Most Canadians first encountered Sandra Perron in 1996 in a leaked, four-year-old photograph on the front pages of their daily newspapers showing the then soldier tied to a tree at CFB Gagetown after being beaten and forced to stand four hours barefoot in the snow.
As traumatic as that over-zealous training incident was for Perron at the time, her torture by fellow soldiers was not the reason she left the military in 1996 after 16 years. Instead, she writes in a forthcoming explosive memoir, it was an accumulation of years of being subjected to almost daily sexual harassment and obscene insults by her comrades and the reluctance of her superiors to give her jobs appropriate for her top-of-the-class marks, skills and experience simply because she was a woman.
“I was tired of fighting and trying to show everyone that I could be good at this,” the former Capt. Perron writes in Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer.
Now based in Gatineau, the former Van Doos officer launches her memoir April 6 amid the tanks and other historic military equipment located in the LeBreton Gallery of the Canadian War Museum. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is scheduled to address the launch.
“How amazing is that!” Perron exclaimed in a recent interview.
As well, “20 generals and flag (naval) officers” promised to attend. Perron interprets this gathering of top military brass as a show of support for her and a sign of a growing resolve to combat sexual discrimination in the military.
Perron says Sajjan, a former soldier and turban-wearing Sikh, has also suffered from discrimination in the military.
“I had supper with him the other day and we had a long discussion about this and I asked him to come to this event and he said, ‘Yes,’ without hesitation. I said: ‘But you haven’t even read the book; this is not a pretty story,’ and he said, ‘You have credibility.’”
Sajjan and Perron served simultaneously for a time at CFB Gagetown. The minister seemed to be aware of the difficulties Perron had there. She quotes the minister as saying: “I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my god, if I went through all I went through, all the discrimination, I can’t even imagine what she went through.’”
The minister’s support has alleviated Perron’s fears she was going to be treated “as the enemy” for writing her book. Instead, the military is sending a “powerful message” and “standing by me.” That “powerful message” comes as the military is increasingly facing complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination. Perron says military life is better for women today than when she served but much needs to be done.
Early in Perron’s 16 years in active military service (plus more years in the reserve), she was raped by another soldier. That resulted in an undesired pregnancy and an abortion. That was only the beginning.
As Perron’s career progressed, she was subjected to incessant sex-based bullying. Many of the nicknames referred to female genitalia. One group of male colleagues would, after Perron left a room, all sniff the chair where she had sat and then erupt with ribald laughter and jokes. Articles of clothing frequently disappeared. Colleagues repeatedly failed to tell her of schedule changes or important forthcoming activities. Male soldiers having lunch in the field would form a tight circle, preventing Perron from joining them. Obscene notes were placed in her pockets and obscene messages left on her phone. She was even given an F for her infamous Gagetown training session; she had failed to reveal any of the secret codes sought by the faux interrogators torturing her, resulting in a mock execution; she was told later she should have revealed a few secrets to save her life, a dead soldier being of no use to Canada.
Each slight, on its own, was deemed by Perron to be too petty for a complaint. But neither did the accumulation of years of this harassment result in a complaint. Perron now realizes the only way for an organization to change is for “victims” to speak up. But Perron says she hopes her book does not discourage women from joining the military.
“If my own daughter or nieces wanted to join the military, I’d be the first to drive them to the recruiting centre because it’s a wonderful career. I would encourage them to join and arm themselves with strength and mentoring and knowledge of what they should accept and not accept.”
Since leaving the military, Perron has worked for a variety of companies, including General Motors and Bombardier. She says she has encountered no sexism in the corporate world.
“I was valued for my differences. I was consulted to see how we could improve the workplace.”
Perron now works as a consultant for an Alberta company that teaches courses to first responders, social workers and others who daily deal with victims of trauma. Having served in war zones abroad – and a somewhat different war zone at home — Perron knows a few things about trauma.
Paul Gessell is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist.
FYI: Sandra Perron launches her book Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer April 6 at the Canadian War Museum at 7 p.m. The event is free and tickets are not needed but those wishing to attend are asked to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The book from the publisher Cormorant will not be generally available in stores until April 22. She will be part of a panel called Women’s Work on April 27, at 6:30 p.m. at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Also on the panel at Christ Church Cathedral are Raiyah Patel and Monia Mazigh.