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1989: Canada's first female fighter pilots cleared for takeoff

For generations, women looking for a career in Canada's air force were limited to non-combat roles, such as nurses and secretaries. That all changed on this day in 1989, when Deanna Brasseur and Jane Foster became the first women in Canada - and perhaps the world -- to graduate from the gruelling CF-18 jet fighter program. In this clip from CBC Television's Front Page Challenge, Brasseur looks back at the physical toll of the job and the significance of breaking the gender barrier.

An unlikely crusader for women's rights, Brasseur began her military life in the early 1970s as a 19-year-old typist. Inspired by her father's accomplished career in the RCAF, Brasseur soon applied to become an officer, launching what would become a series of firsts for women in the military. Over the space of 21 years she would have to endure pain, prejudice and sexual persecution, before she would be allowed behind the controls of one of the most deadly fighter planes in the world.
• Deanna Marie Brasseur was born on Sept. 9, 1953, in Pembroke, Ont., to Lionel Brasseur and Marie Aucoin. Her father was a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
• When she was growing up Brasseur admired planes and flying, but she never dreamed she would ever get the chance to be a fighter pilot. "When I was going through high school, women were supposed to be nurses or teachers," she told the Ottawa Citizen in June 1989. "And you only did that until you got married. Then you were supposed to stay home."

• In 1972, Brasseur dropped out of university and joined the Canadian military. The 19-year-old's first posting was as a typist in a dental office at CFB Winnipeg.
• At the time, there were only three employment options available for women in military; finance clerk, supply technician or administrative clerk.
• The following year she applied and was accepted for the officer candidate training program, and became a weapons controller at a bunker in North Bay, Ont.

• As Brasseur helped direct jets from the ground, she also enrolled in high-altitude training to prepare her for the possibility of one day taking the controls herself. When she tried to sign up for military flight lessons, she was denied. She took private lessons instead.
• In 1979, the Canadian military opened the ranks up to women pilots with Brasseur being among four women selected to enter basic pilot training. In February 1981, she and two others became the first women to earn their "wings" as a military pilot.

• "A lot of the guys were not overly enthusiastic about having women in the program," she told The Discovery Channel in 1988. "They either wouldn't talk to you, or they wouldn't acknowledge your presence... that was challenging to feel like you belonged to a place where everything was telling you that you didn't belong."
• In the summer of 1988, Brasseur and Jane Foster became the first women selected for a special CF-18 training program in Cold Lake, Alta. The unique program crammed a four-year university course into one year. It required 18-hour days dedicated to studying the elaborate controls of the high-tech CF-18 Hornet.

• "We felt like a guinea pig, like fish in a fishbowl," she told the Windsor Star in 1998. "We felt like if we didn't pass the course we'd close the door on every woman who followed behind us. It's a lot of pressure."
• On June 9, 1989, Foster and Brasseur graduated from the program to become the first women qualified to fly Canada's most powerful plane. Their commander, Colonel David Jurkowski, told the Canadian Press they were "the only women in the world, to our knowledge, in that unique position."

• Not everyone agreed that the pair's accomplishment was a good thing. In November 1989, the leader of the fundamentalist Christian Heritage Party said God did not intend women for high-speed flight.
• "One sees the role of woman as giving and nurturing life," Ed Vanwoudenberg told the Canadian Press during the party's annual convention in Edmonton. "It's a woman's entire fulfilment - what their biological structure is ... physically the G-force is not conducive to a woman who would like to bear a child."

• Though she served in Europe and Canada, Brasseur never took part in any combat missions. In 1991, while her squadron was serving in the Gulf War, she was grounded as a result of a nerve injury in her left elbow.
• After three years as an aircraft accident investigator, Brasseur retired from the military at the age of 41. She left after logging 2,500 hours of flying time.
• Her colleague Foster left in 1989, six months after passing her CF-18 training.

• In 1998, a Maclean's story on sexual abuse in Canada's Forces prompted Brasseur to go public with her own experiences. In the June 1 edition of the magazine, Brasseur claimed that during her 21-year career she faced unwanted sexual advances, was raped by her enlisted boyfriend and was coerced into having sex with her flight teacher.
Medium: Television
Program: Front Page Challenge
Broadcast Date: Feb. 8, 1991
Guest(s): Deanna Brasseur
Host: Fred Davis
Panellist: Pierre Berton, Allan Fotheringham, Betty Kennedy, Jack Webster
Duration: 10:23

Last updated: January 31, 2012

Page consulted on March 4, 2014

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