Women and War

From the beginning of Canadian history, women have participated in the defense of their communities and borne much of the brunt of war, particularly in the form of dispossession and depredations by enemy soldiers. Their formal incorporation into the military, however, has followed a gradual path from auxiliary and supporting roles, such as supplying troops with food and nursing, to more active roles in bomb manufacturing and espionage, and, starting in 1989, to soldiers' duties on the ground. Since 2005, Canada has been one of only a small percentage of the world's countries to allow women full combat roles on the front lines.

During war, through circumstances or by design, women have defended their homes and communities, cared for the wounded, prepared wartime materials, and provided physical, economic and moral support. In countering the effects of external threat or pressing for military advantages, their work was vital. Oral legends of Indian women as warriors, healers, strategists and spies acquired substance in written records about Molly BRANT's role as a spy and adviser to the British during the American Revolution and John ROWAND's encounter in 1844 with "the Queen of the Plains" and her war party of 1,000 men and 200 women.

In New France, women such as Françoise-Marie Jacquelin, better known as Madame de LA TOUR, and Marie-Madeleine Jarret de VERCHÈRES took command against attackers while others such as Jeanne MANCE cared for the wounded. Marie, wife of Louis HÉBERT, not only nursed the sick during the English siege of Québec in 1629 but worked with the other women to ensure the survival of the colony by reminding the indigenous people of the goodwill of the French. Laura SECORD during the War of 1812 and Cornelia De Grassi in the Rebellion of 1837 carried messages through enemy lines.

Traditional Roles Perpetuated on the Front

Most often women were nameless and faceless participants. Those accompanying the French and English military forces of the 18th and 19th century cooked, laundered, sewed and ministered to the sick, and if necessary assisted in wartime operations. Those settled in communities protected their property from marauders and when battles raged on their doorsteps, prepared ammunition, food and medicines. Not until the 1885 North-West Rebellion did women receive official recognition as part of a military force in the field, and then in what was considered to be their most acceptable active wartime role of NURSING the wounded. Civilian nurses also accompanied the Yukon Field Force of 1898 and the Canadian contingent to the South African War.

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

Into the 20th century, factors including the distance of the conflicts and restrictive ideas about women's abilities combined to prevent direct action 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, and some 50,000 Canadian women eventually enlisted in the air force, army and navy. While the RCAF 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 doing cooking, medical and sewing work, but graduating to driving trucks and ambulances, and working as mechanics and radar operators. The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service, formed last in 1942, eventually took on the tasks of radar operators and coding technicians. It was the growing wartime bureaucracy that opened the way for women as officially recognized members of the armed forces outside of nursing. Initially, civilian women filled military clerical positions to release able-bodied men for combat, but during the Second World War, the advantages of having servicewomen under military control and discipline became apparent, as they could be called up at a moment's notice by those who needed them most urgently. By war's end, the RCAF (Women's Division), the CANADIAN WOMEN's ARMY CORPS, and the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service had proved their worth.

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, amongst others, to break down coded messages that often contained intelligence reports. They worked in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Ontario, including a certain Camp X on the shores of Lake Ontario (according to legend, spy novelist Ian Fleming trained there alongside Intrepid, a.k.a. Winnipeg-born spymaster Sir William Stephenson, who was supposedly the model for James Bond).

While a few women produced ammunition in factories during the South African War, the First and Second World Wars witnessed the most conspicuous movement into wartime industry. In 1917, there were about 35,000 women in munitions factories in Ontario and Québec. By 1943, about 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 (see WOMEN IN THE MILITARY).

Women also worked to ensure a thriving, or at least a surviving, 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. Primarily through groups, including 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, they joined forces to sustain the nation.

Whatever the conventional role for women in the social order, war required all the resources of the community as well as some flexibility regarding women’s roles. At the same time, the emphasis on 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 the hostilities. In war, women's labour was essential, but in peace it was expendable. Women would gain more opportunities in the workforce as the century progressed, particularly after the feminist movement of the 1960s, but it would be a long time before they were accepted on equal terms with men in the Canadian armed forces.

Sisters in Arms

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 opened up all military positions to women in 1989 (except for submarines, which allowed women in 2001), and Canadian women fought in front-line combat for the first time in 2005. Even in the 21st century, only a handful of countries allow women to fight in ground combat. On 17 May 2006, during a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Goddard became the first Canadian woman to die on the battlefield as a combat-certified soldier.

As of 2013, women made up over 12 per cent of the Canadian Forces, working as operators, skilled technicians or leaders. In 2007, Commodore Jennifer Bennett became the first woman appointed Commander of the Naval Reserve. Two years later, Commander Josée Kurtz was the first woman appointed to command a major warship – the HMCS Halifax.