Out in the Open

Canada's first female infantry officer opens up about harassment, abuse and enabling in the military

Underestimated, harassed and abused by her colleagues, Sandra Perron explains how her coworkers enabled such behaviour, why she chose to leave her job, and what she's doing today to enable a different group of people to succeed in the military.

'It was daily microaggressions to let me know that I was not welcome,' says Sandra Perron

Sandra Perron (Courtesy of Sandra Perron)

Many people assumed Sandra Perron left the Canadian Armed Forces because of what they saw in a leaked photograph of her from 1992. 

The photo that was leaked of Sandra Perron, showing her tied to a tree during a training exercise. (Courtesy of Sandra Perron)

It shows Perron, who became Canada's first female infantry officer in 1990, outside in the winter, wearing her fatigues, barefoot and tied to a tree. She was being beaten as a part of a military exercise.

Despite experiences like these being difficult, she says they weren't the hardest parts of her military career. And her departure was motivated in part by years of harassment and abuse, including rape, that Perron says she suffered at the hands of her fellow soldiers.

"The guys just did everything from stealing my beret, tieing me to the turret so I couldn't dismount for an attack, they put eggs in my boots, they ripped off the patches on my uniform that associated me with a regiment...they wrote 'f*** me' on my fragmentation vest." 

It was daily microaggressions to let me know that I was not welcome.- Sandra Perron

She considers such behaviour "sabotage", and says it was intended to send her a message that she was not welcome in the military.

Perron did have supporters — nicknamed "Pepperoni Lovers", a play on her surname — but says the majority of her coworkers were bystanders, enabling and encouraging this conduct. 
Sandra Perron poses with her colleagues after the Croatia offensive, 1995. (Courtesy of Sandra Peron)

"They would just stand there, but laugh at the jokes. They wouldn't themselves get their hands dirty. But they would definitely participate in the sense that they never came to my defence, they never intervened, and they just stood there and laughed."

Perron believes no one spoke up in her defence because they thought, as the first female infantry officer, she needed to get through it on her own or she wouldn't survive commanding troops during a real conflict. 

At the time, she felt the same.

"I thought, I can't call on my senior officers, 'the mom and and the daddy', to come and save me from my peers. I have to develop a group cohesion with them. I have to convince them that I should be here, that I'm competent and I'm strong. So if I have to put up with their crap for little while, so be it."

New perspective after leaving the military

Today, Perron says she wishes she had acted differently. 

"When you don't speak up about it, you carry it with you for a long time...in addition to suffering the abuse of my colleagues, I had guilt that I didn't speak up, so maybe they continued this to the next generation of women. If I would have spoken up, perhaps it would have put a turn to it." 
Sandra Perron is the author of Out Standing In The Field. (Courtesy of Sandra Perron)

After a decorated career, Perron left the military in 1996, when she was assigned to do work she felt was "very junior" given all of her accomplishments, and that she says would require her to prove to a new group of people that women should be allowed in combat. 

"'I didn't want to fight my colleagues anymore, I wanted to fight for my country. I didn't want to defend my right to defend my country, so I had to leave."

Since leaving the military, Perron has shared the story of her military career in the memoir Out Standing In The Field. By opening up about her experience, she sees herself enabling a different group of people, this time for the better. 

"I love what I do. I'm probably doing more right now to influence the military culture than I did when I was an infantry officer. I guess in my own way I'm enabling women thriving in the military...we have created an environment where now women can speak up."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Enablers".