Canada’s first female infantry officer breaks silence on abuse

From 2017: After decades of relative silence, Sandra Perron says, ‘I felt guilty for having these secrets all my adult life’

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Sandra Perron during the POW exercise.

Sandra Perron. (Ross Macdonald)
Sandra Perron. (Ross Macdonald)

In 1990, Sandra Perron became a notable figure in Canada’s military history, the nation’s female infantry officer. She graduated near the top of her class in both combat training and the Airborne parachutist course, and joined the Royal Twenty-Second Regiment (the famed Van Doos). Perron deployed twice to peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia, the second time as an anti-tank platoon commander, which earned her the UN force’s exceptional service commendation. For all that she is best known for a single photo, taken during a training exercise in POW experiences in Gagetown, N.B., in 1992—Perron beaten, barefoot in the snow and tied to a tree. After two decades of relative silence on her career, Perron, at age 51, released the 2017 memoir Out Standing in the Field, a remarkable—and often confounding—testament to the Canadian Forces’ enduring misogyny and to Perron’s equally stubborn loyalty towards Canada’s military. She spoke with Senior Writer Brian Bethune.

Q: You were from a military family, and you internalized a lot of military culture growing up, but you never accepted the big concept: I can’t go into combat. You never accepted that.

A: Right, right. That’s funny that you say that. I never thought of it that way. As conforming as I am, that was one of the rules that I could never accept, that I could not do something based on my gender. And that’s partly because of cadets. Cadets never put up barriers for girls and young women. So when I finally joined the military, I was convinced that there was nothing I couldn’t do based on being a woman.

Q: Cadets at 14, joined the army at 18, sworn in at 19, then sent to Camp Borden, north of Toronto. Borden is where you were sexually assaulted, but you refused to think of it that way?

A: Quite honestly, I never once used the word rape until I wrote this book. I’ve never even talked about it before—never. At the time, I knew it was wrong, and every time over the years, the last 30 years or 25 years, I’ve heard stories about “no is no,” and I always think, well, that applied to me, but for some reason, I never went any further than that. 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.

Q: At the time though, to have thought that way would have ended your military dream, and that was intolerable?

A: Not even an option in my mind. It was never a consideration because I just knew that I would be blamed. I would be the one that caused it, the guilty party. I would not be taken seriously, and my reputation would be trashed. The first thing I would say now to any young person assaulted would be to do something about it, to report it. But I’m afraid that in some circumstances people still don’t understand the concept that no means no. You’ve seen the ‘Unfounded’ report back in February, I’m sure.

Q: Then, adding to the nightmare, you were pregnant from the assault, and had an abortion. This is also the first you’ve revealed about that? In your book your feelings are very, very clear and very raw, still. Why do you feel you want to talk about it now?

A: That’s a very tough question. I could no longer not write this book. I’ve been hiding these things from others, from myself for so long, and I felt guilty at having these secrets all my adult life, knowing that the only way things can evolve, that an organization can change is if victims—and I don’t like to use that word when I talk about myself—but if people tell their stories because you can’t change what you don’t know. And for me, it had to come out. I had to write this to deal with it.

READ MORE: From 1998: Rape in the military

Q: It’s too easy for institutions to keep sweeping things under the rug if no one speaks.

A: Of course, yeah. It’s hard to tell the story, but it comes a point in a person’s life where it’s even harder to keep pretending to be strong and unaffected and pretending that you’ve moved on. Because, you know, that’s not how it works. It follows, and it follows, and it follows us until we deal with it.

Q: This may surprise you, but there’s the odd moment reading your book when I laughed, once where you write, “It was another beautiful summer morning—the smell of gunpowder permeated the air,” which was oh-so-military of you, another after you aced an assignment and screamed, “I am goddamn made for this”…

A: Had you known me at that age, you would have rolled your eyes and said, “Yeah, that’s just who she is.”

Q: …which I mention it because it is evident you were goddamn made for the military. Yet, although all you wanted was to be inside it, most of your peers were determined to keep you outside. Your infantry officer training was one endless stretch of sexist harassment, with the instructors fully aware.

A: I don’t know to what level the instructors saw everything, but the consistent harassment, the bullying, the rejection, the keeping information from me—the intention behind all that was hateful. 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. If you don’t have that, then the stress is just through the roof. That was worse that any physical demand, because the intent was to make me fail, to have me leave the course. That hurt more than anything.

Q: In your book you remind me strongly of Romeo Dallaire, in your stubborn loyalty to an institution that has done much to let you down. You want in. You think that sticking out is going to hurt your chances more than fitting in. But you know you have to stick out—be better than the men—to fit in at all. You hate being the centre of attention. You know you will be the centre of attention no matter what. And you keep thinking that if you do the right things, your peers will come around. As a prospective lawyer said to you, “You just keep on defending the Canadian Forces.” Does this all still run through your mind in the same loop?

A: Very astute of you to put it that way. 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. So I’m still to this day hopeful and loyal and encouraged by what I’m hearing from the military, that the will is there to move forward and to change things. There’s still that little voice that says, “You’re delusional. Maybe you’re delusional.” But I wouldn’t keep at it if I didn’t think there wasn’t any hope.

Q: But there are entrenched antagonists too, for the most part, the elite military college guys you went through training with, the ones who made your life miserable. Given they’re about your age, they are in high ranks now.

A: That’s in the back of my mind. It worries me sometimes that those bullies are now in very high-ranking positions and have very powerful influence over the people under them. I don’t know if they’ve come around. I don’t know if they’ve changed or matured. My gut is that some have, some haven’t. They’ve actually moved up higher, more quickly, in the ranks as senior officers than most of the male officers who supported me. They’ve been rewarded for their behaviour.

Q: That means their misogyny hasn’t harmed them at all. Their behaviour, in fact, still works better in terms of career advancement. Is that something to be considered by any woman thinking of joining the CF?

A: Of course, because their attitudes perpetuate the culture that is repulsing diversity, so yes.

READ MORE: From 2004: Our military’s disgrace

Q: You had a complex mix of reactions to the other women you encountered in military life. How did you interact with wives as a rule?

A: I tried to lay low, basically. Because I deployed with their husbands, because I stayed in the same tent and slept right beside their husbands, I knew it could cause problems, so I stayed back from them. There were exceptions. I became friends with the odd one who was in a very strong and healthy relationship. But in general, there was arm’s length with the wives, and part of that was me. I didn’t want to be associated with the wives. I didn’t want to be put in the category of the wives. There was a very distinct line between those you work with and those you live with. And I looked more like the category of those you live with.

Q: That goes more to the heart of it, no? Worry over potential sexual jealousy is actually part of the old argument for keeping women out of combat. Categorization was a greater issue for you.

A: I had to fight that all the time. It was the same as the dilemma when they put me in with the nurses in Yugoslavia. It’s like, “But I’m not a nurse. That’s not the category of people I want to be in. I am on the fighting side, not the nursing side.” But they saw me physically as one of the nurses, the same way as they saw me at work as a woman who should be somebody’s wife. And I often was asked that question: “Are you waiting for your husband?”

Q: You reacted even more strongly to the nurses than to the combat officers who billeted you among them, when the women reached out to include you in their non-combatant female world. You felt nauseous.

A: Yeah. They meant well and I would probably react differently today, but back then I was fighting so hard to portray an image of a warrior, that any association with women, even if they were strong and brilliant and sharp and warriors themselves, it was like a danger zone for me.

Q: So much of your public image turns on that leaked photo of you at Gagetown, N.B., in 1992. To this day you believe the public perception that you were abused is wrong. I want to ask you about Capt. Michel Rainville, the superior officer in charge, the man who personally struck you. It’s difficult to find a good word for him on the public record. But you still think well of him?

Sandra Perron during the POW exercise.
Sandra Perron during the POW exercise.

A: I do. I do. I’m not saying that he’s a choir boy. I know that he’s done some things that we could discuss at length—debatable, debatable. But in my judgment, in relation to me, he was very, very tough on me, but he had his reasons, and he knew that I could take it. So to the person who reads what happened, it’s atrocious, it’s physical abuse, and I’m not saying that those judgments are wrong, but the intent behind what he did was to prove to the world that I was capable of taking a beating. And on that, I am not delusional. I guarantee that Mike Rainville was not doing those things to physically break me. He was testing me, and it was perhaps a lack of judgment on his part the way it happened and me freezing my feet and the blows. But it did not hurt me in the least compared to the things my peers did in training. I’ve had more flashbacks of those than being tied to a tree.

Q: Part of your thinking at the time, and still—to a degree—now, was the endurance test was necessary to convince the men that the women could take it? It was, in its way, a feminist reaction: when your then-partner, Kevin, reported the incident to higher authority, you were angrier at him for “betraying” you than at the guys who half-killed you. “I don’t need a hero,” you said to him.

A: Yes.

Q: When the photo went public years later, after you had left the army, it was discussed in all those late 1990s stories, including several Maclean’s covers, about the epidemic of rape in the military and women’s overall experiences in uniform. You did not comment on sexual assault, your own or others, and you regret that now: “Stronger and braver women were coming through with their accounts, and I apologize for not coming out with mine.” At the time, though, you were quoted only in defence of the photo and the POW exercise.

A: I felt that me being tied to a tree would be a convenient excuse for the officers who bullied me in training and at the battalion to say, “Well, see, it’s because of that that she left the army, not because of what we did.” It was convenient for them to blame it all on that one incident, and even when I tried to tell journalists, “That’s not what happened. That incident was not what you think it was,” I couldn’t overcome it because that photo is so powerful. The reporting in every major paper was, that’s the reason Canada’s first female infantry officer left the forces. That exercise was—I can’t say good, but it wasn’t abuse. I could never get my point across, and I didn’t feel strong enough to say it was all the other stuff. It was because they wouldn’t let me sit in their circle when we had lunch. Those things seemed so petty, I feared I would look like this victimized person. And I didn’t want that. I wanted the progress I had made to pave the way for women to continue, so they couldn’t say, “See, it’s a failure. Women can’t be in combat arms because look at all the crap that comes with it.”

Q: You made it through the training, you had two successful tours as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, but when the army decided to send you back to Gagetown as a junior training instructor—a demotion in all but name—you quit abruptly. Can you see what changed your mind about the military, looking back now?

A: In the book, I know it seems like I changed very quickly from, “Wow, I love this,” to “I have to get out.” It was like an epiphany, almost. Here I am now a seasoned soldier, officer. I’ve done my time. I’ve been commended, promoted, rewarded. I had paratrooper wings. I had medals. I had two tours of operations under my belt. I’ve done it, I’m accepted. I believe now. At that point, I could not tolerate junior officers not believing in me again. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just knew I couldn’t change the organization. I didn’t have the energy, the willingness to try and convince the whole army, and I knew that it was just going to be one test after another, that I would go to Gagetown, do one class, and then they’d be convinced, but then I’d have to do another one and start all over again. And I couldn’t do that anymore.

Q: The pendulum keeps swinging for you, though. Even after opening and closing your book with the Van Doos’ centennial celebration in 2015, where you hoped your former antagonists would apologize or at least acknowledge you—they did not—even after that, you think things are looking up. You’re willing to offer what help you can?

A: I am. I think that I wrote this book now because my gut was telling me that the military is willing to listen. They don’t necessarily have all the right tools or the knowledge to do everything it takes to make this culture a more welcoming one to women, but they’re trying. I think the will is there. And I’m going to do everything I can to help them move forward.

Q: Speaking of “tools,” you wrote that making the CF more suitable for women means more than just cramming women into the old paradigms. There needs to be new paradigms, and that is what the military is fighting instinctively.

A: Yes. I think the military needs to do some very hard work in mentoring, scorecards, exit interviews, coaching, and designing exercises where the differences of women and visible minorities and indigenous people are valued and brought forward. We want other soldiers to think, “Wow, we really need these people on our team,” instead of “We have to tolerate them because that’s what the Chief of Defence Staff told us to do.” It’s not going to be easy.

Q: Twenty years ago the CF said it had a handle on the sexual assaults—not just the fact of them, but how to respond to them—but what has really changed?

A: I know. I know. But what can you do? Do you just give up? You know, do you just say this will never get better? No. No, no, no. You just have to keep at it because it has to happen. The military has to evolve. Women are too important to it to not get this right. They cannot afford to not get this right.

Q: In your heart, you’re still a Van Doo, aren’t you?

A: I will always be a Van Doo.