Canadian Women’s Army Corps

Thanks to Pat, for organizing yet another terrific event for the sister-friends, yesterday afternoon, at the Lougheed House.  We wanted to include something special for this year’s commemoration of Remembrance Day and thought this would be different.  Proudly They Served takes into account the participation and commitment of Canadian women during World War II as they served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.  From the Lougheed House, programs and exhibits…

Proudly They Served: Canadian Women’s Army Corps, October 21st, 2015 until January 17th, 2016

Learn about the history of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) and the role of Lougheed House in providing a Calgary barracks during World War II. Hear stories firsthand in the audio tour component of the exhibit from women who worked as switchboard operators, cipher decoders, drivers, cooks and clerks during WWII. Collections featured in the exhibition include artifacts, oral histories and photographs from the Lougheed House Conservation Society, the Military Museums, the Glenbow Archives and a private collection.

WWII code breaking happened beyond Bletchley Park! Yesterday, we heard the story of Canadian Women’s Army Corp’s Veteran, Rose Wilkinson, who served as a cipher decoder. The talk was led by Lougheed House Curator, Trisha Carleton. Gathered in the beautiful Lougheed House and drinking tea from flowered cups, we enjoyed a very pleasurable and informative event.

While the sound system didn’t support the large numbers who turned out for the event, Rose was warm and well-spoken, as she shared her experience…an 18 year old farm girl who, once her two brothers went overseas, was determined to do her part in the war effort and so, against all odds, she joined up.

Many personal vignettes and narratives were shared.  Rose was grateful for the uniform, having only ever dressed in hand-me-downs.  Her brown oxfords were the first pair of brand new shoes she had ever owned.  The bunk where she slept in training was the first time she found herself actually sleeping alone, given the family’s sparse possessions.  It  took her a few nights before she got used to that.

Rose shared contributions of champion, Mary Dover to the cause, as she spoke eloquently about the differences for women in the military, at the time, as compared to a life in the military for men.  She described having had tomatoes thrown at her as she got of the train at Ottawa.  Society didn’t accept such radical change.  A woman’s place was at home.

As we listened, I could not help but feel very proud of women…not just women who served, but women at home.  Their skills became extremely diverse as they took the place of their husbands, fathers and brothers on the farms and in businesses.  In fact, just last night, I learned that my own grandmother, Florence Elliott, before even marrying my grandfather, had a job in a munitions factory, where she tamped down powder in gun shells. (A narrative I hadn’t heard until speaking about it with my father on Skype last night.)  While women’s careers in the military may still seem to us today as ‘women’s work’, these young women were among those who paved the way for women today.  Women received ninety cents a day for their service at the time, compared to the almost dollar and a ninety cents earned by the men.

Rose spoke of the fact that she was never sent overseas and regrets that to this day, but worked very hard ciphering code, specific to the Canadian armed forces.  She was only ever tempted to share messages one time…and that was when she received a code regarding her own two brothers who were listed among the missing in action.  In the end, the two had been wounded and sent home, safe.  Rose resisted the temptation to share the news with her mother at the time although she knew that her brothers were facing some sort of calamity or even dead.

When the talk concluded, I made it my business to go and introduce myself to the four female Veterans who were in attendance and to thank them for their service.  I feel so proud of them and will cherish their stories.

This exhibit will be available for viewing through to January and I strongly recommend that my readers in Calgary attend.

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2 thoughts on “Canadian Women’s Army Corps

  1. A fellow family researcher sent this to me, knowing my interest in the CWAC. My mother served with them beginning in 1942. In 2013, Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alberta (formerly the Vermilion Agricultural School) held a celebration of the CWAC during the 100th anniversary of the college. During the war, the college was taken over by the CWAC and became the Western Canadian training Centre. My mom trained in eastern Canada, but knew some of the women who were from the west. For some reason, I recognized then name Mary Dover. For the celebration, I prepared a presentation on the CWAC and also told some of the stories my mom shared with me as I grew up and also, shortly before her death – some were very similar to those you heard in this presentation. Wonderful stories that tell of new perspectives on womens’ lives and roles at the time. I have been privileged to have been able to share my article on historical blogs in England and on some Great War research sites and genealogical sites here in Canada.

    I will be in Calgary during the Christmas season so will do my best to see the exhibit, and, hopefully encourage my nieces to come with me to learn something pretty special about their own heritage. The CWAC were an important part of our lives (my siblings and I) growing up and we were so proud our mom had been with the corps!

    Thanks so much for this excellent page and all the photos…they were fond reminders of what I remember seeing in the attic and in mom’s closet:-). Sincerely, Susan [Hillman] Brazeau

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