Women’s changing role in war

Women’s changing role in war

The presence of women in the Canadian military goes back over a century

Women have served in the Canadian military since 1885, when nurses provided care to the Canadian troops in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon in the West Rebellion. Their tour of duty lasted four weeks.

By the First World War (1914-1918) nursing became increasingly organized and recognized. More than 3,000 women served with the Royal Canadian Medical Corps and close to 2,500 went overseas where they served close to the front lines in hospitals, on ships and in combat zones. During the war, more than 40 nurses lost their lives while in service.

During the Second World War (1939-1945) Canadian women were not allowed to serve in combat but were still greatly involved in the war effort.

Close to 4,500 nurses served in World War II and in 1941 a Women’s Division was created for all three branches of the military. By this time more than 50,000 women served in the Canadian Armed Forces, including working as clerks, mechanics, parachute riggers, wireless operators and photographers.

On Aug. 13, 1941, the Royal Canadian Air Force established a Women’s Division and some 17,000 Women served. Nora Smart was one of them.

When Smart served in the Canadian Air Force she was working at a post office in Ottawa from 1944 to January 1946. She was a part of a team that was responsible for sending mail overseas to air force troops. It was during World War II and it was a tumultuous time.

“The part that was the saddest about (working in the post office) was when a ship would be torpedoed and all the mail would come back to us,” Smart said. “Occasionally some of those ships would go down.”

Any mail left after a blast would be sorted through to figure out who sent it, or who it was going to.

“If [the mail] was in pretty good shape we re-wrapped it and sent it on to whoever it was sent for, otherwise if we couldn’t find the return we’d send it back to the person because prisoners of war were only allowed so many parcels,” Smart said. “It was important that we let whoever know that was sending it that it hadn’t gone so they could send another one if they wanted to.”

Smart said all mail coming from overseas was edited and scanned for anything that could give away locations of where troops were stationed. Information would often be blacked out, she said.

Growing up on a farm, the idea of moving to a city appealed to Smart and after a friend began working for the military, she too decided to seek employment when she turned 18.

“Also part of it was I really wanted to be part of what my brothers were part of because I always felt like I should be able to do what my brothers could,” Smart added.

Her two brothers were in the army, one went through North Africa and Italy while the other went through Juno Beach and into France where he was wounded.

“One of the things that was really bad was waiting for the telegram to tell you, in our case, that my brother had been wounded in France and flown back to England,” Smart said. “We didn’t know if he was going to live or not. He was hit with shrapnel and had to have reconstructive surgery on his face.”

Smart said both her brothers came back alive but that there were many people who were devastated by the death of loved ones.

“I think a war makes you very aware of a lot of things; like what’s important and what isn’t,” she said.

During the war, Smart said everyone lived by their radios.

“I can remember being in my earlier teens and being home and we all had to be really quiet for the six o’clock news,” Smart said. “We just all listened to what was going on all the time and we were very aware of what was going on.”

She said that like the letters, a lot of what was heard on the radio was probably screened.

“I’m sure a lot of it was propaganda and we didn’t always get what was the truth,” she said.

The day the war ended, Smart said Ottawa was in “total shut down.”

“No business except restaurants were open,” she said. “People were parading. Everybody was out on the streets celebrating and it was a wonderful feeling.”

Today, at age 93, Smart has been a member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 134 in Shawnigan Lake for 47 years.

Vetran Janet McKee, who joined the Canadian Naval Reserve in 1975 and the regular force in 1984, said the presence of women serving grew as the years went by.

“There wasn’t really a lot of women I would say earlier on in my career. When I was on the ship, with about 245 people on board, I’d say maybe about 45 were women,” McKee said. “I don’t think it was a big thing on young gal’s minds (at that time). It’s been in the press a lot more and because of that, people have heard more stories about it.”

McKee, who worked in administration and finance with the Canadian military, said she became interested in the military in high school when a friend of hers joined the reserves.

“They would go away for the summers and train and go on exercises and they would make money for university. I thought that was a great idea,” she said. “First I went down and watched a little bit, one of then nights they were parading at the reserve unit and I thought, this isn’t for me, and a few months later I changed my mind and I joined and I had lots of fun in it. I was there for nine years before I ended up joining the regular force.”

When she first began serving, McKee said women were not allowed in combat roles, which began to change in 1982 when the Armed Forces were required to consider the equality of women in the services and permit them into all military roles. It took seven more years, until 1989, for all combat roles to finally be opened to women.

“When I joined, women weren’t going to sea, women weren’t in army units, they were not first line in any way, shape or form and there was a lot of resistance to that as time went on,” McKee said. “But of course, like everything, we move ahead for the positive.”

During her time serving, McKee said her fondest memories are those of camaraderie.

“I think the friendships that you can make and the bonds are ones I can’t really compare to anything else, it’s very rewarding,” she said.

McKee, who in a member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 91, served for 34 years and retired medically in 2009. On Nov. 11, she will go to the Cenotaph in Langford and pay her respects.

By 2011, women made up about 15 per cent of the Canadian military, with more than 7,900 female personnel serving in regular force and more than 4,800 women serving in the primary reserve. Out of that number, 225 women are part of the regular combat force and 925 are enlisted in the primary reserve combat force.

karly.blats@vancouverislandfreedaily.com

Just Posted

A slide on best practices when reporting a suspected impaired driver that was presented to Parksville city council on June 7 by Margarita Bernard, a volunteer with MADD. The organization’s Report Impaired Drivers campaign involves the installation of informative signs within the City of Parksville. (Mandy Moraes photo)
MADD brings campaign to report impaired drivers to Parksville

Aim is to raise awareness that 911 should be called

Pam Bottomley (executive director), right and Sandy Hurley (president) of the Parksville Downtown Business Association visit the PQB News/VI Free Daily studio. (Peter McCully photo)
PQBeat: Downtown Parksville gears up for post-pandemic bounce back

Podcast: Hurley, Bottomley chat about what’s ahead for the PDBA

(Black Press file photo)
RCMP: Air ambulance called to Whiskey Creek after crash involving 2 motorbikes

Both riders taken to hospital with serious injuries

(File photo)
Crime report: Crooks busy pilfering bikes throughout Parksville Qualicum Beach area

Thefts among 295 complaints Oceanside RCMP deal with in one-week period

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

FILE - This July 6, 2017 file photo shows prescription drugs in a glass flask at the state crime lab in Taylorsville, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Contaminants in generic drugs may cause long-term harm to DNA: B.C. researcher

Scientist says findings suggest high volume overseas facilities require strict regulation

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., on April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Labour shortages, closed borders major obstacles to B.C. restaurant, tourism restarts

Industry expert says it won’t start to recover until international travellers can visit

A still image from security camera video recorded June 8 shows an individual lighting trash on fire in the doorway of 19+ Cannabis Store on Victoria Crescent. RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue are investigating numerous fires set in downtown Nanaimo in the past three months. (Photo submitted)
‘It’s out of control’: More than 20 fires set in downtown Nanaimo in past 3 months

Authorities asking business owners to keep dumpsters locked

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

(pixabay file shot)
B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Review states a maximum of 22 hours for youth, aged 12 from to 17, to be placed in solitary

Eleonore Alamillo-Laberge, 6, reads a book in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Parents will need to fight ‘COVID learning slump’ over summer: B.C. literacy experts

Parents who play an active role in educating their children this summer can reverse the slump by nearly 80%, says Janet Mort

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

Most Read