Invisible Women: WWII Aboriginal Servicewomen in Canada

By Brian Wright-McLeod
News From Indian Country March 2011

The year 2010 marked the 125th anniversary of women in Canada's military, beginning with the nursing work in the Northwest Uprising 1885, the Yukon Field Force of 1898, and three contingents in the South African (Boer) War 1899 - 1902, with a permanent Nursing Service in 1901, and both World Wars to current-day service.

An overlooked topic, aboriginal women’s military service in Canada is both revealing and long overdue. Complete with an extensive bibliographical and chapter notes, Poulin’s first book features many black and white photographs, personal letters and testimonials culled from interviews with eighteen Canadian aboriginal women who served in various branches of the military during the First and Second World Wars. The oldest veteran profiled is Edith Anderson from Six Nations near Brantford, Ontario who served in the US Nursing Corps in 1917-1918.

A general overview in the introduction provides details of official government policy toward and how it affected the aboriginal servicemen and women. As veterans, many of them were not informed of available benefits for their wartime service and discrepancies for compensation under the land allotment for veterans of the First World War.  Generally, their treatment as veterans is underlined by the fact that Natives in Canada did not receive the right to vote until 1961, nor were they allowed into any Royal Canadian Legion Halls.

Each chapter tells the story of the women from reserves and urban areas who enlisted in the CWACS (Canadian Women’s Army Corps Service created in 1941), the RCAF WD (Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division) and the WRCNS (Women’s Royal Canadian Navy Service or Wrens), formed in 1942 and styled after their British counterparts the WRNS, the Women’s Royal Navy Service which was established in 1917.

Upon enlistment, women required three references either from a clergyman, from a businessman and from a non-relative; requirements were relaxed as the war progressed. Reactions and attitudes towards women in uniform were not localized to any specific area but in Quebec one Curé said “those ‘whores’ aren’t welcome in my church.”

  Invisible Women, back of Book
All across the country women in the military had been ridiculed and sometimes treatment was severe. “My relatives viewed it [uniform] with absolute horror. Old family friends actually crossed the street rather than meet me in uniform. A lot of men snickered behind their hands and a lot of mothers thought it was degrading.”

Some long-established traditions were challenged. For example, the Naval Service maintained an official policy that required personnel to be of “Pure European Descent and of the White Race” before an application would even be accepted. There were three reasons given for this racial policy. Firstly, officials claimed that “the confined living quarters of the Navy did not lend themselves to the mixing of White and Indian races.” Secondly, the Navy issued daily rations of rum (grog), an old tradition of the Royal Navy and since it was illegal for Indians to consume or buy alcohol, the Admiralty surmised that this would “stimulate ill-feelings among the Indian servicemen.” Thirdly, other races such as Asians employed on “big” ships (cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers) worked as stewards and servants but dined apart from the Whites. His Majesty’s Naval Service Regulations for “Maltese, Foreigners and Men of Colour” stated, “Only men and boys who are sons of British-born subjects are to be entered or re-entered in any branch of Naval Service.”

Although this policy pertains to enlistment, the fact that races other than white were employed on the ships suggests that Canadian Indians were treated differently than other racial groups. The Dominion Navy’s parent was the Royal Navy and common traditions, regulations and policies derived from it. The transfer of vessels and personnel between the British and Canadians was common and thus reinforced the Anglo-Saxon standard. Although the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) did accept Métis and enfranchised Indians, all of whom were as much Indian as those under the Indian Act, many Registered (Status) Indians felt the discrimination of the Royal Canadian Navy with its initial “colour barrier.”

In 1943 the Privy Council resolved that “the Army and Air Force are accepting for Active Service personnel of any racial origin. It is essential that the Canadian Naval Service adopt a similar policy.” Most women enlisted from 1942 onward, with no evidence of enforcement of the policy “Of Pure European Descent and of the White Race.”

Reports of overt sexual assaults seemed to depend on where the women were posted or how many ‘old boy’ officers they encountered. As with most of the female volunteers whose work was trivialized and whose contributions were generally assumed to be unimportant, dreams of going overseas never materialized and the duties were mundane and routine. Almost all women, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, served in medical, clerical, culinary or service roles that fitted male expectations of women’s roles in the work force, and they served at a lower pay scale than that of men. They all felt that the military experience was good for them and it offered a personal growth that otherwise may not have transpired. It also gave the women feelings of accomplishment and confidence in themselves.

Some of the women did not recollect encountering prejudicial attitudes whatsoever during their years in the service, yet racial discrimination did occur. One veteran recalled being left in the middle of the dance floor after her dance partner discovered her heritage. Another remembered having a lit cigarette pushed into the side of her nose when it was learned that she was aboriginal.

Aboriginal women dreamed as other women who sought adventure by entering military service and gaining economic stability after the Great Depression, a chance to get away from home, and hopes of furthering their education. They all admittedly felt some trepidation upon enlistment, but their concerns were offset by pride in their units and their duty to their country in a time of war. They found no justice at home after the conflict but endured to make a difference. Invisible Women is a wonderful little book that casts a light into a much ignored, misunderstood and important chapter in Native history.
Publication of Invisible Women: WWII Aboriginal Servicewomen in Canada was sponsored by the Native Women’s Association.

Copies from the author On The Net:
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.