Canada remembers women in the Canadian Armed Forces
Courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada
Canadian women have played an important role in our country’s military efforts over the years, overcoming many barriers to serve in uniform as nurses and in an expanding variety of other roles. This service continues today, with women now serving in all Canadian Forces trades.
The First World War
Canadian women’s first military contributions were as nurses who tended to the sick and wounded in times of conflict. They were called “Nursing Sisters” because they were originally drawn from the ranks of religious orders.
Roughly 3,000 Canadian Nursing Sisters served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War, often close to the front lines of Europe and within range of enemy attack. With their blue dresses and white veils, they were nicknamed the “bluebirds” and were greatly respected because of their compassion and courage. Canadian women were not permitted to serve in other military roles during the First World War.
The Second World War
The Second World War would see Canadian women returning to serve again as nursing sisters. This time, approximately 4,500 nurses were attached to all three branches of Canada’s military, with more than two-thirds of them serving overseas. Second World War nursing sisters wore a military uniform with a traditional white veil. These young women were commissioned officers and were respectfully addressed as “Sister” or “Ma’am.” In fact, Canada’s military nurses were the first in any Allied country to have officer status. Canadian women would also serve in other military roles during the war, however, and some 50,000 eventually enlisted in the air force, army and navy.
Post-Second World War
After the Second World War, the Canadian military shut down the women’s organizations. With the onset of the Cold War and the Korean War, however, the military soon faced a shortage of personnel and some 5,000 women were again actively recruited.
While only a handful of nursing sisters were sent to Korea, some servicewomen back in Canada filled the same kinds of roles they had during the Second World War. Their numbers began to decline in the mid-1950s, however, as new technology reduced the requirement for personnel in many trades.
With the unification and modernization of the Canadian military in the late 1960s, the doors finally began to open for good for women to enlist and enter non-traditional roles. Today, women deploy on combat missions, captain vessels and command flying squadrons—their career paths as open as those of men.
Canadian women who chose to serve in the cause of peace and freedom during the war years had to endure and overcome the inequalities of the Canadian society of the day. For example, women’s pay remained lower than that of men of similar rank during the Second World War and military women sometimes faced criticism from those who felt that a woman’s place was in the home.
When women chose to enlist in the military, they also volunteered to potentially put themselves in dangerous situations where their lives were on the line. Canada’s nursing sisters in particular found themselves in peril, as they often served in field hospitals close to the fighting. More than 40 of these brave women died during the First World War, losing their lives in enemy bombardments of field hospitals, attacks on shipping and due to the sickness that often comes with the harsh conditions of war. The Second World War would see many more women participate in the military with one nursing sister, Sub-Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie, dying when the ferry SS Caribou was torpedoed by a German U-boat while crossing from Cape Breton to Newfoundland. Seven RCAF-WD members also died in service during the war.
These dangers continue today as the evolving roles of women in the Canadian Forces move them into perilous new duties. For example, Captain Nicola Goddard, a forward artillery observer, died in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2006. She was the first Canadian woman to be killed while serving in a combat role.
During the First and Second World Wars, many women felt they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enlist and help their country in any way that was needed. Their changing roles during these turbulent years helped lead to great changes in the way society looked at women. Their service and sacrifice during the First World War helped influence the decision to grant federal voting rights to many Canadian women in 1917. The efforts of these pioneering women helped open the door for the women who serve in a broad array of roles in the Canadian Forces today.
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