Canada has been involved in various wars from the beginning of its colonial history. Just as the nature of these wars has changed over time, so too has their effect on Canadian women. Women have actively participated in war, from nursing and munitions manufacturing during the First and Second World Wars to the increasing involvement of Canadian women in the military.

War has impacted Canadian women’s lives in different ways, depending on their geographical location, and their racial and economic status. Pre-20th-century conflicts had great impact on women in Canada — Aboriginal women in particular — whose communities could be dispossessed and devastated by colonial militaries. Women were interned in Canada during wartime — that is, detained and confined — because their background could be traced to enemy states.

While some women have been traumatized profoundly by Canada’s wars, others have indirectly benefitted from them. Women have often assumed traditionally male work during wartime — a pattern that has, in some cases, contributed to the advancement of women’s rights.

(See also Women in the Military; Wartime Home Front.)

New France and British North America

Women who accompanied the French and English military forces of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries cooked, laundered, sewed, and tended to the sick and wounded. Some protected their property from marauders and prepared ammunition, food and medicines.

In mid-17th-century Acadia, Françoise-Marie Jacquelin (better known as Madame de La Tour) took command of her husband, Charles de Saint-Étienne’s, colonial army corps in his absence, defending Fort La Tour against a rival militia (see Civil War in Acadia). Similarly, in 1692, the 14-year-old Marie-Madeleine Jarret de Verchères played a decisive role in defending Fort Verchères from Haudenosaunee raiders. During the War of 1812, Laura Secord walked over 30 km to warn the British military of an impending attack.

During the 1885 North-West Resistance, women were admitted officially to the military for the first time, as nurses. Civilian nurses also accompanied the Yukon Field Force of 1898 and the Canadian contingent to the South African War.

(See also Nursing Sisters and the Costs of War on Women.)

Expansion of Women's Wartime Roles in the 20th Century

Into the 20th century, factors including the distance of conflicts and restrictive ideas about women's abilities combined to prevent direct participation by women as combatants. Nonetheless, during both the First and Second World Wars, women organized for home defence, outfitting themselves in uniforms, and training in rifle shooting and military drill.

The first two women's services were created as auxiliaries to the air force and the army in 1941. Some 50,000 Canadian women eventually enlisted in the air force, army and navy. While the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division members were initially trained for clerical, administrative and support roles, they eventually came to work as parachute riggers, laboratory assistants, and within the electrical and mechanical trades.

The Canadian Women's Army Corps followed the same path, with its members starting out as cooks, nurses and seamstresses, but later becoming drivers and mechanics. The third women’s military corps, the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS, or “Wrens” informally), was established in 1942. Growing wartime bureaucracy opened the way for women as officially recognized members of the armed forces outside of nursing, and many women in the service gained employment in clerical positions as stenographers, switchboard operators and secretaries.


In 1917, amidst the tremendous reconfiguration of labour practices on the home front, the movement for women’s suffrage won a major victory with the passage of the Wartime Elections Act, which granted some women the right to vote in federal elections. Suffrage at this time was limited to women working in the armed forces and the wives, mothers and sisters of soldiers overseas. At the same time, however, the Act revoked voting rights from Canadian citizens of enemy-alien birth who were naturalized after 1902. Today, most historians view the Act partly as the product of women’s growing presence in the public sphere and partly as a move by Prime Minister Robert Borden to bolster electoral support for his government.

Wartime Roles on the Home Front

Another important role for women during wartime, especially the Second World War, consisted of code breaking and espionage. The Canadian government recruited members of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service and the Canadian Women's Army Corps, among others, to break coded messages. They worked in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario, including at Camp X.

While a few women had produced ammunition in factories during the South African War, during the First and Second World Wars they entered the munitions industry en masse. According to the Imperial Munitions Board, about 35,000 women worked in munitions factories in Ontario and Québec during the First World War. In 1943, approximately 261,000 women were involved in the production of war goods, accounting for more than 30 per cent of the aircraft industry, close to 50 per cent of the employees in many gun plants, and a distinct majority in munitions inspection.

Women also worked to ensure a thriving home economy. During the First and Second World Wars, they produced and conserved food; raised funds to finance hospitals, ambulances, hostels and aircraft; and volunteered their services inside and outside the country. Many women also joined such public service organizations as the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, the Young Women's Christian Association and the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Whatever the conventional role for women in the social order, war required the full scope of Canada’s human resources. At the same time, the temporary nature of women's contributions during the First and Second World Wars ensured that their wartime efforts did not challenge the established system and that they reverted to conventional female roles after hostilities ended. In war, women's labour was essential, but in peace it was expendable.

(See also Wartime Home Front.)

Women in the Military

Despite women’s contributions to Canada’s military efforts in the 20th century, they were not allowed full entry into the armed forces until the late 1980s. Canada only opened all military positions to women in 1989 (except for submarines, which admitted women in 2000). As of 2013, women made up over 12 per cent of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Though today the Canadian military actively recruits women, it continues in many ways to harbour a culture of misogyny and sexual violence. A 2014 investigation by Maclean’s magazine found that from 2000, military police received an average of 178 complaints of sexual assault per year, which experts believe may represent a fraction of the total number of sexual assaults. From 1999 to 2013, the average number of soldiers court martialled for sexual assault each year was only eight, with an average of two and a half soldiers convicted per year.

an external review of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the military was conducted by former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps from July to December 2014. Published 27 March 2015, the review found that “there is an undeniable problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the CAF, which requires direct and sustained action.” The report made 10 recommendations to help address the issue, including: acknowledgement of the problem; that a strategy to “effect cultural change” be established and implemented; and the formation of an independent centre to handle claims of sexual abuse and misconduct. The CAF agreed to the first two recommendations, the remainder only in principle.

(See also Women in the Military.)

Women and the Anti-War Movement

Canadian women have impacted warfare as much as warfare has impacted them. Some have significantly affected the character of the Canadian military by climbing its ranks and promoting its activities, while others have joined pacifist and anti-war movements that have sharply criticized the military. Many Canadian women have undertaken leading roles in the struggle against war. This was especially the case during the First World War, when women across Europe and North America organized for peace on an unprecedented scale.

Yet the war also had a very divisive impact on Canadian women. A number of mainstream women’s organizations, such as the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) and the National Committee of Women for Patriotic Service (NCWPS), openly or tacitly supported the war. Other women contested the war at its outset, but became increasingly convinced of its necessity. Prominent suffrage leaders Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy and Flora MacDonald Denison, for instance, all held to their longstanding pacifist beliefs when war broke out in 1914, but later changed their position as they became convinced that Germany’s attacks on Britain could only be stopped through military defeat. As McClung wrote in her 1917 book, The Next of Kin, “When I first saw the troops go away, I wondered how their mothers let them go, and I determined I would not let my boy go.” But after a German submarine sank the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania in 1915, her position changed: “Then I said we were waging war against the very Prince of Darkness. […] I knew it would be better — a thousand times better — to be dead than to live under the rule of people whose hearts are so utterly black.”

In 1915, prominent American reformer Jane Addams organized the Women’s Peace Conference at The Hague. Addams had invited the NCWC and the NCWPS, but both declined. A handful of Canadians did ultimately attend as independent delegates, including Julia Grace Wales and Laura Hughes. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was founded by women active in the women's suffrage movement in Europe and North America who attended the conference at The Hague. These women wished to end the First World War and seek ways to ensure that no more wars took place.

In the subsequent century, the alignment of the pacifist movement and nationwide women’s activism was never again quite as strong as it was during the First World War. Nonetheless, Canadian women did play a leading role in the struggle for nuclear disarmament in the 1960s, which gave birth to the Voice of Women (now the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace). In the early years of the 21st century, thousands of women across the country also mobilized to prevent Canada’s involvement in the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq.