadian female air squadron commander, long odds don't put her off.

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