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Christyn Cianfarani, president, Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries.

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

I arrive a couple of minutes early for our interview, but Christyn Cianfarani is already seated at the restaurant. She explains that if she isn't half an hour early, she feels late. Now I'm worried I've made a bad first impression with a military-type stickler.

But my fears fade as the head of Canada's defence industry association starts to talk. And order glasses of wine. And tell stories, while dextrously folding lettuce wraps. Like the one about a key meeting with South Korean defence officials who plied her with tea to apologize for assuming she was the assistant to her male employee, until she needed the washroom so badly "I thought I was going to die."

Ms. Cianfarani is no stickler.

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She believes, in fact, that her outgoing personality has been key to her success in a male-dominated industry like defence, saying she thinks it is easier to operate in a man's world if you are naturally more extroverted. As a university student at the Royal Military College in Kingston, for example, she says it helped that she was comfortable joking around with – and standing up to – the male students.

"You're always around guys, and you learn how to say, 'screw off – enough,' " she says. "I am a very vocal person about what I like and don't like, and that is helpful. If you don't have that, it's got to be harder."

We meet for lunch at Reds Wine Tavern in Toronto nearly a year into Ms. Cianfarani's tenure as president of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI). She is keen to use her new platform to promote a message that the defence industry is transforming and becoming more modern and diverse. It is not just a place for older, white, ex-military men.

Wearing a fitted dress in a vibrant blue pattern, the 43-year-old explains: "I would say I'm a very early representative of what you're going to see come out over the next five to 10 years, even though you would traditionally see a demographic of grey-haired men."

Canada's defence sector isn't easily defined. Because of the federal government's comparatively modest budget for military spending, most companies cannot exist as pure defence firms. They are typically mid-sized, technology-oriented companies that sell to both civilian and military buyers, with half the industry's $12.6-billion in annual sales coming from foreign markets.

Only about 5 per cent of Canada's defence companies make traditional weaponry. Many firms make technology for military or non-military buyers – such as landing gear that can be sold to commercial or military aircraft manufacturers.

The result is that most employees identify themselves as technology workers rather than defence workers, Ms. Cianfarani says. She was among them as a former executive at flight simulator maker CAE Inc., where she worked for 17 years before joining CADSI.

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She says she was drawn to join CADSI because the defence sector is awaiting a tsunami of new government purchasing projects, which have the potential to transform the industry if the procurement is handled well.

With everything from new war ships (worth an estimated $26-billion) to fighter planes (which could cost more than $40-billion) on the horizon, Canada's armed forces could buy more than $200-billion of new equipment in the coming 10 to 15 years, if an array of plans bear fruit.

Even if only half the spending actually occurs, Ms. Cianfarani says, the investment will be huge. And her message is that it needs to be steered in a way that benefits Canadian industry as much as possible – not just serving the interests of large foreign defence conglomerates.

"You're sitting on this gold mine of potential, with a crown jewel in your hands, that you can choose to use however you want," she says. "And even if the amount [of spending] is half or a quarter, it is still a sizable amount of money to do something significant for this country. That can't be understated."

Ms. Cianfarani was a self-defined tomboy who grew up in Leamington in Southern Ontario, where her first jobs as a teenager were picking tomatoes and cucumbers and "detasseling" corn, which involves stripping tassels off the plants to control pollination.

With money tight at home, she decided to apply to RMC because her university tuition and living costs would be covered in exchange for five years of military service afterward.

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At RMC, Ms. Cianfarani did an English degree, even though the majority at the school study sciences and engineering. All students at RMC also choose a military profession when they enroll, then earn the qualifications through their university training and summer postings.

She chose the role of a MARS (maritime surface and sub-surface) officer, and spent summers on ships learning navigation, charting, bridge watchkeeping and other "above-deck" skills related to leading ships' crews.

By the end of four years, however, Ms. Cianfarani was having misgivings about a career at sea, but was prepared to do her five years of post-graduation service.

"It's very hard to have a life when you're in the navy. Some trades are really lonely, and that's one of them," she says.

Then fate intervened. The federal Liberal government announced plans in 1995 to close or shrink military bases and reduce the size of the armed forces. Many forces members – including students from RMC – were offered the opportunity to leave, no strings attached. Ms. Cianfarani took it.

"I was given a great gift, and I don't take that for granted at all," she says.

Her next step was a master's degree in English at the University of Toronto, with the thought of becoming an English professor. But she quickly realized she was not cut out for a career in academia, saying employment opportunities were too uncertain and required years more study. She finished her master's program and decided to pursue a career in business instead.

After a year at brokerage firm Midland Walwyn Inc., she joined CAE in Montreal in 1997, launching herself into the aerospace sector. She moved through an array of roles in the company, working as manager of bids and proposals, manager of operational excellence, and director of government programs, research and development and intellectual property.

In 2012, while director of research and development at CAE, Ms. Cianfarani made a well-timed decision to join a panel of industry experts headed by Open Text Corp. chairman Tom Jenkins, who were asked to report on a new procurement process the Canadian government could use for its defence purchasing.

The panel's 2013 report recommended a new process – which was quickly adopted and is now in effect – whereby foreign companies bidding for defence contracts are awarded points for making specific, up-front commitments to contract part of their work to Canadian firms.

The "value proposition" system has replaced the older "offset policy" regime, which required companies to make matching investments in Canada. The problem was the spending didn't have to be specified up front and sometimes had no connection to Canada's defence or technology sectors.

The new program has the potential to be a "game changer" for Canada, Ms. Cianfarani argues, allowing the government to help channel investment in the defence sector where it has the greatest potential benefit.

But before any work can flow to Canadian firms, contracts have to be signed in the first place, and it's a common complaint that plans for various defence programs have been repeatedly unveiled, even proceeding to the point of seeking bids, then are scaled back or cancelled before the purchases are made.

Last December, for example, the federal government cancelled well-advanced plans for a $2-billion purchase of new armoured vehicles, saying it decided it doesn't need them. Two foreign bidders took the rare step of publicly complaining they had wasted millions preparing bids.

"We can't continue to send our people into a war zone without proper equipment. It's just not acceptable," she says. "I don't know any Canadian who would feel good about that, let alone people in the defence industry."

While business interests are important, she says people in Canada's defence industry also feel a personal commitment to ensuring that Canada's armed forces have better equipment.

Ms. Cianfarani feels the same commitment. She says some people ask her "crazy" questions about her decision to work for the defence industry – like whether it is a "nice" industry. She says no one she knows is an arms-monger keen on war.

"The first thing I say is that I'm still a human being and still a Canadian. I still have the value systems of most Canadians I know," she says. "It's one of the things we're trying to spend a lot of time working on is the perception of what is the defence industry in Canada, and how different it is from what people might think."

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Christyn Cianfarani, president, Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries

Age: 43

Family: Single, no children, one sister. She travels too much to have pets, but says her three orchids survive even with minimal watering. Her father, who had immigrated to Canada from Italy as a teenager, is strongly patriotic and was fully supportive of her decision to go to the Royal Military College.

For fun: She loves reading "cerebral" fiction, but when she is tired or on vacation, her guilty pleasure is to read historical romances. "I don't want it [set in] modern day. That's too hokey for some reason."

For pleasure: She is a "hard-core foodie," who is equally happy in a fancy restaurant or a place "with super sticky floors and the greasiest fries double-fried in oil." She works out for an hour every morning, but says it is mostly so she can indulge her love of food.

You would be surprised to learn: She says a large part of her body is tattooed – although nothing that shows in business attire. She has a love letter tattooed on her back, she says.

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