Books·How I Wrote It

How Sandra Perron found the courage to tell her story

In Out Standing in the Field, Canada's first female infantry officer tells the true story of her years in service.
Sandra Perron revisits her military career in her memoir Out Standing in the Field. (Ross Macdonald/Cormorant Books)

Sandra Perron made military history in 1990 as Canada's first female infantry officer. Now, her revealing memoir, Out Standing in the Field, about her experiences in the country's Armed Forces is on the longlist for Canada Reads 2018.

Perron recently spoke with CBC's Ottawa Morning about Out Standing in the Field, and how she found the courage to write about the abuse she endured during her time in the service. 

A polarizing presence 

"My presence in the infantry was very polarizing for the men. So there were champions of diversity, they were way ahead of their time, they supported me, they protected me. And then there were the people on what I call the other side of my own 'front lines,' who were against what I represented in the infantry. They were the last bastion of men and they were determined to make sure that I would not succeed.

"They kept information from me. They blocked the airwaves when I was leading attacks. They tied me to the turret when I was supposed to be dismounting to lead an attack. There were other challenges too, and I outline them in the book — some abuse, some sexual harassment. But for the most part, it was a hundred (if not thousands) of little things that happened on a daily basis that let me know I was not welcome. And I do believe it was because I was a woman and because I was first."

Finding the courage to speak out

"I didn't speak out at the time for two reasons. First, I did not want to be the poster child of abuse. I wanted people to know that women can have a very successful career in the infantry and it's a wonderful career. I didn't want people to associate my face with being tied to a tree or abuse. 

"The second thing was courage. I lacked the courage to come forward. People have said to me, especially lately, 'You were so courageous back then.' But it doesn't take courage to suffer abuse. It takes strength and resilience, but courage comes when you actually share your story. Because that makes you feel vulnerable, exposed, naked, defenceless.

"I eventually changed my mind because over the years I've seen women report their abuse and I've had great respect and admiration for them. I've wanted to be one of those women but just didn't have it in me. So that built up and you come to a point where you can't hide it from others, and you can't hide it from yourself. I felt that I had to do this. And I also felt that the military needed to hear and understand what I had to say — and that they were open to it. And the proof is that at my launch, there were 350 military people there."

Accepting apologies

"Some of those men who mistreated me have written to me since I published this book — beautiful, heartfelt letters of apology. They knew at the time it was wrong. What they didn't know was the degree to which I was enduring all this abuse from everywhere. They saw maybe one hundredth of what they were doing to me. When they read the book, they realized that they were adding to mountains of incidents and abuse situations that nobody can endure for very long. 

"I'm sure some of them might have chosen to apologize sooner, but thought I wasn't open to it or that it was unnecessary. I feel sorry for them. I have a lot of compassion because they carried this guilt for many years. I'm glad I have given them an opportunity to make amends." 

Sandra Perron's comments have been edited and condensed.