One of Jill Marrack's most indelible Lakehead University moments takes place not in the classroom, but on the water.
"As part of the outdoor recreation program, we took a canoe trip down the Arkansas River," recalls the Thunder Bay native, who graduated with an honours degree in geography in 1988. The trip involved, she says, "some very tricky canoeing. And that was a real turning point for our class. It taught us how to work together in order to get through."
Today, as Deputy Commander of Canada's Naval Reserve, Capt. (N) Marrack is no stranger to tricky situations on the water, or the need for strong teamwork. From Reserve headquarters in Québec City, Jill manages the day-to-day logistics – recruiting, training, administration, finance – of just under 4,000 reserve sailors in 24 divisions across Canada, from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Victoria, British Columbia. She's also captain of the Reserve's Eastern region, responsible for its activities in Québec. A typical day may see Jill showing Canadian Governor General David Johnston around the HMCS Jolliet in Sept-Îles, or overseeing a change in command at Montréal's HMCS Donnacona.
– Capt. (N) Jill Marrack
No matter what she's doing, though, Jill's proximity to the St. Lawrence Seaway keeps her in touch with both her sense of duty and her sense of home. "I see ships here carrying windmills on the deck and I know that they're going to the wind farm in Thunder Bay."
"Our prime minister said recently that the Canadian economy floats on salt water," Jill points out. Still, she says, it's easy to forget that Canada has nearly 240,000 km of coastline, and to overlook the importance of its safety to our economy. "There are more than 100 ports on the St. Lawrence and 1,800 jobs related to the port in Thunder Bay alone. And for me, there's a real passion in seeing that seagoing traffic, in knowing that we're engaged in keeping the seaways open for trade."
Those who know her and who have worked with her can attest to the fact that Jill, 49, pursues her goals with a laser focus and a steely determination, tempered by a strong commitment to justice.
"Jill was always very driven, very focused on achievement," says her sister Pamela Delgaty – also a Lakehead alum, as is a third sister, Laura. "Whatever she decided to apply herself to, it was understood that she would succeed. Even when we were teenagers, I would be doing teenager-like things, and Jill would be training for marathons. When she was in high school, she won the Sibley 50 km cross-country skiing event three years in a row."
Her dedication and integrity also stood out to Commodore David Gagliardi, who first encountered Jill in the early 1990s when he was commanding officer and she was his logistics officer on the HMCS Porte Québec in Victoria. "At her core," says the Commodore, "she has a very strong moral imperative. She knows what is right and what is wrong, what is the moral course of action to take, and she isn't afraid to pursue it."
– Commodore David Gagliardi
By way of example, Commodore Gagliardi recalls an incident early on in his professional relationship with Jill. "I can be pretty blunt and I had made what I considered to be a throwaway remark to another officer in the unit, but that person perceived it to be quite hurtful. I was, quite frankly, oblivious. But Jill sat me down and said to me, 'You're wrong. And you need to fix this.'"
"When you're a commanding officer, that doesn't happen very often. But it was the right thing to do. And even though it was doubtlessly hard for her to do it, Jill did. I think that was when I really started paying attention to her ability to lead."
Other people have paid attention too: in 2013, Jill was named one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women's Executive Network (WXN). The awards, selected by an independent advisory board, recognize high-achieving female leaders in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors.
"I'm not surprised," the Commodore says of the recognition. "She's not someone who promotes herself, so it's quite significant that other people went out of their way to nominate her: it's a very powerful indication of her stature in the organization."
Jill had the opportunity to meet Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, early in her naval career
Jill's success is notable on its own terms, and even more so when you take into account – as it's impossible not to – her status as a woman in a male-dominated workforce. "When I started in basic officer training," she recalls, "I was the only woman. I had my own room to sleep in, because I couldn't be in the barracks with the guys." Jill is adamant that she has always been treated equally and respectfully, but – in a culture where even the radios are tuned to men's voices – her accomplishments are that much more hard-won.
That's changing – the Navy was the first branch of the Canadian military to begin the process of integrating women fully, and women in the naval reserves went to sea even before women in the regular naval forces did. "Today, women make up between 30 and 35% of our sailors," Jill points out. "And that's a good thing. I firmly believe that the strongest teams are the ones that have both men and women on them. We need to find a way for women to lead, to encourage them to take on leadership roles, and to encourage multiple styles of leadership in the military."
Jill and her son Ian enjoy a cross-country skiing outing in 2010
Jill certainly does her part to mentor the next generation of officers. "She's very good at encouraging participation from her subordinates and her team so that they come up with a more robust, complete, and effective plan," says Commodore Gagliardi.
For the women coming up in the ranks below her, Jill provides something she didn't have: a female mentor in the military. What makes her proudest, she says, is encouraging and contributing to the achievements of her team – both male and female members. "That's the most fulfilling part of the job."
Jill has had no shortage of strong female role models in her personal life. Family lore holds that her paternal great-grandmother, Caroline McGuire Woods, petitioned the Pope on behalf of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Both her grandmothers had productive careers – one worked for Senator Paterson, while the other was instrumental in running a family business, Anderson Block and Tile.
"We come from a long line of very intelligent women who have been quite exceptional," says Pam Delgaty, herself a community leader: she was one of the first graduates of Lakehead University's nurse practitioner program. Today she is the clinical director of the Lakehead Nurse Practitioner-Led clinic in Thunder Bay. "We were teachers and adventurers before women were these things. My dad taught us to be independent and to look after ourselves. Our mother ended up working for Elections Canada, which led to a stint at the United Nations, monitoring international elections in places like Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and in South Africa during Nelson Mandela's reign," says Pam.
Captain Jill Marrack welcomes Governor General David Johnston to the HMCS Jolliet naval reserve in eastern Québec during the division's Navy Week celebrations in September 2014 (Photo Credit: Sergeant Ronald Duchesne, Rideau Hall)
Jill's parents also instilled a love of travel in their three daughters, taking them on several extended tours of Europe guided by their late father, David Delgaty, a Lakehead alumnus and high school history teacher. Laura, who earned a master's degree in education at Lakehead, teaches at Newcastle University in the U.K., where she earned her PhD.
What's next for Captain Jill Marrack? On a personal level, she says, she's looking forward to seeing both her sons through high school and launched into university studies. Ian, 15, is in high school, while David, 18, is following family tradition and applying to Lakehead, with an eye on eventually attending its law school.
On a career level, Jill has her sights set on shattering another glass ceiling or two: she'd like to work abroad as a defense attaché at a Canadian embassy. Currently, she points out, there are only a small number of Canadian female military defence attachés.
Wherever she ends up, though, Jill will always return to Thunder Bay to visit family and friends. Each summer, she makes a point of spending time at the family camp on Silver Islet where she relaxes by cooking gourmet meals, reveling in her sons and extended family, and communing with the waters of Lake Superior. That's where it all began, and that's where she dreams of the future. "Looking at that great inland sea," Jill says, "the horizon is almost endless. The opportunities are endless."