Book Reviews

Book Cover: ‘Out Standing in the Field ~ A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer’

Out Standing in the Field
~ A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer

by Sandra Perron
Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2017
316 pages, $24.95
ISBN: 978-1770864948

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Reviewed by Bill Bentley

This reviewer served 34 years in the infantry before being appointed as a Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC). However, during my four years as a cadet at RMCC, women had not yet been admitted. By the time I left regimental duty in the early-1980s, women had not yet been admitted into the combat arms. In addition, during my subsequent years in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), I served 13 years overseas or on secondments to the Department of Foreign Affairs. All this to say that my perspective has been shaped by not having been directly exposed to the trials and tribulations of integrating women into the combat arms during the time covered by Sandra Perron’s book.

That having been said, Sandra has written a heartfelt and compelling story of her personal and professional experiences during this era. I have a strong sense that she has tried to be truly honest, even brutally honest, with both her readers and herself to the extent permitted to humans, which can never reach 100 percent for anyone.

Sandra tells us at the outset that from the age of 14, at least, she was committed to, even obsessed with, joining the army, and especially, the infantry. When she was able to enlist, the military had not yet opened the combat trades to women, so she joined the Logistics Branch. However, the minute the infantry branch opened to women, she transferred to the Royal 22 Regiment (the fabled ‘Van Doos’), and here is where her real story begins.

Much of the early part of the book deals in meticulous detail with her introductory Infantry Phase training through four phases in Gagetown, New Brunswick. Infantry Phase training is very tough indeed, and after Phase 2, all other female applicants had either quit or had failed. The physical and mental challenges any infantry candidate undergoes in this ‘boot camp’ environment were greatly exacerbated by emotional and psychological pressures induced by the incessant harassment, always conducted with a sexual undercurrent. Some instructors are implicated, but the main problem was clearly with her peers. At the same time, Sandra tells of her ‘six precious brothers-in-arms’ who shared Phase training with her, and the several Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) who were supporters. These individuals apparently provided support and helped mitigate the stress of harassment and rejection she was otherwise enduring. Now, there is no question that negative peer pressure can be enormous, but one cannot help wishing she had been able to bring these countervailing forces into better balance.

Clearly, Sandra succeeds in her Phase training, and subsequently joins the ‘Van Doo’ battalion as a platoon commander. She serves both in Canada, and notably, two tours in the Balkans, the second time (Croatia) as the Anti-Tank Platoon Commander. It is here, culminating at the end of her second tour, that she confronts the final challenge to her commitment as an affront to her pride and sense of professionalism. Despite high performance ratings and considerable operational experience, she is told she will be posted back to Gagetown as the second-in-command of a Phase 2 infantry serial, working for a male officer junior in rank with less experience. This was, to employ a well-worn but apt metaphor/cliché, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ After several attempts to have this decision reversed, she relents and submits her resignation.

Sandra Perron had served for 15 years during a very tumultuous time in the CAF, and although she never refers to it, the context must be noted. The time frame in question is the 1990s, the period often referred to in the Canadian Armed Forces as the ‘the decade of darkness.’ Despite an extremely high operational tempo in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and throughout the Balkans, the CAF endured crippling cuts in the defence budget. Beginning around 1994, and continuing through to 2000, the Somalia Affair was a debilitating distraction, especially for the senior leadership. This cannot be viewed as an excuse for the failure to more effectively deal with the integration of women into the combat arms, but must be acknowledged at least as a mitigating factor. Perversely, it could also be argued that it is an indictment of an institution and its strategic leadership that was apparently incapable of ‘walking and chewing gum at the same time.’

Looking back from the vantage point of 2017, it is clear that Sandra Perron was a courageous pioneer who paved the way for the women who followed. She cracked the ‘glass ceiling’ that permitted others to break it, albeit, not shatter it yet, up until today.

Significantly, Sandra began writing her book in May 2015, the same month that Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps released her report with respect to sexual harassment in the CAF. Shortly thereafter the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General Jon Vance, initiated Operation Honour, focused upon addressing the “sexualized culture” that Deschamps had uncovered. Thus, twenty-odd years after Sandra Perron’s experience, one has to wonder how far we have come. It certainly speaks to the almost intractable problem of changing culture, or put somewhat differently, enhancing and embedding a professional culture that demands standards of conduct higher than those set for the broader Canadian society.

Sandra Perron’s book is a ‘cautionary tale’ that was not adequately addressed. Given the current situation I believe it is fair to say that the book should be widely read and discussed by leaders at all levels.

Bill Bentley, MSM, CD, Ph.D., was until recently the Senior Staff Officer Professional Concepts at Canadian Defence Academy Headquarters in Kingston, Ontario.