DEE BRASSEUR'S EARLIEST memories of airplanes are as a 10-year-old living with her family on a Canadian Forces base in Centralia, Ont. "I used to ride my bike out to the end of the runway and watch the planes come in,” she remembers. "And I'd say, 'Gee, boys are really lucky to get to do that.' " It would be several years, including a "summer spent hanging out with some young airmen in Alberta," and a turn at the controls of a military T-33 training plane on a ride from Bagotville, Que., to Chatham, N.B., before Brasseur realized she wanted to fly herself. In 1979, when the Canadian Forces agreed to accept female pilots, Brasseur, then 26, was one of the first group of four, eventually becoming one of the first two women to fly a CF-18 fighter jet.
Like anyone in the front lines of institutional change, her challenge to entrenched attitudes met with hostility and discrimination from a resentful
'if you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space
fraternity. What she never expected was the sexual harassment and even rape that seemed too-often tolerated in the Canadian Forces. When Maclean's reported on that dark aspect of military culture this year, the now-retired Brasseur bravely stepped out to corroborate the portrayal—acknowledging her own rape by a boyfriend in the Forces and being coerced by a flight instructor into having sex.
Brasseur did not grow up wanting to shatter barriers. Raised in a military family, she describes her upbringing as "very traditional." Her heroes were Jean Béliveau and Katharine Hepburn. She enlisted at 19, only because her then-fiancé was attending officers' training. "If I join," she thought, "I'll understand his job better and be more supportive." Now, she laughs: "Naïve, I was."
Her first job was as a typist. But her father con-
vinced her to apply for an officer's commission, and after transferring to an air weapons control unit, Brasseur saw bigger opportunities. She stayed nearly 22 years.
Pioneering can be tough on people, and the bonds of sisterhood in that original pilots' group offered only so much protection. "There came a point where we did turn ourselves back-to-back and faced out together to get through it," says Brasseur, walking past the gleaming planes at Ottawa's National Aviation Museum and pausing wistfully to imagine herself piloting a Second World War Spitfire. "But when that necessity was gone, we went our separate ways." What she sought was "to be accepted as a pilot. Period. No gender attachment." She remembers each time another resistant domino would fall, when "some guy who'd always been a turkey would stagger up to you—he may have had to be drunk to do it—plant a big wet kiss on your cheek and say, 'You know, Dee, I still don't think women should be pilots in the air force. But you're OK.' "
Now 45, still single and living in suburban Ottawa, Brasseur says she feels neither "sorry, bad, scared or otherwise happy" about revealing dirty secrets of an institution that she says is still like a
family to her. "We all knew it," she says about the prevalence of sexual abuse in the military. "Facing up to it is something that will help the family." And she remains grateful for the thrills. "Crossing the Rockies at 37,000 feet in an F-18 was the most tremendous feeling I ever had, an out-of-mind-andbody experience," she says. Brasseur flies no more, but has her own business as a motivational speaker—"If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space," is her line—and tries to satisfy the need for a danger fix by parachuting and bungee jumping. "But whenever I want that great feeling, I just look up at the clouds and take myself back to those moments when I was in heaven," she says. "In some ways, I can still go flying every day."
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.