ST. STEPHEN – Meghan Coates (née Cleghorn) never thought about a military career growing up in St. Stephen.
In high school she wanted to go to university for forensic sciences and had been accepted to University of Toronto’s Erindale College. Not until a career day at her high school where she had the chance to speak with a recruiter did she consider going into the military. Her parents, Debbie and Bill Cleghorn, were quite taken aback when she came home and told them she was changing tack.
“She came home one day and said I’m going in the military,” said her father. That was that and she got enrolled at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
Coates only found out just before her graduation from high school that she had been accepted into the officer training program and awarded a scholarship for her university education. She chose the Royal Canadian Navy because she felt it would be the best option to allow her to maintain her active lifestyle and to see more of the world. Another factor in choosing the Navy over the Army or Air Force was showers.
“I like having a hot shower even if it’s a 30-second shower onboard.”
She related that both the Air Force and Army, in general, get posted to specific bases whereas the Navy goes pretty much anywhere and that appealed to her sense of adventure and the broader experience base appealed to her.
In university, she was the only naval member of a Canadian military team to travel to the United States Military Academy to participate in a competition called Sanders.
While she served as executive officer of HMCS Calgary, a Halifax-class frigate, the ship conducted the largest heroin seizure in the history of the Combined Maritime Forces as part of Operation Artemis in the Arabian Sea. These operations are part of the Canadian contribution to the anti-terrorism effort. The team on Calgary also broke records for the largest dollar value of drugs seized and the most boardings by a single unit.
In November 2020, Coates was promoted to her current rank of Commander. As commanding officer, she is the top officer on a ship. Her ship is the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Regina. Her role is to ensure that the 250 sailors in her command are prepared and trained to accomplish their mission. The executive officer and cockswain, or chief petty officer first class, are the next two in line and they are largely responsible for the non-commissioned contingent of the ship.
Coates has been in the Royal Canadian Navy for 23 years. She and her husband, Matthew, have moved up the ranks together. He holds the rank of Captain (Navy), which is a rank above Coates. She is working toward achieving that rank in the next few years. They are one of the relatively few couples who have continued their military careers to this level while also raising a family. The couple has two sons, aged 11 and eight. It has been difficult at times but Coates and her husband have made it work. She said the defence department has accommodated them as best as possible and tried to allow the parents to be stationed together as much it could. The military is all their sons have known and that life – moving frequently, one parent being away for extended periods at times – is “their normal and they don’t know anything else. It’s what works for them.”
Coates recognizes the people who came before her and who made it possible for she and her husband to achieve what they have. She also praised the female naval warfare officers who have commanded ships before her and who broke the glass ceiling for those who have come after.
“I’m really proud of where I am. Being a commanding officer is the pinnacle of a naval warfare officer’s career. I am grateful for all the women who have pushed the barrier so I can be here today.”
There have only been a handful of women who have commanded a major warfare vessel such as a frigate. More have commanded some of the smaller warfare vessels and Arctic patrol ships.
“We’re growing in numbers. We’re getting there and we’re here to stay and there are quite a few coming up.”
Eventually, when Coates is promoted to the rank of Captain (Navy), she will no longer be on a ship and “all roads end in Ottawa,” because that’s where the majority of the jobs are for senior ranking officers.