The participation of Canadian women in the Armed Forces has been profoundly influenced by two distinct groups, the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) and the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS).
Both groups are featured at CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum, along with the compelling stories of individual women who gave their best in difficult, demanding circumstances.
The Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC)
On August 13, 1941, the Canadian Army received permission to found a women's auxiliary corps. On August 29, 1941, just days after this permission was granted, the first Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) office was opened at Esquimalt's Work Point Barracks, then the home of Military District 11 (BC) Headquarters.
On February 20th, 2000, at Canadian Force Base Esquimalt, a plaque was dedicated to commemorate the national significance of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. It reads:
"Women's service in the military during the Second World War challenged the tradition of all-male armed forces. Between 1941 and 1946, close to 22,000 volunteers enlisted in the CWAC and were posted to bases at home and abroad. Working in such unconventional settings transformed their lives and ambitions. Joan Kennedy, later its commander, opened the first CWAC office on the Esquimalt base on 29 August 1941. The Corps contributed to the Allied victory, paved the way for future generations of Canadian service women, and raised questions about the equality of women in the civilian world."
During the Second World War, close to 22,000 women enlisted in the CWAC. By 1944, CWACs were being assigned to clerical and other duties in combat zones, a major departure from tradition (in previous wars, women were largely limited to serving as nurses; this was the first war in which they enlisted for duties other than nursing). Approximately 3,000 CWACs were sent overseas to Great Britain, Italy and Northwest Europe to support the invading Canadian Army. In May 1945, the Corps made up 2.8% of the total army complement.
The CWAC was disbanded in May 1946. In response to the Korean conflict, recruitment into the CWAC was reintroduced in 1951. The Corps was again disbanded in 1964.
Despite their contribution and abilities, women in military roles were not generally accepted, and were paid only two-thirds of the basic pay allotted to men.
The CWAC contributed to the Allied victory, paved the way for future generations of Canadian service women, and raised questions about the equality of all women.
Early in 2000, nearly 60 years after the first CWAC office was opened on the base, CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum was pleased to become the museum representing the proud heritage of the CWAC.
Service in the Canadian Women's Army Corps cost Evelyn Connor her life. Private Connor, of Esquimalt, BC, is one of 25 CWACs who died as a result of accident, injury or disease while on active duty. Private Connor was just 24 when she was struck and killed by a bus during the London blackout. She had only been overseas for 14 months.
Her niece Colleen Tahouney of Esquimalt remembers Evelyn as a vivacious young woman with a lively sense of humour. A loving aunt, she sent regular postcards home to her family in Canada. One of those postcards is shown here.
Private Connor is buried at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, England.
Without women like Minnie (Jerri) Mumford, the Canadian Women's Army Corps could not have achieved the organizational strength needed to attract quality volunteer candidates into the military. Sgt. Mumford was instrumental in establishing a service corps for women at a time when there was little official support for female participation in the army.
In 1940, Jerri Mumford was commandant of the Halifax Women's Service Corps, eastern Canada's equivalent of the women's corps established by the late Col. Joan Kennedy in BC. The Halifax corps numbered more than 250 'girls', and was patterned after the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). They made history on Armistice Day 1940 by marching in uniform to the Halifax cenotaph, thus marking the first time a women's service had ever participated in such an event. A year later, the Canadian Women's Army Corps was established.
She was among the first draft of CWACs to be selected for overseas duty. While stationed in London during the Battle of Britain, she fought fires and worked to save people while the bombs were falling.
In 1944, Jerri Mumford was one of only 11 CWACs chosen to go with the invading forces to Italy. She remained in Italy for a year, attached to a medical unit where she sometimes worked days at a time without sleep in order to help evacuate the wounded.
Working in such unconventional settings transformed the lives and ambitions of women in the CWAC. The Corps contributed to the Allied victory, paved the way for future generations of Canadian service women, and raised questions about women's equality in the civilian world.