Veteran Stories:
Susan Beharriell

Air Force

  • Susan Beharriell before take-off in a fighter jet at the Canadian air force base in Cold Lake, Alberta.

    Susan Beharriell
  • Susan Beharriell with "Bayly," in the Canadian Forces equestrian uniform designed by Beharriell.

    Susan Beharriell
  • 12 Platoon of officer cadets was one of the first groups of women to conduct the same Basic Training as men in the Canadian Forces. Officer Candidate School, Chilliwack, BC. 1974.

    Susan Beharriell
  • Birkenfeld Town Fest, Germany. Susan Beharriell, as the only Canadian Forces representative in the region, explains Canada’s military role in Cold War Germany to visitors.

    Susan Beharriell
  • Susan Beharriell and 12 Platoon were the first female officer cadets to complete the same Basic Training as male officer cadets in the Canadian Forces. Officer Candidate School, Chilliwack, BC, 1974.

    Susan Beharriell
  • Susan Beharriell receives the Canadian Forces Decoration (CD) for 12 years of service.

    Susan Beharriell
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"They told me I couldn't fly in a high performance jet aircraft because "my female parts would be damaged." It was quite a thrill breaking the sound barrier at 100 feet, climbing straight up and doing rolls and loops above the clouds."


My name is Lieutenant-Colonel Susan Beharriell, and I am the Senior Air Force Intelligence Officer in the Canadian Forces.

Women have a proud history in Canada’s military, that began way back in 1885, during the North-West Rebellion. A total of twelve nursing sisters served in the army field hospitals in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw. They were awarded the North-West Rebellion Campaign Medal and became the first women to serve in Canada’s military.  Between 1914 and 1918, 2,500 nurses also served with distinction in the battlefields of Europe during World War I.

Opportunities for women in Canada in the 1930s and 1940s were rather different than they are today. Most women worked at home, caring for their families, while others worked in clerical, teaching, and nursing positions. Once World War II broke out [in 1939], the government needed women to serve in many support jobs, in order to free the men for combat. Women served, so men could fight. Amongst other things, the women were signalers, dispatch riders, motor mechanics, aircraft maintainers, ack-ack [anti-aircraft] battery plotters, postal clerks, and they even packed parachutes. Nowadays, this sort of job would be nothing unusual, nothing special. But back then, these jobs were considered quite revolutionary, even scandalous. Women were not supposed to do these things. But over 50,000 Canadian women pioneers proved that women were capable of much more than tradition - and men - had ever thought. After the war, the Canadian military demobilized, and men and women went back to their traditional roles. The government saw no need to employ servicewomen during peacetime.

When I joined the military in 1973, there were great changes happening in Canadian society. Women were demanding equal rights and the women’s liberation movement was gaining strength. Throughout my career, men have often told me that I cannot do things, simply because I am a woman. They told me that I could not complete the same basic officers’ training as the men, because “women can’t do that.” No one thought we could, not even our own staff.  But the girls from 12 Platoon [on basic training at Chilliwack, BC] pulled together and proved them all wrong. The esprit de corps forged through that adversity is strong even today.

They told me I couldn’t join the Security Branch, because it said in the manual that only men were permitted. I persisted, and eventually they sent several senior officers to interview me. They could only tell so much from my file, and given the times, wanted to see if I was “a bra-burning women's libber” who just wanted to get in, because the system said no. I guess they decided I wasn’t, because I was accepted into the branch. But they told me right up front that I had better measure up, or they would never let another woman into the branch – “No pressure, dear.”

When I was sent on a photo-interpretation course, the chief instructor flatly refused to accept any “blankety-blank” woman in his classroom. In fact, he submitted his resignation. Calmer heads prevailed and he did withdraw it, but that was the attitude I faced when I walked into the classroom. No teacher or student spoke to me for weeks. After a lot of hard work, I topped the course. At the graduation party, the chief instructor took me aside and apologized for his behaviour. He said that I had proved to him that women could indeed do it and he would welcome a woman into his classroom any time. That made all the hassles quite worthwhile.

They told me I couldn’t work on the Operations staff of a fighter base, because the senior staff flatly refused to accept a woman. Messages flew back and forth between national headquarters and the base, and finally, my boss was given a direct order to accept me. This was the attitude I faced when I arrived in Cold Lake, Alberta. They told me I couldn’t fly in a high performance jet aircraft, because, “my female parts would be damaged.” I have over 80 hours in the backseat of fighters, including the most modern aircraft, the CF-18. It was quite a thrill breaking the sound barrier at 100 feet, climbing straight up, and doing rolls and loops above the clouds. Seven years after I left Cold Lake, the first two women became fighter pilots.

They told me I couldn’t be posted overseas, because as a single woman, I would be completely vulnerable to blackmail by the Soviets. I spent two challenging years working with NATO in Germany as the Chief Intelligence Analyst and briefer for the [1990-1991] Gulf War.

I have faced discrimination, sexual harassment, physical assault, ignorance, prejudice, and male chauvinism. But when these things were happening, in the 1970s and 1980s, they were not recognized and understood as they are today. They did not even have these names. They were certainly prevalent across all of Canadian society, not just in the military. Great strides have been taken in the Canadian Forces, and these problems have been greatly reduced, if not completely eliminated. It has been some time since anyone has told me I couldn’t do something merely because I am a woman.

My experiences were rather different from those of the women pioneers during the two world wars. They replaced men in routine jobs. They did not directly challenge the men. But in my era, we did challenge the men, every step of the way. Yes, there was resistance. Yes, there was discrimination and resentment. And yes, it was hard. But because of the World War II pioneers, today there have been great changes. Today, Canada’s servicewomen serve in every military occupation save one – and that is, as a Catholic priest. Yes, women have succeeded. We truly have come a long way, baby. And how did we do it? Ever since I was a little girl I have had a motto. That motto is, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Try it sometime. You may just surprise yourself.

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