Canada's first female infantry officer breaks silence on abuse in revealing new memoir

Sandra Perron, Canada’s first female infantry officer, is seen here at home with her old uniform. Photo from Getty Images

After years of silence, Canada’s first female infantry officer, Sandra Perron, has penned a memoir about the misogyny she experienced in the military and the changes she hopes will be made someday.

Experiences like being tied to a tree and beaten by a higher-up in Gagetown, N.B., during a training exercise are detailed in Perron’s new book, Out Standing in the Field, released Thursday. She still maintains that the public perception that she was abused during the training exercise is incorrect and says some of her other experiences in the military (such as her experiences with her peers during training) were far more damaging in the long run.

Now 51, Perron discussed her military career and her memoir with Maclean’s. Here are some of the key parts of her story:

Her teen years were formative in her pursuit of a combat role

Her participation in Cadets as a teenager was responsible for her belief that she could serve in a combat role, Perron told Maclean’s, even more so than growing up in a military family. “Cadets never put up barriers for girls and young women,” she said. “So when I finally joined the military, I was convinced that there was nothing I couldn’t do based on being a woman.”

She dealt with sexual harassment during her military career

Perron experienced sexual harassment throughout her infantry officer training and claims her instructors were aware it was happening. She said the intention behind her experience, which included having information kept from her and being bullied and harassed, was “hateful” and the resulting stress was worse than anything physical she experienced during that time. “Without knowing what is going on, you’re always struggling in an environment where you need your team members to survive, where you’re interdependent,” she said. “If you don’t have that, then the stress is just through the roof.”

Like many other women in the military, she was sexually assaulted

Perron joined the army at 18 and was sworn in at 19. She was then sent north of Toronto to Camp Borden, where she says that she was sexually assaulted — something that is unfortunately not uncommon for women in the military. According to Statistics Canada, 27 per cent of women in the Canadian military said they had been sexually assaulted at least once since starting their careers. But Perron didn’t label her assault as rape, or even discuss it at all, until she wrote her memoir. She became pregnant as a result of the assault and chose to have an abortion, which she also discusses in the book. “It was only when I wrote this book that I came to truth with the gravity of it, the wrongness of it, and that it wasn’t my fault,” she told Maclean’s.

She would advise women in her position today to react differently

“The first thing I would say now to any young person assaulted would be to do something about it, to report it,” Perron told Maclean’s. But her belief at the time that a rape accusation would ruin her reputation and possibly her military career ultimately kept her from coming forward then, she said. She apologizes in her book for not coming forward about her experiences sooner. But Perron also told Maclean’s that some of the barriers that kept her from reporting her assault at the time still unfortunately exist today.

She’s still loyal to the Canadian Forces

Perron told Maclean’s that she remains hopeful about the military’s ability and desire to move forward and change. She wants this even though she also worries about her abusers, who now hold high-ranking positions in the Forces. “When you’ve been so loyal to an organization, it becomes like family, and you believe that it can change, and be more accommodating to the likes of me and the diversity that it tries so hard to attract,” she said.