“YOU CAN’T” How often do we hear these two words from others and from ourselves.

As a very small child, I was fascinated with ballerinas. I don’t think I had ever seen one dance but hey the outfits rocked. Those little tutus and silk slippers. What little girl wouldn’t think that was cool.

One day I said to my mother “When I grow up, I am going to be a ballerina!”

She said “Oh honey, you can’t do that, ballerinas are tall and thin. You are a chubby girl”.

I think she was actually trying to manage my expectations in life so that I would not be hurt, but hey, that hurt and stuck with me.

A few years later I said “Dad, I want to be a stewardess when I grow up. I want to travel the world”.

He said, “Oh Sweetie, you can’t do that, you get motion sick in the car, imagine how bad it would be in a plane!.”

A few years later I told my brother, “I’ve decided, I want to be a vet when I grow up, I love animals”

He said, “Ha, you can’t do that, vet’s have to cut animals open, you don’t have the stomach for that”

I didn’t tell anyone when I thought I might like to be a police officer.

 I was 16, when my mother lost her battle with cancer, shortly afterwards my brother was arrested, diagnosed as a violent paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalize for the first of many times to come. Before my mother died, my father had moved on to another family and I rarely saw him.

But I finished high school, and at 17, found myself living in a campground having taken a job dispatching taxis.  It was starting to get cold and it wouldn’t be long before they closed the campground.  I woke up shivering one morning and realized that there was no one telling me “You can’t” any more.  So, I did.

 It was 1975, the first year that the RCMP and some other progressive police forces were taking women. But you had to be 21. That was four years away and I need to do something now. 

It turned out that the military was also opening up the Military Police to women that year. You only had to be 17 to join the regular force and it didn’t matter whether you were to be a police officer or an infantry soldier. 

So, I took the bus to Toronto and fronted up at the recruiting office where I aced all their tests.  The recruiter told me I could do anything I wanted. I said I wanted to join the military police, and he said, “oh no you can’t do that, we will make you an officer and send you to university”. Let’s face it that guy was no competition for my mother’s “you can’ts”. So, I walked out.  He called me back a few days later and I was enrolled as one of the first women ever in the male-only security and police branch.

After my training, my first post was an isolated Radar Station on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

In those days, women’s dress uniforms consisted of a jacket and a skirt. The skirts were snug on anyone who wasn’t thin, pencil straight, and to be worn two fingers above the knee. Because of course: Women can’t be seen in slacks for parades and formal occasions.  Heck we had barely won the right to have slacks for our everyday working uniforms.  Fortunately, being so remote, we were never required to don our dress uniforms.

Except this one time. The Commander of Air Command, you know, the most senior general who runs everything related to the Air Force, came to visit our little station. I can’t even remember why! Just my luck, the visit fell on my shift and I was designated as his official driver. Naturally I would have to be in my dress uniform, skirt and all for the duration. That would have been ok if our vehicle was not an enormous king cab, 4 X 4, truck with extra clearance to get up the hill to where the radar sat. 

To say I was nervous was an understatement.  I was actually the youngest and most junior person at the base. I spent most of a night shift practicing getting in and out of the truck in my tight little skirt hoping to be able to master some sense of decorum. It just wasn’t going to happen. 

So, on the day that his helicopter landed, I held the door to the truck open while he climbed into the back seat.  And then it was my turn. I looked up at that driver’s seat and I looked at him. He was also looking at me wondering what the delay was. So, I said; “Sir, I would highly appreciate if you would turn your head for a moment while I get into the truck” At first, I just received an angry glare until I began to hoist my skirt up to my waist and start to climb into the driver’s seat.  Highly embarrassed by the sight (well I like to think he was embarrassed and not just grossed out by the tops of my mandatory beige pantyhose), he turned his head. I figured that when my boss heard about this, I’d be a goner. 

Oddly, my career did not end that day. Nothing more was said about our interaction and we carried on with his visit. Him turning his head and me hoisting my skirt each time we mounted and dismounted from the truck.  But the strangest thing happened after his visit ended and he returned to Ottawa.  About two weeks later, it was announced that the contract had been let to design a woman’s dress uniform that included an option of slacks!  I realized something important that day.  Seems, “you can’t wear slacks” really just meant women never had.

 A couple of years later I was a young Corporal and I attended a town hall style meeting where we were address by the Full Colonel in charge of the entire Security and Police branch.  One of the things he said was that anyone who did not serve time in a field post, (in readiness for our wartime role), would never be promoted past the rank of Corporal.  Well as a woman I could train for the field, I could train others for the field, but I was not allowed to serve in the field.  So, I put up my hand and said, “are you telling me that because I am a woman and you won’t let me go to the field, I can never be promoted?”. He thought about it and said, “Yes. That’s what I am saying”.

After the briefing ended, I was approached by my commanding officer and the Colonel’s Aide de Camp.  Both very concerned that I might be planning to submit a formal grievance. Although I am sure they agreed with what the Colonel had said, saying it, was not politically correct, even in the 70’s.  They asked me what I planned to do, and I said very plainly, “prove him wrong”.

And I did! By the time I retired, I held a higher rank than those concerned officers.  I realized along the way that when people said, “YOU CAN’T” it really meant a woman never had.

That was the start of 40+ years of breaking through cement ceilings in both the military and the United Nations.

I had done just about everything anyone told me I couldn’t.  As a soldier, I was a drill sergeant, an unarmed combat instructor (yes, many years and many pounds ago), I instructed firearms including automatic weapons, grenades and handheld anti-tank rockets. As an officer, I commanded the Canadian Forces Special Operations Unit as well as Police, Security and Intelligence training for the entire Canadian Forces.

When the call came from the United Nations, asking if I would consider being one of the first women ever to work as a security adviser and access negotiator in some of the most dangerous places in the world, I said “I can do that”

 Ultimately, I satisfied my love of animals by living in the bush and enjoying the wild creatures; not to mention three dogs, six cats and a couple of baby squirrels along the way.

Travel, oh yeah.  I traveled the world over; to places most people will never have the opportunity to see, (well or desire to).  I lived abroad in Sudan, India, East Timor and Lebanon and was able to immerse myself in culture, language and of course food; so much more than would ever have been possible as a “stewardess”.

As for the ballet.  Well I pretty much outgrew that one. I’d take my god daughter to the Nutcracker Suite every Christmas but never felt the urge to jump up on stage as a rat king or a sugar plum fairy.  However, I still think a tutu could be kind of fun!  Oh well Halloween is coming ….

But I did learn: I would never let anyone decide my dreams for me and I would never to listen to anyone who said You Can’t.  It just so happens that, I CAN.