It Was Their War Too: Canadian Women in World War I

Table of Contents

  1. Dedication
  2. Foreword
  3. Preface
  4. Copyright
  5. Chapter 1: Before the War
    1. Introduction
    2. Women’s Organizations
    3. Actions: Mock Parliament
  6. Chapter 2: On the Home Front
    1. Introduction
    2. Propaganda
    3. The Story of the Autograph Quilt
    4. Parcels for Soldiers
    5. Universal Black Cross Nurses
    6. Women’s Home Guards
    7. Women on the Farm
    8. Opposition to the War
    9. New Opportunities for Employment
      1. “We’ll allot you the first set of the howitzer shells”
    10. Ada Kelly
    11. On their Own
  7. Chapter 3: The Fight for the Vote
    1. Introduction
    2. The Arguments
    3. Sufferage to the Forefront
    4. The Conscription Crisis
      1. Conscription Crisis 1917: Sequence of Events
    5. Women Exercise their Federal Franchise
      1. The Alberta Military Representation Act
  8. Chapter 4: Far from Home
    1. Introduction
    2. Edith Parkin
    3. Nursing Sisters
      1. Georgina Pope
      2. Margaret Macdonald
      3. Margaret Lowe
      4. Ella Mae Bongard
      5. Elizabeth Smellie
      6. Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture
  9. No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, France, 1918
    1. Speaking to the War
    2. Nursing Sisters Who Lost their Lives in World War 1
    3. Medical Doctors
      1. Dr. Irma LeVasseur
      2. Dr. Mary Lee Edward
    4. Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs)
      1. Jane Walters
      2. Grace MacPherson Livingston
    5. All Work and No Play…
      1. Jane Walters recalls:
  10. Chapter 5: After World War I
    1. Introduction
    2. A Society Transformed
    3. Loss and Remembrance
      1. Mary Riter Hamilton
      2. The Battlefield Paintings
    4. Looking to the Future
    5. The Persons Case
  11. Classroom Activities
    1. Chapter 2: On the Home Front
      1. Knowledge and Understanding
      2. Thinking, Inquiring, Communicating
      3. Research
      4. Applying Knowledge
    2. Chapter 3: The Fight for the Vote
      1. Knowledge and Understanding
      2. Thinking, Inquiring, Communicating
      3. Research
      4. Applying Knowledge
    3. Chapter 4: Far from Home
      1. Knowledge and Understanding
      2. Thinking, Inquiring, Communicating
      3. Research
      4. Applying Knowledge
    4. Chapter 5: After World War I
      1. Knowledge and Understanding
      2. Thinking, Inquiring, Communicating
      3. Research
      4. Applying Knowledge
    5. Selected Resources
      1. Books
      2. Videos
      3. Websites
      4. Poster
    6. Credits
      1. Preface
      2. Chapter 1: Before the War
      3. Chapter 2: On the Home Front
      4. Chapter 3: The Fight for the Vote
      5. Chapter 4: Far from Home
      6. Chapter 5: After World War I
      7. Selected Classroom Activities
      8. Selected Resources
      9. Credits


This book is dedicated to the memory of Robert Thomas Staton, 1932-2004.

Husband, father, grandfather, feminist, friend.


Truth has long been recognized as the first casualty of conflict, so it is not surprising that representations of war have so often erased the role of women. As Canadians use the anniversaries of our wartime engagement to reflect on our contributions, it is time to correct the oversight.

This book makes clear that women from every community were at the heart of our national war efforts, and were pivotal players in the resulting social and economic change.

Canada’s engagement in the First World War is cited as a turning point for the country. Between 1914 and 1918, our economy shifted in emphasis from farming to industry. Massive migration into cities made us a more urban nation. This exerted profound impacts at home, at work, and on our public health and welfare systems.

Women served by the thousands, despite their status as second-class citizens. Many nurses did so close to the front lines. On the home front, women gave blood, made weapons, and tilled fields. And yet, although the need for their talents was desperate, they still had to push against deep-seated discrimination to expand their roles. In the process, they challenged the exclusive power of men that prevented them from voting, holding public office and wielding serious influence in all arenas. Across the country, increasing numbers of women fought family law inequities, broke down higher education barriers, and propelled themselves into the public sphere. They became active leaders in all the key social, economic and political reforms of the time.

Securing equal rights for all women, regardless of race or origin, has taken decades, and remains unfinished, but the social disruption of the First World War, and the demonstrated contributions women made to its cause, helped them kick open the door.

We are grateful for their work. Many of us have a family connection with the First World War. Nancy Ruth’s grandfather, Newton Wesley Rowell, K.C., was President of the Privy Council and served in the War Committee of the federal Cabinet. It, convened a conference of more than 75 women from all parts of Canada. Rowell tabled the report resulting from the Women’s War Conference in the House of Commons. Her grandmother, Nell Langford Rowell, strongly advocated for this conference. No doubt there was some “pillow talk” about this!

The report’s recommendations in the areas of health, welfare, education and work specifically addressed what women needed in order to contribute fully to Canada. They embodied hope for “a new era”: an era that would emphasize safety measures and the protection of children; implement equal pay and a minimum wage; establish a federal department of public health, and oversee women’s appointment to public bodies.

A century later, our progress is clear, but so is the evidence that our work is not done.

[*Elizabeth Atcheson and Nancy Ruth *
Women’s History Month (October) 2015]


Most accounts of the 1914-18 war, commonly referred to afterward as the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars,” as though such a disaster could or would ever be repeated, focus on the political causes and horrifying loss of life in the bombings and trench warfare. The aftermath is usually described in terms of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the devastation wrought by the worldwide flu epidemic, which added to the death toll.

The contributions of, and consequences for, women’s participation in the war effort are not well documented. A number of published diaries of nursing sisters who saw service on the battlefields in France (see Bongard, Gass) and the National Film Board’s “And We Knew How to Dance” do provide some details of the daily lives of these courageous women. The objective of this book is to bring together documents, posters, photographs, diaries, short essays and brief biographies to present a range of experiences of Canadian women.

The Great War changed the lives of Canadian women as well as the men. The lives of those men who did return from war service were forever altered and they returned to a changed society. But women’s lives were changed as well. Their organizational experience had stood them in good stead; they gained new job skills and many, although not all, women gained the vote.

Women, having learned to operate factory machinery, make financial decisions and run farms, small businesses and homes on their own, did not react positively to calls to return to their pre-war roles. There was a new sense of freedom in the air, characterized by simpler, more comfortable clothes, new music and new job opportunities. There would be no return to the confining Edwardian dress, all-male professions and restrictions on political participation.

Though pressure was applied for women to give up their jobs to homecoming servicemen and return to their “natural” places as the keepers of the hearth, many women refused to do so, and indeed the huge loss of life on the battlefields of Europe and in the flu epidemic meant that marriage and motherhood were closed for many women. A generation of men was lost and so women turned willingly to other options.


© Nancy’s Very Own Foundation 2015

Revised Edition. Issued in electronic format. ISBN 978-0-9949108-1-3

Originally published in a print edition:

Green Dragon Press [2006], ISBN 1-896781-16-0




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Chapter 1: Before the War


The period before World War I saw great changes in Canadian society. Rural populations moved to the factories and commerce of the cities. Between 1896 and 1912, two to three million people immigrated to this country, most of them European and white since official government policy made it almost impossible for Asians and Blacks to come here. In that same period, for example, fewer than a thousand of those immigrants were Black.

Urban growth brought unheard-of opportunities as well as new social problems. Agitation for workers’ rights continued. And the movement for women’s rights to education and the vote gathered even more momentum than it had over the previous decades.

Women’s Organizations

Since the late 1870s, North America had been experiencing the birth of a reform movement – the first stage of feminism. Thousands of middle-class women became involved as volunteers with the creation of parks and recreation programs for children and improving public health. Women also became involved with the temperance movement, which advocated for the prohibition of alcohol, because it was seen as a threat to the stability of the family. While their main objective was not votes for women, they soon realized voting was a way to achieve the desired changes by making their voices heard through the democratic process. Across the country, women mobilized to advocate for the right to vote. But discussion about women’s “proper sphere” continued.

A 1914 headline in the Albertan asked rhetorically, “Should women interfere in Civic Life?” The article led with this line: “What is woman’s sphere and woman’s work? Should women take any part in the outside world?” It went on to report on a debate of the local council executive, where a councillor warned that: “The women of today are shirking their proper responsibilities and the day would come when the men would have to cook the meals, while the women were out legislating.”

In any event, women were not “out legislating” but they were taking on new roles. It has been estimated that during the period just prior to and after the turn of the twentieth century, nine out of every ten women in Canada belonged to some kind of organization. Through their political and social activities, and sometimes through the men they knew, these organizations provided women’s main access to political power. Power and influence, however limited, were far more available to white middle-class women than to Black, Aboriginal, working-class or immigrant women. A large number of national voluntary philanthropic and religious organizations developed in the late 1880s, including inter-denominational groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), cultural organizations like the Women’s Art Association of Canada, and purely charitable societies. Now they began to organize as women around women’s issues.

Women took the skills they had developed at home, at church and in the collective sharing of work in the early days of the country, and applied them to organizing for the vote and for prohibition, which they felt would solve the social problems of the family, poverty and disease, and for justice for women in the workplace.

The events they organized included carrying suffrage banners in Labour Day and Dominion Day (now Canada Day) parades, organizing local meetings such as the 1896 gathering of seven women teachers that launched the Toronto Women Teachers’ Association, a founding association of the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario (FWTAO), and impressive, well organized demonstrations like the one in 1909 by the Canadian Suffrage Association, the powerful Women’s Christian Temperance Union and hundreds of members from fourteen suffrage societies. One thousand women marched to the Ontario Legislature. A petition of 100,000 names of people supporting suffrage was presented. The demonstration, its participants and the causes it represented were ignored.

Actions: Mock Parliament

Women organizers understood how to organize entertainment and use humour to make a point. One endeavour, repeated with good effect several times, was the Mock Parliament. The first, staged in Winnipeg in 1893 by Dr. Amelia Yeomans, journalist E. Cora Hinds and Mrs. J. A. McClung, a temperance advocate who was the future mother-in-law of Nelly McClung, featured women taking roles for and against suffrage. It received excellent media coverage.

Three years later in 1896, a similar event organized in Toronto’s Allan Gardens by the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association in co-operation with the Ontario WCTU attracted attention to the suffrage cause.

Later, in 1914, the day after Manitoba Premier Roblin again stated his opposition to votes for women, Nellie McClung and the Political Equity League staged a mock “Women’s Parliament” in the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg. It was such a success that it was repeated twice to sold-out audiences. The proceeds from the ticket sales financed the rest of the Manitoba “Votes for Women” campaign.

Men supporters were well represented in the audience and some took part in the play. Women played the parts of the Premier and MPPs, and debated the pros and cons of granting men the vote, exposing the sanctimonious and contradictory arguments used by male politicians to deny female suffrage. They received a deputation of vote-seeking men pushing a wheelbarrow full of petitions. The Premier, played by McClung, congratulated the men on their “splendid appearance,” but told them “man is made for something higher and better than voting.”

“Men were made to support families. What is a home without a bank account? In this agricultural province, the man’s place is the farm. Shall I call man away from the useful plough and barrow to talk loud on street corners about things which do not concern him? Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills – broken furniture, and broken vows – and divorce…When you ask for the vote you are asking me to break up peaceful happy homes – to wreck innocent lives…It may be that I am old-fashioned,” she concluded. “I may be wrong. After all, men may be human. Perhaps the time will come when men may vote with women.” And she assured them solemnly that, “The man who pays the grocer rules the world.” McClung was faithfully echoing the words and tone of Premier Roblin speaking to the suffragists the day before, and the crowd applauded wildly.

In 1896, a Mock Parliament event organized in Toronto’s Allan Gardens by the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association and the Ontario WCTU attracted attention to the suffrage cause. The “Plan of Members’ Seats” included in the programme for the event identified the women who participated as “Members of Parliament.” A number of well-known women activists and educators participated, including Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, Ada Marean Hughes, and Letitia Youmans.

Although large influential national women’s organizations did not include Black women, they organized too. Wives of Black railroad workers founded the Coloured Women’s Club of Montreal in 1902. The aim of the club was to bring attention to the problems faced by Blacks in Montreal, especially racial discrimination. They also assisted newly arrived Black immigrants.

When Great Britain and her allies France and Russia went to war against Germany and Austria, in August 1914, Canada became involved.

Although Confederation had made Canada a separate country in 1867, Canada was still part of the British Empire. When Britain declared war on Germany, Canada was at war automatically. At the beginning of the war, Canada had a very small voluntary military, however, by the fall of 1914, 33,000 Canadians landed in Britain for training.

Those men, who had been at the core of the workforce, left it at exactly the time when increased productivity became essential in order to sustain life at home and supply the war effort. This absence of men and the tremendously increasingly demand for workers created both new stresses and unprecedented opportunities for women at home and abroad. The organizing skills they had learned would equip them to face the challenges ahead.

Chapter 2: On the Home Front


World War I demanded the participation of a large number of Canadian men. This opened up many opportunities for women that were previously closed to them. Women were an essential component of the Canadian war effort and their efforts on the home front, in the factories, as well as on the battlefield, were important to a successful outcome.

Thousands of women were employed by the military, working at a variety of jobs such as motor transport work. Many went overseas as ambulance drivers, worked in supply depots and as trained nurses and nursing aids. A total of 3,141 women served as Nursing Sisters in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. At least forty-six died during the war from drowning, disease and air raids that struck field hospitals. A number of wealthy women organized relief efforts in Belgium and France.

Most Canadian women supported the war but a few did not. Some of the women who objected worked in the peace movement.

As the propaganda mills swung into action, appealing to women to “send their men to war,” and to take up their tasks at home, women volunteers organized hospitals, nursing homes and canteens. They rolled bandages and helped tend to the wounded. Thousands of other women worked in Canadian weapons factories. Between 5,000 and 6,000 women were employed in the civil service and many others worked in offices and on farms. Women also organized charitable associations and sent food and supplies to the soldiers overseas. Thousands of socks and blankets were sent overseas to battlefronts.

There was even a brief flirtation with civil defence, though the idea of women armed with rifles was too much for the authorities and the effort was soon squelched.



Mass media, in the form of large newspapers, glossy magazines and widespread radio communication, was an invention of the twentieth century. It made it possible to spread systematic advertising of the point of view of those in power in an entirely new way. A huge propaganda campaign, of a scope and influence never before possible, began early in World War I. Its aim was to pressure even guilt men into fighting and women into serving to support the war.

Notices published in newspapers urged women to pressure men to go to war, and posters used images of women to encourage men to enlist. Advertisements for specific products urged women to stay strong and healthy to help with the war effort and to buy certain products to make sure they did.

Many of these notices and advertisements used military language in their efforts to make women feel part of the war. Thus, once the women “enlisted” and were “serving on the home front,” they were urged to make specific contributions. These requests included tobacco. This may seem odd to us now, but clearly it was considered essential for the men fighting in the trenches.

One such contribution was to send supplemental supplies to the soldiers. Before the war had gone on for long, every woman in Canada was either related to or knew men at the front, and women’s organizations, both established and new, responded enthusiastically to the challenge.

The Story of the Autograph Quilt

Each name on the quilt represents a donation of ten cents, which went to the Grand Valley Red Cross society to be spent eventually on supplies and comforts for the soldiers from the village. Donors wrote their names on the squares, the women embroidered the names and then the quilt was assembled and displayed in its finished state. The money collected was used to buy supplies – wool to knit sweaters, and treats and medicines for the soldiers. While the society was trying to decide where to send it to do the most good, a call for bedding came from the front-line hospitals in Europe. So it was enclosed in a shipment to France. Nothing more was heard of it for several years.

Then one day, quite a while after the end of the war, a citizen whose name appeared on the quilt was amazed to receive a parcel from France, which contained a dirty old quilt, stiff and stained. It was the autograph quilt.

It was accompanied by a letter, which told of its being found in an Allied trench after the end of hostilities, by a Frenchman, who, realizing the possible value it might have as a souvenir of the war, took it home.

Then one day he thought that perhaps the quilt should be sent back to Canada to a name and place on the quilt. So back across the sea it came.

It was washed as clean as possible, and hung in the entrance of the then new Carnegie library. A local resident remembered that the colours were a vivid red and a pure white except where a stain remained to tell of the heroism of some brave man. Faded from years of hanging on the library lobby wall, in her mind it was still as beautiful as ever. When the library was being redecorated, it was decided to take down the quilt and burn it, along with old books and papers. Birdie Boswell’s father, William George Boswell, rescued the quilt and took it home. Later he gave it to his daughter. She kept the quilt safe for several decades and then when the Dufferin Museum was built, the Autograph Quilt found a new home.

Courtesy of the Dufferin County Museum & Archives

Parcels for Soldiers

Women’s groups met regularly to pack Red Cross parcels. The Labour Gazette reported in July 1915, “The efforts of the various women’s organizations of the city have been for the last months in the direction of patriotic work. During the month of June, twelve tons of linen was collected by the Daughters of the Empire and forwarded to the headquarters of the Red Cross Society in England, while socks to the number of 1,800 pairs were collected on Empire Day and sent to England to be distributed among the soldiers.”

And in Dufferin County, Ontario, women met to hear musical entertainment, a paper about cereals and their value as breakfast foods, and a reading of “Waterloo.” They sang “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary” as they sorted and recorded the articles made by the group to be sent to England. A roll call was held, each woman giving her place of birth, and the meeting ended with the singing of “God Save the King.”

As the war neared its end, Black women formed the Women’s Charitable Benevolent Association to look after the poor and sick, to run soup kitchens and to provide temporary homes for returning soldiers.

Not only did women gather food and clothing for the war effort, they had to raise funds to send the goods because there was no discount in postage to send these things overseas. The federal government said it could not allow parcels addressed to soldiers in France to be sent for free or reduced rates because postage rates are fixed by international agreements. Those agreements did allow for parcels to be sent free of charge to prisoners of war.

Women’s organizational skills provided the basis for their expanded work, both volunteer and paid, in support of the war effort. Established organizations expanded or changed their focus, and new groups sprang up.

Middle-class and well-to-do women formed knitting and sewing clubs. Knitting even became acceptable in church. Women made garments for men stationed overseas, rolled bandages and raised money for hospitals and canteens on the front.


Universal Black Cross Nurses

In Vancouver, women of the Garvey Movement (Black nationalism) organized a branch of the Universal Black Cross Nurses, and Negro societies in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax solicited funds and distributed propaganda leaflets, occasionally in cooperation with larger white fraternal organizations. (Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005, p. 319) At least one Black woman trained as a nurse in New York, and is believed to be the first

Black nurse to practice in Canada during WW1, though not overseas. While Black women were excluded from most of the better-paying jobs in munitions factories, they did find ways to help the war effort, and it was a Black woman, Hattie Rhue Hatchett, from North Buxton, Ontario, who wrote the song, “The Sacred Spot,” which the soldiers adopted as a marching song.

Women’s Home Guards

During World War I, Canadians believed that a German invasion was a real possibility. As a nation within the British Empire, Canada felt as vulnerable to invasion as Britain itself. So, on the one hand, for women to take up arms came as a real shock. On the other hand, by forming paramilitary organizations and learning to shoot, they were simply preparing to defend their country should the worst happen and enemy troops land in Canada.

Between 1914 and 1916, women’s home guards became active in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto. Jessica McNab, founder of the Toronto Home Guard, pointed out that trained and armed women would free more men for, “overseas duties.

At the very least…military drill and discipline,” McNab contended, would produce “a body of women whose muscles and nerves are under perfect control (who) would be a tower of strength in an emergency.”

In many parts of Canada, women enrolled in civil defense courses to protect their homes against invaders and saboteurs. A group of Toronto women, pictured here, learn to fire rifles in 1915. The group was organized by Jessie McNab. Lt. Col. J. Galloway supervised training.

Women on the Farm

Many farm workers enlisted in the army, and if Canada was going to produce enough food, labourers had to be found. Farm work, promoted as a paying job, in fact became a drain on the financial resources of many women. Pay was usually $4.00 a week. In many places, room and board were provided, but in the Niagara area, the women had to pay for both and were required also to help with food preparation and clean-up, and to keep the grounds, where they lived in tents, clean and maintained.

When rain or lack of crops depleted the work, a woman could pay more for her keep than she earned in a week. Complaints about this kind of exploitation were echoed from Prince Edward Island to the prairies. However many who stuck with it long enough came to enjoy living on the land and farming.

The need to send inexperienced women from the cities to work on farms arose because the demands of war had created a shortage of labour in many Ontario industries; agriculture was no exception. Farmers, desperate for workers, although skeptical of the plan, finally agreed to listen to a government scheme to use ‘city girls’ to harvest small fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, applies, tomatoes and beans

Report of the Trades and Labour Branch for 1917, Vol I, Part IV, 1918, p. 47

Actually, it was not unusual for Ontario farmers to use working-class and Native girls and women during the harvest. However, the increased opportunities for such women to work in urban factories during the war and the overwhelming demand for food created by the war effort forced farmers to consider new sources of labour. Many middle-class women students did not work for pay during the summer months and these were seen as a potential new labour source.

At twenty-three, Erskine Keys had just graduated from the University of Toronto. She was one of many women from urban centers who went to Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula during the summers of 1917 and 1918 to harvest fruit. While she was there, Keys wrote home almost every day. In her first week in the countryside she complained of the lack of work due to bad weather in this letter to her mother.

“I’d give anything to come home…this is not a paying job…only 3 hours of work all week…It’s too expensive to stay here doing nothing {never mind} the agony. I can’t stand it… the fields are full of water…I’ll come home and work, at least there will be no board to pay…I told one man that I had left a perfectly good job in the city and he told me to go back to it.”

(Before going to Beamsville, Keys worked at the T. Eaton Company and at the Maclean Publishing Company for $7.35 and $7.50 per week respectively.)

Excerpt from: “…this is not a paying job”: the Farmerette Movement in Ontario during the Great War by Margaret Kechni

Opposition to the War

Francis Beynon was one feminist who was certainly not a “wholehearted, uncritical patriot.” The daughter of Methodist farmers who moved from Ontario to southwestern Manitoba and then to Winnipeg, the strong-minded and eloquent young woman saw Winnipeg as a place to found a new social order. She wanted to make Christianity relevant to the modern world, but was wary of the notion of a socialist utopia. She was hired as women’s editor of the Grain Growers Guide. At first she was popular, though her columns dealt more with women’s rights and pacifism than household questions.

With the onset of the war, Beynon assumed that feminists would lead the fight to end the war. This, and her commitment to the immigrants in the north end of Winnipeg, set her against Nellie McClung and the majority of women in the suffrage movement, most of whom were upper-class and British in origin, and many of whom had sons in the trenches (as did McClung). McClung actually argued that only women born in Canada or Britain should be given the vote, and in fact she would urge women to use their vote to support conscription.

Prior to the war, prejudice against foreign born people certainly existed, but the war provided an excuse to openly express distrust of people who had come from countries Canada was fighting. Beynon continued her outspoken opposition to the war and was finally forced out of her job at the paper and moved to New York in 1917 to join her sister and brother-in-law, the journalist Vernon Thomas, who had himself been fired from the Winnipeg Free Press for publicly supporting left-wing MPP F.J. Dixon’s antiwar speech in the provincial legislature.

In her farewell column, Francis explained that she was going to, “that Mecca for all writers…the city of New York.” She later published a novel, Aleta Dey. The heroine was a Winnipeg farm journalist, feminist, and Christian pacifist, and many viewed the book as autobiographical.

Beynon worked at a mission and wrote a few articles for American reform journals but little else is known about her years in New York. She returned only once to Winnipeg just before her death in 1951.

New Opportunities for Employment

Perhaps the greatest change for women during World War I was the tremendous expansion of opportunities for employment. Of course women had always worked in the home, and many widowed, single and/or poor women had worked, often in very poor conditions and almost always for far less pay than men doing comparable jobs. But many kinds of work we expect to see women doing were, before 1914, closed to any woman, however qualified, however able and eager to do the work. Women who had never been in paid employment and women who had been domestic servants, clerks or factory workers moved into better-paying jobs. More than 30,000 women went to work in munitions factories, between five and six thousand entered the civil service, and many more worked in banks and offices.

Women in munitions factories worked between ten and sixteen hours a day and earned from $0.20 to $0.45 per hour. As the war continued, other industries such as aircraft production and shipbuilding opened to women. Female labour, however, was widely viewed as a temporary, a patriotic contribution to the war effort. When hostilities ended, so did many of the jobs. These new jobs had provided an independence the women had never experienced.

“We’ll allot you the first set of the howitzer shells”

The foreman met me at the door, and he just beckoned to me. The reason why he couldn’t say anything was because you couldn’t have heard him. I went through all these avenues and avenues of clanking, grinding, clashing machines. Some of them were so close together that in order to get to their machines they’d built a kind if a stile – several steps up, and then you walked across, and then you went down again…Well the foreman let me in behind this machine, and I stood by the wall and watched. He demonstrated how to do one shell, and then he pointed to me. And so I very gingerly walked up to the machine and did what he had done. Then he stood there and said ‘Again!” and I did another one. Then he just waved me goodbye and off he went. I was panic-stricken. But I got used to it, so used to it that pretty soon I was looking around me seeing what my fellow workers were like…

The shells came out of the blasting furnaces first, and then they would have to be put out into the yards to cool. And then gradually they were brought in and they were put on this conveyor belt. I was near the end with my back to the wall. Those things came along there, and there was a woman in front of me and on the opposite side to me, and she did the first cut and I did the first cut. We pushed a lever and that lifted the shells up onto this conveyor belt and then a man – I don’t know how he got there, I don’t know what he did – but I just remember that he did something that lowered it into our machines. When the shell came, I pushed this lever and the belt caused a knife to go just against the shell, and then it would start to peel. The shell was turning all the time. I pushed that lever against it. It would turn, and you had to quickly knock off these jagged long pieces before they got as far as your face, because they would just swing around, back and forth. You just knocked them off, and they fell behind the machinery. I imagine that every once in a while they had to go and clear all the jagged stuff out. Then the next machine to me did the next cut and so on until it got to the end of the row. Then it was just like a beautiful piece of polished steel. Then it had to go some other place for other things. Oh yes, and right over there where this thing was – it looked like a great big chisel – was this little tap. Just before you put your machine on, you turned on that little tap so it was pouring chemicals…that was what got all over us.

Elaine Nelson, from Daphne Read, ed., The Great War and Canadian Society: An Oral History (New Hogtown Press, 1978), p. 53

Even with all this need for workers, for the most part, the marketplace remained closed to Black women. While their voluntary contributions to the war were not turned down, and many of their men went off to do some of the worst jobs at the front, these women were not allowed to work in factories.

Robin Winks states that this was the lowest point in their history for the Black community in Canada. There were about 20,000 African Canadians in Canada at the time. Why did the dominant society need to treat a small, and in many cases invisible, group of people so badly? As Sylvia Hamilton notes, during this period, “African Canadian women…were facing widespread discrimination and exclusion in all aspects of their lives not only because of gender. For them, race also sharply etched the parameters of their place in Canadian society.” (Marguerite Alfred and Pat Staton, Black Women in Canada: Past and Present (Green Dragon Press, 2004).

Little documentation exists concerning First Nations and Asian women in paid employment during this period. In the west coast fishing industry, white men, Native men and Asian men worked on descending wage scales. Asian men made more than white women, and white women made more than Native women, who made more than Asian women. It appears that this system changed little if any during the war. If this kind of division by race at all reflects general trends, First Nations and Asian women remained almost entirely invisible, in dire poverty, and with little if any opportunity.

For many women who did have opportunities in the workforce, an entire new life opened up. In Kingston, Ontario, a woman walked into the office of the manager of the Kingston, Portsmouth and Cataraqui Electric Railway Company and requested a job as a conductor (she was called a “conductorette”). To ask an able-bodied man to do the job would keep him from active service, the job needed doing and she was able and eager. Since the manager could find no good reason to deny her the job, he hired her.

For one Black woman, though, the wartime shortage of teachers offered an opportunity.

Ada Kelly

Ada Kelly was the first Black woman hired to teach in the public school system in an Ontario School Board (Windsor, Ontario). Her Normal School principal wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation, although to our contemporary eyes it seems patronizing and even racist.

Aug 17th 1913
Windsor Collegiate Institute,Windsor, Ont., Windsor, Ont.,
F.P. Gavin, B.A.

W.J. Shreve, Esq.
Sec-Treas. Trustee Board
SS. # 4 Raleigh

Dear Sir,
I understand Miss Ada Kelly (coloured) of Windsor is an applicant for a position in your school. Permit me to say a word on her behalf. I had her in Windsor Collegiate Institute all through her High School course and know well her attainments and abilities.

She was one of our best students throughout her course and graduated with an unusually broad and thorough training. She is a young woman of good ability, studious habits and a very fine character. If I could afford a private teacher for my own children I know of no one whom I would sooner have.

If you can give the coloured girl the position I feel sure that you will not regret trying Miss Kelly if you should do so. She is a much better teacher than many a white girl. She is an attractive looking young woman, well mannered and always neatly dressed.

Yours truly,
F. P. Gavin

In 1916, her salary for the year was $650. Inspectors’ reports speak of her excellent teaching and organizational skills. In later life, she was a strong community leader and served as a mentor and example to many younger members of her extended family.

On their Own

For the women at home who had husbands, sons and brothers fighting in Europe, the stress was unimaginable. Many of those they loved would never return and all too many who did survive were damaged physically and often mentally and emotionally as a result of the horrors of war.

Waiting for letters, dreading the telegrams that could bring terrible news, they carried on as best they could, doing paid or volunteer war work, managing husbands’ businesses, raising children alone and trying to keep hope alive. Many soldiers’ wives and families faced destitution because, during the first months of the war, soldiers were not required to sign over portions of their pay to support their families at home, although some companies chose to continue to pay employees who enlisted. Even with the implementation of separation allowances, until the establishment of the Canadian Patriotic Fund, there were many cases of poverty.

Grace Morris’s brother Basil was the youngest officer in the No. 1 Canadian Tunneling Company, fighting underground, driving mineshafts deep below the earth of no man’s land; later, as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps, he flew above the enemy lines amidst the bursting shells. Her older brother Ramsey, a lieutenant in the 38th Battalion, led his men over the top of the trenches in the face of enemy fire.

At home, Grace knitted socks and scarves and packed boxes to be sent overseas. She worked in the canteen at Camp Petawawa and led the soldiers in the popular songs of the day. In November of 1916, Grace crossed the Atlantic to spend time with her brothers while they were on leave in England. In her ninetieth year, Grace produced her first book (Grace Morris Craig, But This is Our War, University of Toronto Press, 1981) which she began to write in order to tell her grandchildren about the Great War. She included dozens of letters received from the battlefield.

In the beginning, Basil’s letters to his sister were positive and cheerful, but as time wore on, although he attempted to remain positive, it was clear that stress had begun to affect him greatly. This is an excerpt from his last letter:

Belgium, March 15, 1917

…I haven’t had any Canadian letters for ages and ages and am getting quite fed up on it. There are no Canadian letters coming into camp at all and it is rotten. I certainly want to hear how the world is going around and if you are still the same as usual. Letters are about our only things to look forward to and I miss them very much indeed…I hope Mother has not got nervous over me at all, and you might convince her that there is no more need to worry now than when I was in the trenches. Of course I happen to be at a war, and these are dangerous times but no more now than in the Tunnellers, the only difference being that instead of running the risk of going up, I run the risk of going down. I never realized I could get so calloused about fellows going west as I am and it is the same for everyone. Vernon Castle has been very badly injured here. He got a direct hit by an anti-aircraft shell, but managed to land somehow which is very extraordinary, but nevertheless is pretty badly smashed up. It isn’t a very nice sight seeing a man brought down, but I mustn’t mention those things, must I, because they worry you people much more than they do me. We are all fatalists here and don’t worry in the least. It is the only way, otherwise life would be miserable.

This letter I am afraid is rather dull and I hope it hasn’t bored you to death.

Love, Basil.

At noon on March 17, 1917, the plane carrying Basil and his pilot was shot down over Belgium. Grace writes:

The dreaded telegram beginning, ‘Regret to inform’ reached Basil’s home on the 19th of March. To my parents and me, it seemed at first unbelievable, but we had to accept the appalling fact that Basil was dead. The tragic news reached Ramsey in the trenches where he was serving with his battalion.

The family did not recover easily from the shock of Basil’s death; they had closed their minds to the possibility of his death, and in spite of the long casualty lists that appeared day after day, believed their loved ones led charmed lives. They felt they had to cling to this belief in order to carry on their daily lives. Within a few weeks they had to face the possibility of further tragedy with the news that Ramsey’s regiment was taking part in the assault on Vimy Ridge.

In the early hours of April 9, Easter Monday, backed by sleet and snow and a driving wind, fifteen thousand Canadians advanced in the first wave behind a steady artillery barrage towards the German positions on the ridge; a second and a third wave of infantry followed. In this battle the Canadian Corps wrested from the enemy one of the most formidable defensive positions on the Western Front. It was a great victory, but the casualties were severe. It seemed too much to endure until we learned that Ramsey had survived.

Grace Morris Craig, But This is Our War

Matilda Casselman Ness put every effort into keeping hope alive. She would not accept the fact that her son Garnet was missing, and went to great lengths to search for him. Her granddaughter Geraldine Morriss wrote about Matilda’s quest in Extraordinary Ordinary Women: Manitoba Women and Their Stories.

She [Matilda] enlisted in the Winnipeg Women’s Volunteer Reserve intending to make her way to Europe as a member of the Reserve and, once there, to find her son. (I have sometimes mused that it was her own experience as a civil servant that resulted in her distrust of officialdom. The only thing she knew for sure was that Garnet was missing and that his body had not been found. The instant communication of today did not exist.)

Though she failed in her mission to travel to Europe, she hired aircraft to drop over Belgium and France leaflets bearing her son’s photograph with names and addresses to contact in Kirkfield Park (no word was ever received)…

I decided as an adult that it would be useful to try and obtain some information about Garnet and how he died. I contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1985, long after Matilda’s death. Commission records show that Garnet went missing between April 22 and April 24, 1915 after a German poison gas attack and that there is no known grave. Whether or not grandmother came to accept Garnet’s death is not known…

Matilda Ness died on Saturday, February 27, 1932 in Winnipeg at sixty-six years of age…Much later, I learned why we mortals cling to hope when there appears to be none. My much-loved and much-admired older brother died when he was just twenty-eight and I clung to the hope until the day of his funeral that he would live, though we had been told he could not. Then, at last, I understood.

Geraldine Morriss, Extraordinary Ordinary Women: Manitoba Women and Their Stories (Colleen Armstrong, ed., Manitoba Clubs of the Canadian Federation of University Women, 2000)

Not all women were left to make decisions on their own. Sometimes absent husbands and brothers retained the right to exercise their authority long distance. The Shanly family was one of those. Mrs. Shanly was a widow with two daughters and a son, Lieutenant-Colonel C.N. “Bob” Shanly, who was a paymaster in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was first posted in England and later sent to Rouen, France, where he worked during much of 1915 and part of 1916. A devoted brother, he wrote many letters to his sister, Frances (“Coo”), who lived in Toronto, and these letters are now in The Shanly Papers, S144, Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, Toronto Reference Library/Toronto Public Library. She in turn tried to make his life easier by sending him homemade jam, boxes of apples, knitted scarves, socks, blankets and other items that were in short supply in England and France during the war. These were much appreciated by her brother and the other men with whom he worked.

Unfortunately, LCol. Shanly, while he was not assigned to fight in the trenches, appeared to be the victim of overwork. He contracted bronchitis in April 1916, spent some time in the military hospital in Rouen, and was then sent to England to recover. He died there in the late spring or summer or 1916. The letters do not give the exact date or precise cause of his death, but in an age without antibiotics, it is likely that he died from complications of bronchitis or from pneumonia. We can see the evidence of his deteriorating health from the handwriting in his letters. Though the letters have a brotherly tone, there is no doubt that he expects his views to prevail, whether it be about an “unfortunate” love affair or negotiations to purchase a neighbouring property.

There are a number of themes in the letters: events in the war, comments on news from Canada, news of friends and family in both Canada and England, comments on the work that women did, and business dealings in Toronto. Examples of some of these themes from his letters are given below:

Rouen: February 8, 1916

We were all very much startled to read of the destruction of the Parliament Buildings at Ottawa, and I suppose there is no doubt as to the origin of the fire. It is the biggest thing these vandals have pulled off yet in that line, and I have no doubt there is great glee in Berlin.

Rouen: February 28, 1916

We had a Zeppelin scare here one night at short time ago, just before the L.77 was caught a short distance from Paris and destroyed. All the lights went out and the bells rang out vigorously. However, the Zep thought better of it and turned back, so that we did not get a view at all.

Rouen: March 19, 1916

I am glad to hear that the affairs of the Club (Toronto Ladies’ Club where Frances was the secretary) are in such a flourishing state, and that the personnel of the Committee is so representative of what it should be. This is all very satisfactory, but I hope that they are also behaving in a satisfactory way in regard to emoluments for the Secretary!

Shanly has been concerned about the news of a sudden love affair that Julia, possibly another sister, or another relation, has had in Toronto. He had written to Frances that he hoped Julia would break off this affair, and in this letter it appears that he has received news that she has done so:

Red Cross Hospital, Rouen: April 28, 1916

In your last letter received on the 23rd, you make some remarks on poor Julia’s case, and it strikes me that the first thing to do is to get her away from his mother for a long time, and a good way to do this would be for her to take up some hospital work in England such as Margot, Juliet and Isabel (British cousins) are at present doing – scrubbing the floors and washing dishes, etc. – and shake all this romantic yellow-back novel business out of her head. There are also young girls of about her age doing exactly the same thing in this hospital.

The following letter, from Aunt Elinor Kennedy to Frances Shanly, was written some time after LCol. Shanly’s death, and it shows that Margot and Juliet had left the hospital and found other positions:

London: December 21, 1916

Juliet seldom gets home before 8 o’clock. She is now at the War Office working in the Intelligence Dept. Soon she will get pay when she is perfect in typewriting. She has learnt very quickly and gets on very well. Margot has got the post of Superintendent of 5 canteens for munitions workers at Woolwich. They are run by the ‘Ladies’ Legion’…Lady Londonderry is the head. She asked Margot to take the work. She (Margot) goes to Woolwich five days a week and gets home by 6 o’clock. That is shorter hours than she had at the hospital, and being so much more in the open is better for her health. She is a voluntary worker and gets no pay, and in these times, everyone would like pay.

However, in a letter of January 11, 1918 from Aunt Elinor Kennedy to Frances Shanly, we read that:

Margot and Juliet are at work all day as usual. And since working for the War Office, they get paid. They are both secretaries now, Margot with the Admiral Mark Kerr who is on the Air Board, and Juliet with Colonel Williams, Military Railways.

They find the work most interesting. They are at it early and late so that we never have dinner until 8:30…Isabel is working at a Canadian Recreation Hut in Boulogne. I think it is a very good change for her. She was so very depressed; her letters now seem more cheerful.

Shanly also discussed a number of business dealings in his letters to his sister. One in particular concerned the purchase of a property adjacent to the Shanly home on Willcocks Street in Toronto. In 1915, Frances Shanly had informed him that Mrs. Cameron, the owner of the neighbouring property, had died. This is his response:

Rouen: July 12, 1915

…I suppose the house would be for sale, and I have often thought that it would be an advantageous thing for us to own both houses… You might discuss the matter with Dyce and get him to make inquiries without it being known from whom the enquiries are being made as to the probability of the home being for sale and the price…I wouldn’t like to say how much I should be prepared to give for the house, but I suppose it’s worth about $6,500. If necessary I could put up some money myself, but I should like to hear what the chances are first and what Dyce thinks about it.

Rouen: August 24, 1915

I note in your remarks about the Cameron house and the state of disrepair, which it is likely to be in. This had also struck me, and on thinking over the matter, would only consider the purchase of it if it could be secured at ‘bargain rates’ – certainly not more than $5000. I daresay it would require an expenditure of $1000 to put it in anything like decent shape, as it would have to be painted and papered throughout, and a good deal done to the exterior. I would also advocate putting in another bath, that is, converting one of the rooms into another bathroom. However, you might continue enquiries entirely ‘on the quiet’ and ascertain just how matters stand. If it was a case of a real bargain for cash, I might be able to find the money, or a good part of it, requiring only a small loan to be raised on the two houses together. The question of the high rate of taxation in Toronto now must be taken into consideration, and for that reason, they cannot expect to get anything like what the house might have sold for a few years ago.

Several other letters referred to the purchase of the house and the need to keep the Shanly name out of it because of a fear that the heir to the house would inflate the value if she was aware of the prospective purchaser’s name.

Rouen: October 24, 1915

However, keep your eye on it, and don’t let it go altogether by default.

Nothing more for five months, then:

Rouen: March 27, 1815

I note what you say about the Cameron house and altho’ I recollect having said that I thought $5000 was all it was worth in its present condition, still if it can be bought for $5,5000, I will furnish $3000 in cash on the spot, and assume the existing mortgage which I understand is $2,500. Get Fleury to make that offer which is as far as I would go at present. Of course, it would be just as well not to let ‘the family’ know that the offer really comes from us! My idea is that the downstairs rooms could be utilized by Oniyl [?]for her dancing classes and also by Jane for her school, and the upstairs rooms could be profitably rented as bachelor apartments. This, of course, would mean some expenditure for furniture and a certain amount of repairs, which would have to be a matter for future consideration. In the meantime, it could be no doubt rented as it stands for $50 a month.

By May 1916, LCol. Shanly was seriously ill in a London hospital:

Second London General Hospital, Chelsea, W.W.: May 12, 1916

I am not well enough to go any further into the matter of No. 17 at present, but I hope I will be able to be up again sometime before long, and will then give the matter some attention.

His last letter concerning the purchase of the house was dated May 12, the same day as the above letter:

London: May 12, 1916

I wrote you a note today, which I gave to Aunt Elinor to post. I am not quite sure what my offer for house (letter of 27 March) was, and you do not confirm it in your letter. My recollection, however, is that I offered $3,500 in cash and assume present mortgage of $2,500. Is this correct? It is all I could go at present….

Here the letters cease. The archival collection includes a number of cards of condolence received by Frances and her mother, as well as the draft letter thanking the senders for their kindness.

Women had always worked long and hard in the home. By the late nineteenth century, they had begun to take the skills needed to run a household and to adapt those skills to social projects in the community as a whole. They moved, in other words, from the private sphere to include the public sphere in their range of activities. Women were no longer content to leave the running of the world to men; they had knowledge based on their everyday life that was available to few men. They took that very knowledge into the world.

Poverty, education, health, and eventually the vote as a way to influence public policy in these matters, became their targets. World War I provided the opportunity to further expand and strengthen their skills, to learn new skills, and for many women, for the first time, to earn their own money. These crucial shifts changed women’s place on the home front and they proved their courage and abilities on the field of war. The combined changes resulting from women’s experience in the war years would alter Canadian society forever.

Chapter 3: The Fight for the Vote



“For too long we have believed it our duty to sit down and be reigned. Now we know it is our duty to rise up and be indignant.

Nellie McClung


The first federal election in Canada was held in August 1867 but women were not allowed to vote. Even if women had been able to meet the same requirements around citizenship, property, age and race as men, the laws of the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario had been amended earlier in the 19th century to specifically exclude women from voting.

It would be fifty years before relatively privileged, mainly white women gained the vote, and almost a century (1964) before all women citizens over the age of eighteen, regardless of racial origin, had the right to vote and to hold office in Canada at all levels of government.

One strategy used by the suffragists to bring their cause into the public eye, or to the attention of legislators, was the petition. In 1915, two petitions were presented by the Manitoba Political Equity League to the newly elected Liberal government of Premier J.C. Norris. One petition contained 39,584 names. The second contained 4,250 names, all collected by 94-year-old Amelia Burritt.

The Arguments

Disenfranchisement made women feel like second-class citizens and for many women this became increasingly unacceptable.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women reformers were successful in introducing social reforms such as changes in married women’s property laws, temperance, changes to education and employment laws, but women still did not have the vote and the political power that went with it. Leaders of women’s organizations knew they needed this power to further the reforms they were dedicated to achieving. They challenged their opponents (and there were many) wherever and whenever there was an opportunity.

Speaking in 1913 to the National Council of Women, Sonia Leathes put the challenge clearly:

It is on this account that women today say to the governments of the world: you have usurped what used to be our authority, what used to be our responsibility. It is you who determine today the nature of the air we breathe, of the food which we eat, of the clothing which we wear. It is you who determine when, and how long, and what children are to be taught and what their future prospects as wage earners are to be. It is you who condone or stamp out the white slave traffic and the starvation wage. It is you who by granting or refusing pensions to the mothers of young children can preserve or destroy the fatherless home. It is you who consider what actions shall be considered a crime and how the offender, man, woman or child shall be dealt with. It is you who decide whether cannons or torpedoes are to blow to pieces the bodies of the sons which we bore. And since all of these matters strike at the very heart strings of the mothers of all nations, we shall not rest until we have secured the power vested in the ballot; to give or withhold our consent, to encourage or forbid any policy or course of action which concerns the people, our children, everyone.

Catherine L. Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1950), p. xiii

Opposition came from a number of sources, including those who wrote letters to the editor in the newspapers. Often the letters sought to place women on a pedestal and suggest that politics was no place for a woman:

Women who believe in woman suffrage seem to think that we men want to deprive them of their liberties; but we wish to do no such thing. All men who are worthy of the name of men, place woman upon a very high pedestal, to which no man in his sphere, could ever hope to attain: and we want her to remain there, where she can command our respect and esteem and use the powers that God has given her for the good of humanity…Why should she besmear herself with the rottenness of politics?

Opposition also came from governments of the day.

Premier Duff Roblin of Manitoba, Nellie McClung’s long-time opponent in the battle for suffrage, made the following statement to a suffrage delegation in 1914:

Does the franchise for women make the home better? My wife is bitterly opposed to woman suffrage. I have respect for my wife; more than that, I love her; I am not ashamed to say so. Will anyone say that she would be better as a wife and mother because she could go and talk on the streets about local or dominion politics? I disagree. The mother that is worthy of the name and of the good affection of a good man has a hundredfold more influence in molding and shaping public opinion round her dinner table than she would have in the marketplace, hurling her eloquent phrases to the multitude. It is in the home that her influence is exercised and felt.

Premier Duff Roblin of Manitoba, 1914

Like Premier Roblin, opponents of female suffrage believed that women should devote themselves to their home and family and predicted disaster if women entered public life. In the catalogue for the Library and Archives Canada exhibit, The Widening Sphere: Women in Canada, 1870-1940, Jeanne L’Esperance described this view of women’s role and the strategy devised by women suffrage leaders to counteract it:

Traditionally, women’s sphere was the home, and the commonly accepted role for the adult woman was that of wife, mother and homemaker. With monotonous regularity those who debated this question throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century came up with the same answer. The family was the fundamental building block of society and woman was its center. Yet technological innovation and industrial growth were inevitably impinging upon the home in this period. Mass production removed certain household tasks from the home to the factory, while labour-saving devices and ready-made food and clothing meant that domestic tasks consumed less and less time. Although new theories on infant care made mothering a more time-consuming task than it had been, the falling birthrate and increased life expectancy meant that parenting was not a lifetime task. At the same time disquietude at social changes made critics see any attempt by women to lead an independent life as an attack upon the family, and therefore upon the stable basis of society. On the other hand women had to prepare their children for the trials of the contemporary world. How could they do this if they were weak, helpless and uninformed and confined within their narrow sphere of the home? The answer, which women thinkers formulated, was the concept of ‘maternal feminism,’ or widening their influence by taking out into the world the very qualities which made them so valuable within the family. Women were traditionally the culture bearers who passed on to their children the values and ideals of their society.”

Nellie McClung suggested, with her usual biting wit, that there were hidden reasons for opposing votes for women.

This deep-rooted fear, that any change may bring personal inconvenience, lies at the root of much of the opposition to all reform. Men held to slavery for long years, condoning and justifying it, because they were afraid that without slave labor life would not be comfortable. Certain men have opposed the advancement of women for the same reason; their hearts have been beset with the old black fear that, if women were allowed equal rights with men, some day some man would go home and find the dinner not ready, and the potatoes not even peeled! But not many give expression to this fear, as a reason for their opposition. They say they oppose the enfranchisement of women because they are too frail, weak and sweet to mingle in the hurly-burly of life; that women have far more influence now than if they could vote, and besides, God never intended them to vote, and it would break up the home, and make life a howling wilderness; the world would be full of neglected children (or none at all) and the homely joys of the fireside would vanish from the earth. I remember once hearing an eloquent speaker cry out in alarm, ‘If women ever get the vote, who will teach us to say our prayers?’ Surely his experience of the franchised class had been an unfortunate one when he could not believe that anyone could not vote and pray.

Nellie McClung, “Speaking of Women,” Maclean’s, May 1916.


Sufferage to the Forefront

World War I, far from putting suffrage on the back burner, brought it to the forefront, with suffragists and government both recognizing the power that their war work gave women.

Most, though not all, suffragists supported the war effort and even as they worked to support it, they continued to struggle for the vote. Women finally won the right to vote in provincial elections for the first time in 1916 in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. British Columbia and Ontario followed in 1917, Nova Scotia in 1918, New Brunswick in 1919, and Prince Edward Island in 1922. Women in Newfoundland, which would remain a British colony until March 31, 1949 when it joined Canada, gained the provincial vote in 1925. The last province to allow women to vote was Quebec, where women voted for the first time in 1940.

At the federal level, most women, provided they were British subjects, were granted the right to vote in May 1918, shortly after the end of World War I. The Inuit were included in the federal franchise in 1950. The First Nations were granted the right to vote in federal elections only in 1960 as provided by the Indian Act, (also under that Act, First Nations women could not vote in band council elections until 1951 and could not run for band office until 1964). Métis were treated the same as other Canadians when it came to the federal vote. While many women were enfranchised by 1918, all conscientious objectors and naturalized British subjects who had been born in an enemy country lost their vote. Most women of colour, including all Asian and Black women, did not get the vote until the late 1940s.

The May 1918 federal legislation, An Act to Confer the Electoral Franchise on Women, was the third and final act to consider the voting rights of women. The first one, The War-time Elections Act (1917), gave the vote to women who met the other qualifications AND who had close relatives serving the war. The second one, the Military Voters Act (1917), gave the vote to women who met the other qualifications AND who were on active service for Canada, Great Britain or an ally. Thus the granting of the vote to women was as much due to the conviction of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, that they would support his party in the conscription crisis as it was to their acknowledged major contributions to the war effort. Dr. Augusta Stowe Gullen, pioneer feminist, had the pleasure of observing anti-suffragists making speeches on the necessity and importance of women voting and even helping them get to the polls given the conscription crisis. In the end, the limited rights of women to vote at the federal level granted in the two 1917 bills had to be extended.

The Conscription Crisis

One of the greatest crises in Canada during the war occurred in 1917. It centred around the issue of conscription. Conscription means that all able-bodied men would be required to join the army subject to…Enlistment would no longer be on a voluntary basis…Casualties were mounting daily on the Western Front. Military officials urged Borden to send even more Canadian troops to Europe. In Canada, volunteer enlistments were not keeping up with the number of men killed or wounded…The mention of conscription brought a storm of protest in some parts of Canada, especially among French Canadians. Many English Canadians believed that Quebec was not doing its part in the war…Why were there fewer volunteers from Quebec? The majority of Quebeckers were farmers, many with large families. Fewer farmers than city people joined the Armed Forces since farmers were considered essential to produce food for the war effort. But most French Canadians also did not share the enthusiasm that English Canadians felt for Britain’s war. They did not believe that their sons should be forced to join the war. Many also did not feel any real tie to their country of origin, France. They felt they had been deserted by France when they were conquered by British forces in 1760. French language rights had been taken away in Manitoba and other western provinces, and in Ontario schools. French Canadians felt they were being treated like second-class citizens in Canada…The election of 1917 was particularly bitter. Conservatives and Liberals who believed in conscription formed a Union government. The split in Canada that Laurier had feared for so long had occurred. There were riots in Montreal and Quebec City against conscription. Four people were killed and many were injured. Troops had to be sent in with machine guns to restore order.

J. Bradley Cruxton and Dug Wilson, Spotlight on Canada (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 118-119

Conscription Crisis 1917: Sequence of Events

April 9

Heavy casualties during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

May 18

Sir Robert Borden after his return from England decides that volunteers will not be enough to replace the losses and announces the intention to introduction conscription.

June 11

Borden introduces Military Service Act proposing conscripton into Parliament.

September 20, 1917

Two federal acts become law on the same day.

The Military Voters Act. Because, for the first time, the definition of “military voter” includes men and and women who meet the other qualifications, the women military nurses, nicknamed “The Bluebirds” from their blue nursing capes, became eligible to vote federally. Provisions are made to allow voting to be conducted overseas.

The War-time Elections Act. The vote is granted to all spouses, widows, mothers, daughters and sisters of any persons, male or female, living or dead, who were serving or had served in the Canadian armed forces, provided that they met the other qualifications. The vote is denied to or taken from: those of enemy birth, those of European birth speaking the “enemy tongue” and conscientious objectors.

September 26

The Military Service Act becomes law. All males between eighteen and forty-five are eligible for compulsory military service. Exemptions are possible for conscientious objectors, persons working in essential war occupations, those doing work for which they had special qualifications, and those for whom military service would cause special hardship.

October 12

A Union Government is formed from Conservatives and Liberals who left Laurier’s Liberal Party.

November 25

The Union Government announces that sons engaged in production of food would be exempted from military services.

December 17

A federal election is held and the Union Government wins a landslide victory.

Women Exercise their Federal Franchise

Although the government provided financial support to the families of World War I soldiers, both by assigning part of servicemen’s pay to their families and through the Canadian Patriotic Fund, they often found themselves in financial need. Mrs. R.D. Farquharson wrote to explain her circumstances in a letter to the Prime Minister, Robert Borden. As the wife of a soldier, Mrs. Farquharson had been granted the franchise. Her request for advice on how she should vote in the forthcoming December federal election was not very subtle.

Kamloops, B.C.

Nov. 27th, 1917

Dear Sir—-

I write to ask your opinion on which way a Soldier’s wife with a family of seven should vote. As far back as I can remember we have upheld the Borden Gov. This year my husband is in France. When he enlisted (Feb. 1916) it was with the understanding that the C.P.F. (Canadian Patriotic Fund) were to make up what the Gov. lacked in providing as a living, since that time the price cost of living has gone up at least double and our allowance remains the same as it was when the C.P.F. was started. My oldest child is a girl eleven years old, my youngest 18 months, the price of fuel and clothing is awful as well as the price of the plainest foodstuffs. It is impossible to keep the family on $75.00 per month. I have asked the C.P. Society also the City for help and can’t even get an investigation. I am ashamed to ask from the returned men who have done so much for us. Where there is being so much money wasted and spent on Election and such, surely it is not necessary that any little one’s should suffer when a small cheque of perhaps $75.00 would meet extra expenses for winter and make us comfortable…

I remain yours;
To Win-the-War
Mrs. R.D. Farquharson,
460 Columbia

In her memoir of World War I, Grace Morris Craig recalled her part leading up to, and then in the election of, December 17, 1917:

By the end of 1917 the opportunity came for us to play our part on the home front. Great losses had been suffered by the Canadian expeditionary force at Vimy Ridge and the other battles, and the casualties had to be replaced. One important province, Quebec, was not contributing its share and so conscription seemed inevitable. In the riding of North Renfrew my father had been chairman of the Conservative Association for a number of years; like most Canadians he realized that a coalition government would be necessary to bring in such a controversial measure. When the Union government was finally formed in October under Sir Robert Borden, a general election automatically followed; in North Renfrew a Liberal, Mr. Herbert Mackie, agreed to run for the new government.

For the first time, women would be allowed to vote, but they would be a very select group – the mothers, wives and sisters of the men in the overseas forces. The job my father had chosen for me, which he had had in mind many months before when he begged me to return from England, was to organize the women voters of the riding. Upon my return I had taken a course in Isaac Pitman shorthand from a nun at the convent, and I asked several of my friends who had been in the business class there to help me form a committee. We were provided with a well-equipped office on Main Street in Pembroke. Through the nominal rolls of the overseas units we learned who the voters would be and got in touch by mail with every one of them throughout the large riding.

There were no women’s meetings called, but it was explained to all of them by letter that the only way they could hope to see their men again was to vote for the Union government and conscription.

On the night of the election, December 17, 1917, people crowded the armouries to hear the results, which came first by telephone in the riding and then by wire from the rest of Canada. The tension was great and angry looks were exchanged; but we had the great satisfaction of having helped to elect a coalition government that would bring in conscription, which we felt was our way of helping to win the war. We expressed our delight in loud cheering and scornful looks for the group of young men who did not like the results.

Grace Morris Craig, But This is Our War (University of Toronto Press, 1981), p. 130

Across the ocean, in Europe, nurses Ella Mae Bongard and Clare Gass recorded the date of the historic vote in their diaries.

December 9, 1917

“Voted tonight in the Canadian elections. A Canadian officer came out from Havre to arrange it. I feel quite important now. You may be sure I voted for conscription despite party policies for I don’t want to see Canada drop out of the war at this stage.”

Eric Scott, ed., Nobody Ever Wins a War: The World War I Diaries of Ella Mae Bongard, R.N.(Janeric Enterprises, 1997), p.24

Clare Gass was doubly qualified to vote in 1917. Under The Military Voters Act, she qualified to vote as a member of the armed forces; under The War-time Elections Act, she qualified to vote as a female relative of an overseas soldier. The purpose of both these Acts was seen by many as a way to gain support for the Borden government, which by October 1917 had attracted a sufficient number of former opposition members from the Liberal Party to create a coalition Union Government. The election of this government in December 1917 gave the victory to Borden and his policy of conscription. With her vote, Claire registered her support for a continuing supply of soldiers.

Today about noon the Germans began to shell the Cross roads again one shell smashed the Estaminet at the corner into bits & several Belgians & soldiers were impaled there. Another shell burst just outside No. 3’s Mess Hut. But fortunately no one was hurt. The sisters were all at lunch. Hallie Carman just coming up to lunch was very near & thrown out on the ground. She is unhurt. I was asleep when the shelling began but the whir of the first shell overhead awakened me. The explosion shook the ground. I voted for the Union Government in Canada – this a.m.

[*Susan Mann, ed., The War Diary of Clare Gass (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000). p. 184 *]

At home, a Toronto woman, Janie Smythe, whose sister was an army nurse, voted for the first time. The next day she wrote the following letter to suffragist Flora Denison, expressing her feelings about the experience of voting.

22 Glengrove Ave. W.

Toronto Dec. 18, 1917

My Dear Mrs. Denison.
It is befitting that you should be the first one I should write to since I recorded my first vote. It was a proud day yesterday for me and an hour, which you and other have by unceasingly devotion to the cause, made possible. I may now be recognized by humanity at large, as having a complete number of organs and faculties with more or less average mental ability to use them! In a word am equal of my husband, at least technically speaking. I have my vote owing to my sister nursing soldiers. Stepmothers are not fully qualified for such a high honour as voting. I trust that when we next shall meet that I shall bear myself with true and becoming dignity in my new state of equality…

Janie Smythe

The Alberta Military Representation Act

Liberal governments in each of Alberta and Saskatchewan created a separate constituency for their citizens serving overseas. Each constituency had two members. Alberta held a provincial election in the spring of 1917 (women could vote by then in Alberta elections).

In an election poster directed to soldiers and nurses from Alberta, they were reminded that under the Alberta Military Representation Act, they would have two votes, one for each member of the constituency, and were exhorted to use one of their votes for nursing sister Roberta MacAdams.

A picture of MacAdams appears on the poster with the words: “Give One Vote to the Man of Your Choice and the Other to the Sister.”.

Indeed, Roberta MacAdams was elected to the Alberta Legislature in that election while serving as a nursing sister overseas. She joined Louise McKinney, the first two women elected to a legislature in the British Empire.

When the Union Government was returned to power, it recognized its debt to women by convening a Women’s War Conference at Ottawa from February 28 to March 2, 1918. Delegates from all women’s organizations in Canada were addressed by the Governor General and prominent Cabinet ministers on such topics as child welfare and national health.

Finally, in March 1918, a bill was passed giving the vote to more Canadian women, though many women of colour, and Aboriginal women, were still excluded.

Women next had the opportunity to vote federally in 1921. That same election sent Agnes Macphail to Ottawa as Canada’s first woman representative in the House of Commons.

Chapter 4: Far from Home


Many Canadian women were eager to serve overseas, and some opportunities were offered to them, mainly in medical units. Through persistence and ingenuity, women created other opportunities. Some women’s desire to serve took them to France, Serbia, Africa and Belgium. And some, like a seventeen-year old girl who dressed in boy’s clothes, lied in an attempt to join the military.

To fully understand the wartime contributions of women far from home, we need to know their stories: who they were, why they volunteered, what their experiences were, and the effect of those experiences on their lives.

The largest group of women who served overseas was nurses. For the first time, nurses used their skills on a large scale to deal with the devastating results of modern battle – widespread injury from high-powered artillery, rapid-fire rifles, machine-guns and, in this conflict, poisonous gas. These women paid their own way to Europe, bought their uniforms, worked long hours in dangerous, muddy, cold, rat-infested areas, and lived in flimsy tents in camps where there was less than enough to eat.

Working to relieve suffering and to return as many injured soldiers as possible to combat, nurses contributed to the 89 per cent survival rate of Canadian soldiers who came under their care. Serving at casualty clearing stations just behind the front and at hospitals further back, nurses dressed and disinfected wounds, assisted at operations and helped patients’ recovery by providing physical and emotional care when few vaccines were available and before antibiotics had been discovered.

A total of 3,141 nursing sisters served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in World War I: 2,504 in England, France and the Eastern Mediterranean at Gallipoli, Alexandria and Salonika. At least forty-six of these women died and many more contracted various illnesses that involved months of recovery.

Not only did nurses serve on the front, they risked their lives accompanying soldiers home on hospital ships. Fourteen nurses died in the sinking of the Llandovery Castle. Three were killed in the deliberate bombing of a hospital in France.

Not all the women of the Canadian Army’s nursing service achieved their ambition of serving overseas. By the end of the war, there were sixty-five military hospitals in Canada employing 527 nurses. During the year 1918, for example, a total of 90,647 patients were treated in military hospitals in Canada. Those services would be needed in December 1917, when the disastrous explosion of a munitions ship in Halifax harbour killed 1,500 persons and wounded 5,000 others, 1,000 of them seriously. Surgeons and nurses from all parts of Canada and from the United States hurried to the scene to work under the direction of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

Several Canadian women doctors served abroad.

If a woman wanted to serve overseas, then she either joined or formed a hospital unit, and these units then offered their services to the Red Cross or to one of the allied governments, and were sent wherever they were needed most.

Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors Formac Publishing Company Limited, 2001, p.177.

Among the Canadian doctors were Irma LeVasseur from Quebec City, Ella Scarlett Synge of Vancouver, Mary Lee Edward and France Evelyn Windsor, both from Ontario.

Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), organized in Britain, trained thousands of nurses and orderlies to work in military hospitals. The VAD nurses were not very well trained and were assigned to act as assistants to the professional military nurses (also known as nursing sisters). They were usually given the most unpleasant tasks. While most women served in medical capacities, some did other things, notably driving ambulances from the front to treatment areas near the front and then to hospitals.

Thousands of women, usually the wives of officers, travelled to England to be near their husbands, often volunteering in canteens and other places where there was a need. Some, like Grace Morris, made the journey to be near a wounded relative.

When news reached the family that her brother Ramsey was in hospital at Manchester and threatened with blindness, it was agreed that Grace should go to him.

Many “society” ladies devoted time to charities but were not terribly serious about their work. Mabel Adamson, however, was serious and used her organizational experience and contacts to create the Belgian Canal Boat project, carrying needed supplies to refugees in Belgium.Individual

Canadian women, like Allie Douglas, who had special skills, found work in the War Office in London. Douglas was studying mathematics and physics at McGill University when the First World War erupted. She went to London to work in the War Office as a statistician. In 1918, at twenty-three, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work.

Patriotism, the wish to “do their bit,” a chance for independence and, for some, adventure, motivated Canadian women to volunteer their skills. They did not question that Canada, as part of the British Empire, must participate in the war, nor did they question the validity of the conflict. They set out with courage and determination, not knowing what awaited them.

Edith Parkin

Edith Parkin, a former Chisholm, Ontario schoolteacher, nurse and World War I veteran, is buried in Boswell Cemetery. Parkin graduated as a nurse in 1913, worked in the United States until 1917, and then served in American Red Cross Hospital 25 in France. During her service, Parkin contracted hemolytic streptococcus and was discharged on September 19, 1919.

After a seven-year recovery period, Parkin became the nursing supervisor of a New York State hospital before returning to Chisholm Township to retire. When she died in 1955, her family could not afford a headstone to mark her grave. Her niece, Noreen Smith, regretted this for many years and in 2004 asked Chisholm Township Council to find the funds to put a marker on her aunt’s grave.

Linda Thompson, a former councilor and genealogy enthusiast, took on the project. She enlisted the help of MP Anthony Rota, the Canadian Legion, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. Military and U.S. war archives. Thompson was able to trace Parkin’s Red Cross nurse’s training and has her diary, which outlines her war experiences and the documentation of her nursing career. But Linda Thompson could not find Parkin’s U.S. Army registration number, and without that no financial support was forthcoming from either the U.S. or Canadian military memorial funds.

Edith had not registered for any pensions or benefits offered to those who served on active duty, probably because she was unaware of them. She is listed in the American Journal of Nursing’s annual convention document as having been among those who served at Army Base Hospital 25.

Thompson felt strongly that Parkin deserved to be recognized for her service. She called for donations and on July 23, 2005, in the Year of the Veteran, the marker was installed. Family, friends, politicians and Canadian and U.S. military personal attended the event.


Nursing Sisters

Georgina Pope

Georgina Pope, the first Nursing Matron of the Canadian Army Nursing Service, who had served in the Boer War in South Africa and was the first Canadian to receive the Royal Red Cross for conspicuous service in the field, though no longer Matron, nonetheless made her mark in the First World War. For three years she worked to be allowed overseas service. Finally, in the summer of 1917, she got a posting. She was fifty-five, which was considered much older than it is now. She served at three English-based hospitals and then went to France. By August 1918, overwork and bombings had undermined her health. Pope officially retired in March 1919. When she died in 1938, her body lay in state in Government House and her military funeral was attended by veterans of both the Boer and First World Wars.

Margaret Macdonald

When the war began, Margaret Macdonald was called from Kingston to Ottawa to succeed her older colleague, Georgina Pope, as Matron of the Canadian Army Nursing Service. Her first assignment was to select and organize the nurses required to staff the two general hospitals, which were to accompany the first Canadian overseas contingent.

Macdonald and her staff processed thousands of applications, interviewing promising candidates. When the mobilization order came through in mid-September, telegrams were sent to the hundred successful applicants, instructing them to report to Quebec City on September 23. By this time, Macdonald’s offices had been relocated to Valcartier, Quebec. After a week filled with briefings, medical examinations, vaccinations and miles of paperwork, the embarkation orders finally arrived, and Macdonald and her nursing sisters set said for Europe at the end of September.

The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. By May 1919, all overseas Canadian medical units were disbanded. By then Matron-in-Chief Macdonald (with the rank of major, the first such appointment for a woman in the British Empire), who received the Royal Red Cross from King George V and the Florence Nightingale Medal, returned to Canada in November 1919.

Macdonald retired to Nova Scotia in 1923, but remained active, traveling extensively in Canada, the United States and Europe. When the Second World War broke out, she again volunteered her services at age sixty-six, but they were kindly refused. She died in 1948 in the house where she was born. She was given a funeral with full military honours.

Margaret Lowe

A total of 3,141 nursing sisters served in the Canadian Army Medical corps in the Great War; 2,054 in England, France and the Eastern Mediterranean. At least forty-six died in the Great War from drowning, disease and from shrapnel wounds suffered during air raids that struck field hospitals. Nursing Sister Margaret Lowe of Binscarth, Manitoba died of shrapnel wounds received during a German air raid in France in May 1918. On June 6, 1998, her great-niece Arlene Hill wrote an eloquent letter to the Toronto Star:

Eighty years ago, my great-aunt, Margaret Lowe, was one of the four Canadian nurses killed at Canada’s 1st General Hospital in France near the end of World War I. Another three died at the 3rd Stationary Hospital in unprecedented bombing raids on hospitals that previously had been considered exempt from attack.

Although I never knew her, I came upon her unexpectedly from time to time. In childhood, I discovered her service medals in the top drawer of my mother’s dresser, next to her own nursing pins. I wanted those medals to enlarge on the slim story of how she had run from safety of tents and huts into the open area to help someone who was injured and, in doing so was fatally wounded herself…I am left to imagine if my great-aunt was one of the two volunteers selected to help the injured (every nurse volunteered but the matron chose the nearest two). Or, possibly, she ran to help the two doctors caught by a bomb while tending the injured (one killed, one wounded)…ultimately it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that those women died the very month Canadian women received the right to vote. The major factor in granting that privilege was recognition of the contribution of women to Canada’s war effort during World War I…Above all, our voting privilege is a gift from those nurses who died, whether on board a ship that was sunk, from illnesses contracted, or like those who died near the end of May, 1918, as direct casualties.

Surely we owe it to those who paid so dearly for our freedoms, to be constantly vigilant, to listen with discernment, and to exercise our franchise at each opportunity with care and gratitude.

Arlene Hill, great-niece of Nursing Sister Margaret Lowe, in a June 6, 1998, letter to the Toronto Star

Ella Mae Bongard

Ella Mae Bongard of Picton, Ontario kept diaries during her services with a British medical unit at Etretat, France. Her son, Eric Scott, found her diaries in the attic and compiled them into a book, Nobody Ever Wins a War. These diaries vividly describe the struggle of caring for thousands of men injured in the mud and gore of the trenches. Ella Mae Bongard trained at one of the world’s great hospitals, the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Following four years of training, she graduated in 1915, stayed in New York and practiced nursing for two years. Then she volunteered for overseas duty in the U.S. Army Nursing Corps. She was sent to Etretat, on the Normandy coast. Her unit was less than 200 kilometers from the trenches.

When she began her diaries, Ella Mae was a dedicated twenty-six year old nurse, with a talent for observation. In her diaries, we can see both the discipline of her training and the challenge of caring for hundreds of wounded soldiers. Ella Mae tried to maintain hope and optimism even when the situation seemed desperate. She never questioned the rightness of the Allied cause, though she did deplore the waste of lives:

October 29, 1917

Had to relieve Annex “C” and take care of the sick Germans. I’m glad it isn’t my regular job for I can’t help thinking how they treat our men who are prisoners, and I want to shoot them. However, I don’t mind the real sick ones but I wouldn’t trust the up patients at all. ‘C’est la guerre’ you know.

November 12, 1917

Connie was gassed yesterday and leaves today for C.C.S.J.K. Davis went last week. I wish them luck. Had last hours and walked out to Benouville for dinner with Miss Geil and Miss Baker. Went by the cliff road, very dark and muddy. Had a delicious dinner and walked home by the main road.

November 14, 1917

The war is pretty bad news these days. The Germans seem to be walking right into Italy and Dr. Brewer and some who have come from Paris say that the people there are much alarmed. It is the most critical time in the war so far.

November 16, 1917

An air raid was reported last night & all the lights in the hospital were extinguished until daylight. They even say Havre was attacked but it is only rumour. However we are expecting one as most of the hospitals in the section have been bombed recently. A big convoy of 15 ships went past today escorted by two dirigibles. It is a frequent sight.

December 2, 1917

No times for diaries this past week. Had a big unexpected convoy Tuesday a.m. about 460 patients. They were right from the battle of Cambrai and such wounds I’ve never seen. There were so many bad cases that even the medical wards had to be filled with surgical cases. We have worked madly all day with no time off except for hurried meals. I really enjoy being busy but oh how my back and feet ache at night. I’m sure I climb those three flights of stairs a million times a day helping with dressings. We do dressings nearly all day for the wounds are so large and take so long. Most of the men are regular bricks and don’t scream even when you know you must be hurting them horribly. One little boy of 19 has had to have his leg amputated since he came here and another his right hand. They are both angels and it seems such a pity. Twelve new German prisoners, also from the battle of Cambrai were admitted to “C.” I was sent in to help out. They are in pretty bad condition too & I felt pretty sorry for them until I went back in “D” and saw the poor “Tommies.” If it weren’t for the Germans they would all be strong healthy men.

One German fellow about 22 has the Iron Cross. He also is minus his right arm poor devil. I’ve never realized the war so much until this last convoy. I wonder if it’s ever going to end. It seems so senseless to keep sending well men up the line to be shot to pieces.

We have a case of tetanus. I’ve never seem one before & it’s horrible to see him twitch & his jaw get rigid. I don’t see how he can get better.

March 8, 1918

In bed all day and looking a lovely pale green shade. Personally I think I was “gassed” from the last convoy. Who knows? Anyway I hope it doesn’t repeat like the trench fever. This is the third time I’ve been off sick in a month.

March 31, 1918

The war is looking very serious indeed. Last night we got a convoy of 400 terribly wounded cases. They are right from the front as the C.C.S.’s have been either captured or destroyed. Thirty-four British sisters, refugees from the C.C.S.’s came down too. They are to stay here until they get somewhere to go so we are crowded in the “mess.”

April 6 & 7, 1918

Sixteen more sisters have arrived here from Philadelphia unit at La Tréport. They had to evacuate. Things were getting too hot. The sea is our next move I guess. I wonder if the people at home know just how serious things have become over here. I refuse to believe that the worst can happen, but even if it should I prefer to stay and “stick it” than to have stayed at home in safety. No bravado or hero stuff intended just a plain statement of facts. I want to be in the midst of things that’s all and so does everyone else here.

July 5, 1918

My birthday but no excitement. I didn’t remember it until I went to date the night report.

July 24, 1918

Someone heard from the mobile unit today. They say they are working day and night even in the dugouts. They have had to move three times on account of being bombed. Sounds exciting. Wish I were there.

November 11, 1918

Today the Armistice was signed!! We can’t believe it. Everyone is so excited that the work is in a mix up. The patients (the up ones) can get in the cafés now and are making up for lost time. We marched through the village streets at night carrying lighted torches and with our army capes inside out to show the scarlet lining. The French people kissed us on both cheeks as is customary here. It is hard to believe that the awful slaughter is over after four years.

Eric Scott, Nobody Ever Wins a War: The World War I Diaries of Ella Mae Bongard (Janeric Enterprises, 1997)

Elizabeth Smellie

Some nurses served in both World Wars. Elizabeth Smellie was one of those. She was born at Port Arthur, Ontario on March 22, 1884. She graduated from the Johns Hopkins Training School for Nurses in Baltimore, Maryland, and when the First World War broke out, she joined the Canadian Army Nursing service. Elizabeth Smellie served and was awarded medals in Britain and France, and after the war was appointed Assistant Matron-in-Chief, serving with Margaret Macdonald. Later she helped build the Victorian Order of Nurses and was its chief superintendent from 1923 to 1947. She also served in World War 2World War I, laid the foundations for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and in 1944 became the first woman colonel in the Canadian army.

Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture

Edith Anderson was remarkable for several reasons. She was a nurse, a woman on active duty, and an officer – probably the first woman officer nurse. Beyond all that, she was from the Six Nations and was one of about 2,000 First Nations people to serve in the war. This is extraordinary because First Nations people were exempt from all service; all who went did so voluntarily.

Denied admission to Canadian nursing schools, Edith was accepted at the New Rochdale (New York) Hospital School of Nursing in 1914. Working as a public health and school nurse in New York City when the United States entered the First World War I. In 1917, she volunteered as a Nursing Sister with the American Expeditionary Force’s Army Medical Corps. A caring and compassionate woman, she wrote in her journal about the death of a patient who had adopted her as his “big sister”:

“My heart was broken. Cried most of the day and could not sleep…”

Following service at the U.S. Army Base Hospital 23 in Vittel, France, Anderson returned home to the Six Nations Reserve in 1919.

She married Claybran Monture, raised a family and continued working as a nurse and midwife until her retirement in 1955. She died on the reserve in 1996, shortly before her 106th birthday.

Christina Bates et al, On All Frontiers: Four Centuries of Canadian Nursing (Canadian Museum of Civilization and University of Ottawa Press, 2005), p. 86

No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, France, 1918

Late on the evening of Sunday, May 19, 1918, fifteen German aircraft attacked Etaples, their ostensible target being the railway bridge which daily carried about a hundred military trains over the River Canche. The raid lasted two hours, during which 116 bombs were dropped indiscriminately over the many unprotected hospitals and reinforcement camps in the area. One of the bombs that fell within the lines of No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, leveling buildings or setting them ablaze, struck a wing of the nursing sisters’ quarters, completely demolishing it. Nursing Sister Katharine Macdonald was killed instantly, and seven other sisters were wounded, two of these, N/S Gladys Wake and N/S Margaret Lowe, dying within a few days. To add to the horror, at least one enemy aeroplane, taking advantage of the bright moonlight and the glare from the burning huts, flew low and machined-gunned those engaged in rescue work.

The full toll of the night’s casualties at No. 1 C.G.H. was 66 killed or to die of wounds, and 73 others wounded. Nearly half of those wounded were patients, and through the whole ghastly two hours that the raid continued, sisters went from hut to hut to attend them.

The heavy casualties inflicted on the hospital’s male staff had left the operating room without orderlies, but the nurses, assisted by some of the off-duty sisters, quickly prepared the theatre for action, covering the windows and doors with thick gray blankets.

Here, surgeons and sisters toiled through the night dealing with cases in urgent need of surgery. Of the 1,156 patients in the wards when the enemy struck, 300 were suffering from fractured femurs. Anchored to their beds by immovable apparatus, they knew that the thin galvanized iron roof above them was no protection against bomb or bullet, and that the surrounding walls were largely of glass. In this nerve-racking situation they were greatly sustained by the presence of the nursing sisters, who stayed with them throughout the raid, encouraging and soothing them…For their outstanding devotion to duty during the bombing, two of the staff, Nursing Sisters Hélène Hanson and Beatrice McNair, became the first Canadian nurses in the war to be awarded the Military Medal…Before May ended, the Etaples area had been hit by three more air raids. The worst, on May 31, completely wrecked the St. John Ambulance Brigade Hospital and caused heavy damage to No. 1 General…After these further raids. No. 1 C.G.H. and the St. John Ambulance Hospital were closed down. All patients were evacuated and nursing sisters assigned to other hospitals in France and England.

G.W.L. Nicholson, Canada’s Nursing Sisters (Canadian War Museum and National Museum of Man, 1975), pp. 92-93

Speaking to the War

Nurses who returned to Canada during the war, either on furlough (leave) or accompanying wounded soldiers, were in great demand as speakers. In 1917, The Renfrew Mercury reported the presentation by Nursing Sister Sarah Payne to a gathering of Red Cross members.

Nursing Sister Sarah Payne, who was trained as a nurse in Kingston and began war duty in August, 1915, recently arrived back on this side of the Atlantic as one of the nurses on shipboard in charge of a group of convalescing wounded soldiers. She was permitted a few days furlough to come home to see her father, arriving on Thursday. Learning of her presence here some of the Red Cross officials felt it might help their work if they could meet one who had actually been using Red Cross supplies. Though her time was limited, having to return on the Saturday night train, she kindly consented.

On Saturday afternoon the trim little nurse in her military uniform of dark blue, with brass buttons, red collar and red stripes, faced an audience of some forty Red Cross members.

Miss Payne said that of late the nurses had had to make their own surgical dressings. Why, she could not tell. An interesting sidelight was the statement that the men greatly appreciated the ‘comfort bags’ of the Red Cross. Also that they were so few in number – only five on the boat she had come on – that they raffled them, not for money but just to decide who should be the lucky few out of the many. There were 168 patients and two nursing sisters on board.

The preferred nightshirts, she said, were of ordinary rectory cotton. These stood the washing better. Some Canadian women had made shirts to tie at the back and mistaking the use of these had put a pocket in the back, leading some of the men to say that people in Canada must be quite limber. It was protested that these gowns were not from Renfrew!

Miss Payne said that any tobacco sent to wounded soldiers in English hospitals had to pay duty. She had handled parcels with a little tobacco in them and had had to pay duty on the whole weight of the parcel.

That night Miss Payne again sent her face seaward. It appears that every nurse is supposed to take her turn at duty on board ship, for a term of at least three ships.

The Renfew Mercury, 1917

Nursing Sisters Who Lost their Lives in World War 1

1915 {color:rgb(119, 111, 111);}
  • Matron JAGGARD, Jessie Brown, 3 Stationary Hospital
  • N/S MUNRO, Mary Frances E., 3 Stationary Hospital

1916 {color:rgb(119, 111, 111);}
  • N/S NOURSE, Grace E. Boyd, Canadian Army Military Corps (CAMC)
  • N/S ROSS, Elsie Gertrude, CAMC
  • N/S TUPPER, Addie Allen (Adruenna), Royal Red Cross (RRC) CAMC

1917 {color:rgb(119, 111, 111);}
  • N/S GARBUTT, Sarah Ellen, Ontario Military Hospital
  • N/S SPARKS, Letitia, 7 General Hospital

1918 {color:rgb(119, 111, 111);}
  • N/S ALPAUGH, Agnes Estelle, CAMC
  • N/S ALPORT (Roberts), Jean Ogilvie, 4 General Hospital
  • N/S BAKER, Miriam Eastman, 15 General Hospital
  • N/S BALDWIN, Dorothy Mary Yarwood, 3 Stationary Hospital
  • N/S BARTLETT, Bertha, Newfoundland Voluntary Aid Detachment
  • N/S CAMPBELL, Christina, 5 General Hospital N/S DAGG, Ainslie St. Clair, 15 General Hospital
  • N/S DAVIS, Lena A., 4 General Hospital N/S DOUGLAS, Carola Josephine, CAMC H.S.
  • N/S DUSSAULT, Alexina, CAMC H.S. N/S FOLLETTE, Minnie Asenath, CAMC H.S. N/S FORNERI, Agnes Florien, 8 General Hospital
  • N/S FORTESCUE, Margaret Jane, CAMC H.S. Matron FRASER, Margaret Marjory, CAMC H.S.
  • N/S FREDERICKSON, Christine, CAMC N/S GALLAHER, Minnie Katherine, CAMC H.S.
  • N/S GREEN, Matilda Ethel, 7 General Hospital
  • N/S HENNAN, Victoria Belle, 9 General Hospital N/S HUNT, Myrtle Margaret, CAMC
  • N/S JARVIS, Jessie Agnes, CAMC N/S JENNER, Lenna Mae, CAMC
  • N/S KEALY, Ida Lilian, 1 General Hospital N/S LOWE, Margaret, 1 General Hospital N/S MCDIARMID, Jessie Mabel, 5 General Hospital
  • N/S MACDONALD, Katherine Maud, 1 General Hospital N/S MACEACHEN, Rebecca Helen, CAMC N/S MCKAY, Evelyn Verrall, 3 General Hospital
  • N/S MCKENZIE, Mary Agnes, CAMC H.S.
  • N/S MCLEAN, Rena, RRC 2 Stationary Hospital
  • N/S MACPHERSON, Agnes, RRC 3 Stationary Hospital
  • N/S MELLETT, Henrietta, 15 General Hospital N/S PRINGLE, Eden Lyal, 3 Stationary Hospital
  • N/S ROGERS, Nellie Grace, CAMC
  • N/S ROSS, Ada Janet, 1 General Hospital
  • N/S SAMPSON, Mary Belle, CAMC H.S.
  • N/S SARE, Gladys Irene, CAMC H.S.
  • N/S STAMERS, Anna Irene, CAMC H.S.
  • N/S TRUSDALE, Alice L., CAMC N/S TWIST, Dorothy Pearson, Canadian Military V.A.D.
  • N/S WAKE, Gladys Maude Mary, 1 General Hospital
  • N/S WHITELY, Anna Elizabeth, 10 Stationary Hospital

1919 {color:rgb(119, 111, 111);}
  • N/S BAKER, Margaret Elisa, CAMC N/S CHAMPAGNE, Ernestine, 8 General Hospital
  • N/S DONALDSON (Petty), Gertrude, 1 General Hospital
  • N/S GRANT, Grace Mabel, CAMC N/S KING, Jessie Nelson, 1 General Hospital N/S MCDOUGAL, Agnes, 10 Stationary Hospital
  • N/S MCINTOSH, Rebecca, 9 General Hospital
  • N/S MACLEOD, Margaret Christine, 2 General Hospital

1920 {color:rgb(119, 111, 111);}
  • N/S McGINNIS, Mary Geraldine, CAMC

1921 {color:rgb(119, 111, 111);}
  • N/S CUMMING, Isobel Katherine, 1 General Hospital
  • N/S HANNA, Bessie Maud, 3 Stationary Hospital

1922 {color:rgb(119, 111, 111);}
  • N/S GREEN, Caroline Graham, CAMC H.S.

Spellings as in original: Veterans Affairs Canada

Medical Doctors

From the moment that women were finally admitted to the study of medicine, they were subjected to embarrassing ordeals during their training. The major objection to medical training for women was the issue of co-education, especially when the subject was the human body. Male students and faculty, unable to accept women in their midst, harassed and intimidated them during anatomy classes with vulgar drawings and demonstrations. Given the challenges faced and overcome by Canadian women who wanted to study medicine, it is not surprising that the women doctors who served at the Front performed amazing acts of courage and endurance. Dr. Irma LeVasseur and Dr. Mary Lee Edward were two outstanding examples.

Dr. Irma LeVasseur

Dr. Irma LeVasseur was born in Quebec City in 1878, the daughter of the journalist Louis-Nazaire LeVasseur. She was educated in a convent and had decided at an early age on a career in medicine. Her problem was where to study. Neither Laval University nor the Université de Montréal accepted women, nor did McGill University. The hospital attached to Bishop’s University was so anti-woman that it was hardly worthwhile to enroll. Irma spoke English as well as French, and rather than choosing a Canadian university she applied to and was accepted at the Minnesota University College of Medicine at St. Paul. After practicing in New York City, she returned to Montreal, where she embarked on an extremely successful career in pediatric medicine before she gained fame for her work in World War I.

Dr. LeVasseur volunteered in April 1915 and left for Europe with four other doctors, all male. Her posting was in Serbia, where the population was being ravaged by a typhus epidemic that claimed 300,000 lives before it ran its course. Typhus had arrived in Serbia with the invading Austrian army, and though the Austrians had been driven back, the disease remained.

Dr. LeVasseur worked day and night under constant enemy bombardment, organizing an immunization program and treating the wounded as well as the sick. When the Germans invaded, Dr. LeVasseur had to withdraw her unit to avoid capture. She set up another hospital 30 miles back but there was virtually no food and soon medicine ran out. Although the situation was desperate, she kept on going through exhaustion and frustration. Worse was to come. Serbia fell and a great retreat began. Hospital units, diplomats, Serbian soldiers, thousands of near-starving men, women and children fled toward safety. It is estimated that more than 700,000 people died on the journey. Dr. LeVasseur made it to the coast, surviving her ordeal to return to Canada to resume her work.

Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors (Formac Publishing Company Limited, 2001), p.185

Dr. Mary Lee Edward

Dr. Mary Lee Edward, born in Petrolia, Ontario, graduated from the University of Toronto medical school in 1908, the only woman in a class of 150. She joined an American medical unit because she was working in New York when the war broke out.

Mary Lee had to move to New York because there was little opportunity for this ambitious young graduate in Canada. She organized an all-female medical team, arriving on the battlefield toward the end of the war, after the United States entered the conflict. She was in the first American unit to go overseas, and they went straight to France, only to discover their hospital had been destroyed. The unit was sent to the front just in time to deal with the results of the full German offensive. Their hospital was attacked from the air by bombs and strafed by machine gun fire. At times patients arrived by the hundreds, were wheeled on stretchers into the preparation room, to be cleaned of mud and grass by a nurse and then sent to surgery.

On more than one occasion, when the doctors went off duty, they would realize that they had been working alongside a whole box of legs that they had amputated during the night. There wasn’t time for any attention to delicacies, no time to talk of shielding ladies from the grosser side of life. Sometimes Dr. Edward operated for as long as sixty hours at a stretch, not pausing to sleep and hardly pausing to eat. Shells burst around her, bombs fell on the hospital (thirteen nurses killed, eleven wounded) and on she went, cutting and stitching.

‘Operated 12 midnight to 8 a.m.,’ reads her diary. ‘Operated 4 -12 p.m. There remained 100 wounded to operate on. At times there are 400 or more arriving all the time...Boche advancing...Operating now with three equips...Evacuating and operating on high speed. Some on tables four hours after wounded...Many evacuants from Compeigne...’

“She was exhausted, and yet there was no stopping. She couldn’t stop as long as the casualties kept coming in. And the casualties poured in until later in the year when at last the war turned in favour of the allies.”

Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors (Formac Publishing Company Limited, 2001), p.185

Dr. Edward survived the war. She and four colleagues were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government at a special ceremony at the Front and on her return home the University of Toronto awarded her a Roll of Service in honor of her gallant work for King and Country. She practiced medicine until she was eighty-five. Before her death in 1980, she wrote notes for her memoirs, including her recollections of the sexist challenges of her anatomy class and the horrors she witnessed on the front.

From Dr. Edward’s notes on classroom experience:

Each day, they assembled 10 minutes before the lecture began and sat in their places. When I took my place, I was pelted with chalk, chalk brushes and assailed by catcalls and a song, Hop Along Sister Mary. I had to enter from the [door at the] front of the amphitheatre, climb 30 or 40 steps and sit at the back. At the end of the six-year course, in the spring of 1908, I won the George Brown Scholarship, the highest honour available in this course. It amounted to $350 and entitled one to a year’s research work.

From her notes on the war:

May 31, 1918: About 3 a.m., many more wounded arrived. One old lady was brought in with shrapnel in her head from a bomb and, by 8 a.m., 300 wounded had arrived. The whole sky was lit by a nearby village. Flames could be seen. Great numbers of wounded continued to arrive. Several teams were working. We worked from 3 a.m. to 2 p.m. After 2 p.m., we went on our round and performed dressings. Then we slept for one hour – from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.

All these cases were wounded by bullets, one with the lower half of his face shot away. An American sculptress in Paris would send to the soldier’s home for a photograph and from this she would make a sculpture of his face. A famous plastic surgeon in Paris would then build up his face.

Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors (Formac Publishing Company Limited, 2001)


Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs)

Britain set up Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) and sent thousands of hastily trained nurses and orderlies to work in military hospitals. The VAD nurses generally acted as assistants to the professional military nurses (also known as nursing sisters), and therefore carried out unpleasant but essential tasks such as emptying bedpans and getting rid of soiled dressings.

The VAD women generally came from upper and middle-class British families, and were at least twenty-three years old. They felt they were doing their part for the war effort by performing unpaid menial work that, a few months earlier, would have been considered beneath them.

When the Battle of Somme ended in November of 1916, the British armies had suffered over 420,000 casualties, 25,000 of them Canadian. With such staggering losses, more and more men were required at the Front to replace battle casualties. Suddenly, new jobs opened up for women. At the start of the war, the job of driving Red Cross ambulances had been considered too dangerous and exhausting for women; indeed, few women knew how to drive motor vehicles. But now VADs recruited women to replace the male ambulance drivers who had been sent to fight at the Front.

Susan E. Merritt, Her Story III: Women from Canada’s Past (Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1999), pp.144-145

Jane Walters

Jane Walters, daughter of a newspaper owner in Welland, Ontario, recalled her experiences as a VAD in a military hospital in London:

It was difficult as a VAD getting used to the English sisters. That was very hard. The discipline in a British military hospital was something! We had our meals in a vast room, part of the original building. You went down steps into it, and it was long, and towards the other end you went up steps, and there’s where the lord and lady of the manor would sit in the olden days. You remember the saying ‘below the salt’. You went down steps and all the tables here were for the nursing sisters and the VADs. The matron [the woman in charge of all the nurses in the hospital] and the entire senior nursing sisters and the heads of the hospital would be up there. The matron only came to second diner, and when she would come, the VAD who was sitting at the end of that table, the nearest one to the door through which she would come, would get up and go to the door and hold the door open. When the matron would come in, you’d have to give her a little bow.

We didn’t grumble – the hierarchy didn’t affect us. Some of the nursing sisters in charge of each ward were very strict. Some of them I couldn’t bear. One of them was so rude to me one day that I just turned around and sauced her back. I said, ‘I haven’t come 3,000 miles to work voluntarily to be spoken to like that by anybody.’ Of course she reported me to the matron and I was on the carpet. So I was changed from that ward.

My experience as a VAD certainly broadened me. You met people from all over the world. You did things you never thought you were going to do. And you had stern discipline, and you had hardship – terrible things to look at, to see, and to do, and you just had to grit your teeth and do it. It was a wonderful character builder.”

Jane Walters, from Daphne Read, ed., The Great War and Canadian Society: An Oral History (New Hogtown Press, 1978), p. 125

Grace MacPherson Livingston

Grace MacPherson worked as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver at the huge “hospital city” of Etaples, France. She worked 12 hour shifts driving ambulances full of wounded men over bumpy dirt roads for 14 shillings a week. Grace continued to perform her duty to the best of her ability throughout the war and escaped injury when Etaples was bombed during a number of air attacks in 1918. Many other nurses or orderlies were killed or wounded. Grace was described as “the bravest of them all” for her calm work during those horrific times. At first, Grace experienced some difficulty coping with the extremely strict discipline imposed on the VADs. Her naturally breezy nature did not fit well with the tight restrictions. The VADs could go to tea with officers but were not allowed to dine with them unless chaperoned. Dancing with men would lead to instant dismissal. Grace was constantly reprimanded for improper behaviour and incorrect dress. Even though she was miserable she persevered and the situation improved. She eventually made friends.

In Her Story III, Susan Merritt wrote about Grace:

Grace MacPherson, the youngest of six children, was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1895. While she was still a child, her family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Her father, a civil engineer, died soon after the move. Grace was a popular young woman with a sparkling personality that attracted many friends. Like other ‘nice’ women of the times, she taught Sunday School, took an active part in her church youth group and went to dances and the moving picture shows. She also had a rebellious streak, and at eighteen, rather than go straight from her mother’s house into marriage, Grace attended Business College. There she studied typing and shorthand. Clerical work had been dominated by men in the 1800s and even by 1911 less than one out of every three Canadian clerical workers was female. Yet Grace daringly looked forward to “going out to business” and getting an office job.

A few years later, Grace employed as a secretary, astonished Vancouver and became one of the first women in the city to own her own car. She proudly dashed about in her Paige Detroit, changing her own tires and dealing with troublesome road hogs.

[At first] the war did not rock the world of Grace MacPherson. Canadians wanted to show the world how well they could fight, and it was exciting when Grace’s male friends proudly wore their new uniforms. But no one expected the war to last long. And no one expected to die. Her brother Alex had not even waited to join Vancouver’s local 72nd Battalion. Instead, he had rushed off to England and enlisted as a lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry. Grace did not worry about Alex, for he had always been lucky. But her brother’s luck ran out in Turkey. In September of 1915, Grace learned by telegram that Alex had died of wounds at Gallipoli. For Grace, war no longer meant handsome uniforms; it meant injury and it meant death.

Grace came up with a plan. Alex had already died in the war and so had one of her boyfriends. Like so many Canadian women, she longed to do more to help “the boys” overseas. Her diary, begun at the age of eighteen, indicates that a few weeks later she wrote to the Red Cross and volunteered her services as an ambulance driver. In France, the ambulance drivers drove wounded soldiers between the hospital trains, the hospitals, and ships sailing for England. Grace did not receive encouraging replies but decided to travel to England in hopes of obtaining such a position. For the next two months, she spent her lunch hours pestering the Canadian Pacific Steamship officer for a free passage overseas. As Grace pointed out, the male volunteers received free passage, so why shouldn’t she? The Vancouver office finally gave in, and chaperoned by an elderly Vancouver couple, Grace sailed for England. Sailing during wartime was in itself an act of courage; a year earlier, on 7 May 1915, the Lusitania had been sunk by German U-boats in sight of Ireland, and 1,198 had perished.

When Germany invaded Belgium in August of 1914, King George V, on behalf of the British Empire, declared war. Canada, as part of the British Empire, was committed to take part in what was expected to be a short and glorious war.

But the war quickly turned into a bloody standoff in the trenches and battlefields of Belgian and France (the Western Front). When Grace arrived in London in 1916, everyone realized this war would be neither short nor glorious. The “improved” weapons of this war were killing and maiming at an incredible rate. On average, infantry soldiers would last only one year in combat before being killed or seriously wounded. Military medical services were struggling to care for vast numbers of wounded soldiers.

After the Battle of the Somme, the VADs took over ambulance duty at Etaples, France, a small fishing port, which had been transformed into a medical receiving centre of over forty thousand hospital beds. This huge military hospital complex was located sixteen kilometers (ten miles) south of Boulogne on the English Channel.

When Grace arrived in London, she rushed to VAD headquarters to obtain a position as an ambulance driving. On 28 March 1917 an excited Grace received her marching orders. She was one of twenty women sent to reinforce the ambulance convoy at Etaples, France. Altogether about one hundred women worked as ambulance drivers during the war, and Grace was one of four Canadian women chosen. There were, in addition, two Newfoundland women drivers. Newfoundland was still a separate self-governing British colony, and the fiercely proud Newfoundlanders were not classed as Canadians.

Grace rushed around London putting together her kit. As a volunteer, she had to pay for her own uniform. Ambulance drivers were usually exposed to the weather as they drove, so she bought a leather coat, high-laced boots, an aviator helmet and lots of warm underwear…Grace crossed the English Channel and arrived in a snow storm in Etaples on 8 April 1917. The next day, Canadian forces had their greatest victory when they captured Vimy Ridge – at a cost of over ten thousand casualties in six days.

A soldier who was wounded at the Front was first treated at his battalion’s Field Dressing Station. If the wounds required more care, he was then moved to a Casualty Clearing Station which was always located on a railway line. The Casualty Clearing Stations often had emergency operating huts to deal with wounds requiring early treatment. If the wounded soldier could be treated at a general hospital, he was placed on one of the row of shelves inside the hospital train and transported to Etaples. At Etaples, Red Cross Ambulance drivers such as Grace met the hospital trains. Stretcher bearers or orderlies loaded the wounded into ambulances. Then the ambulance drivers delivered the men to the appropriate general hospitals at Etaples. It was called a convoy when ambulance drivers moved wounded men from the trains. If a wounded man was being sent back to England, an ambulance picked him up at the hospital and either drove him back to the train station or else drove him directly to one of the hospital ships at Boulogne. This was called an evacuation. Each convoy and each evacuation took about three hours.

Grace worked twelve-hour shifts either from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm, or from 8:00 pm to 8:00 am. A typical shift included one convoy and one evacuation over bumpy dirt roads that were slick and greasy when wet. However when huge numbers of wounded men arrived after a battle such as Vimy Ridge, the ambulance drivers might work forty-eight hours at a stretch, with only a few hours of sleep. All this was done for no pay, for although Grace and the other Red Cross drivers had the honorary title of lieutenant, they did not receive a salary. Instead, the women, as volunteers, received fourteen shillings a week to put towards mess and laundry expenses.

Grace noted in her small pocket diary that the ambulances were in poor condition when the male ambulance drivers turned them over to the VADs. Grace and the other drivers were each responsible for the maintenance of two or three ambulances. These were clumsy, bulky McLaughlin Buicks donated by public-spirited organizations. Each day at noon, the Commandant closely inspected the vehicles. Every ambulance had a vehicle number, and the driver was identified by that number…

In March of 1918, the German army launched a series of attacks which won them huge areas of France. As Germany smashed through Allied lines, more and more hospital trains pulled into Etaples bearing the shattered bodies of wounded men. By April, the Front had moved closer to Etaples. There was a never-ending crash and thud of guns, and at night the sky lit up with the flash of bursting shells. Nurses, hastily evacuated from captured Casualty Clearing Stations, sought shelter in Etaples. Train and truck traffic was even heavier than usual, rushing ammunition and other supplies toward the ever-approaching Front. Grace and the others worked longer and longer hours. Exhausted, they struggled to keep awake at the wheel as they drove more wounded men to the overcrowded hospitals…The clear and moonlit evening of Sunday, 19 May 1918 was the perfect night for an air raid. German aircraft, attempting to destroy railway lines and supply trains, dropped 116 torpedoes and incendiaries on Etaple’s unprotected hospitals and camps. There were over a thousand patients in the hospital wards when the two-hour raid began.

Male staff quarters at No. 1 Canadian General Hospital were hit, and there were heavy casualties. Parts of the nurses’ quarters were also demolished and three nurses died while five others were wounded. No. 7 Canadian General Hospital was also hit, with some casualties. During the air raid, Grace and other drivers took shelter from the flying debris under their beds; miraculously, none were injured. When the raid was over, the women quickly set to work. The devastating raid had caused about 750 casualties and many orderlies had been wounded or killed. The drivers transported the wounded to operating rooms and did whatever else had to be done on that horrific night in May.

Grace wrote that RA660 (her vehicle) performed well, but did not write about her part in the aftermath. One captain, however, described her as “a very gritty woman,” and wrote that while some of the men were panic-stricken, Grace, first on the scene with her ambulance, “worked all night without a quiver.” Before the end of May the Etaples area endured three more air attacks. No. 1 Canadian General Hospital and the St. John Ambulance Brigade Hospital were so damaged that their patients were evacuated and the two hospitals closed.

Grace left Etaples late in the summer of 1918. For over a year she had worked at a dangerous and grueling job for fourteen shillings a week. She was running out of money and she needed a change. Using her secretarial skills, she briefly worked for the wife of the Canadian High Commissioner. Then she earned her living as head driver at an American military hospital in London. In late 1919 she returned to Vancouver and found employment at the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment. Shortly thereafter, handsome Major David Livingston saw Grace across the room at a veterans’ dance. He swept an astonished Grace up into his arms and declared that she was the one he would marry. David Livingston was a civil engineer in charge of building branch lines for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He and Grace were married the following spring, and Grace lived in the wilderness of northern British Columbia for much of her early married life…Justly proud of her own wartime contribution, Grace always insisted on marching with the men in Remembrance Day parades. Grace MacPherson Livingston died in Vancouver in 1979.

Susan E. Merritt, [_Her Story III: Women from Canada’s Past _](Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1999), pp.141-152


All Work and No Play…

With so many young people so far from home, it was understandable that romance would seem important in such desperate times when the future was unknown.

Jane Walters recalls:

Patients had a habit of falling in love with you. They were so glad to get back home and have young girls around who weren’t too hard to look at and who were kind, who helped them. I remember there was one Roumanian soldier, and he thought he was in love with me. I kinda thought I was in love with him too. He was very attractive. You know, a girl who has ideals – and we had ideals in those days, I hope you have now – to be thrown in with men like that, all kinds from all over the world, it took some doing to keep level, not have your head turned. But you had your heart hurt very often.

And Anita White Phillips remembers being teased because pilots dropped notes as they buzzed the hospital:

We had a doctor on our ward, Dr. Robertson, I think it was. He’d been there for quite a long time, and I had been there for a long time too. And he came in one morning, and he said, ‘Have we got Nursing Sister White?’ We all looked so amazed at him. I said, ‘Why, of course. What’s the matter?’ He says, ‘Well, tell your boyfriends that are flying over this place to stop dropping bombs on my head.’ They had little things that they put weights on, and they put a note inside it, and they dropped them. He happened to be passing, and it dropped right on his head…The notes told me where they had been, and when they’d be back, and hope you’d be at a little dance, or something like that. Just nice notes.

Jane Walter and Anita White Phillips, from Daphne Read, ed., The Great War and Canadian Society: An Oral History (New Hogtown Press, 1978), p. 148

Canadian women’s wartime experiences changed their lives in ways most of them never expected. The survivors came home to a changed world.

The Canadian military medical services soon reverted to their prewar status. When post-war reorganization was complete, the Royal Canadian Army had a permanent staff of only eight nursing sisters. By 1922 all nursing sisters who had served in the war had been demobilized. Nonetheless, some of the women who had provided medical care at home and overseas took their experiences and built careers in medicine.

For many women, marriage and family were not an option, because tens of thousands of men died during the conflict. Most of those who had served did not speak of what they observed and survived. Their diaries were packed away with uniforms and medals and only came to light many years after the end of the terrible conflict. The diaries of Clare Gass and Ella Mae Bongard and the stories of other women speak to us of young people going off cheerfully and bravely, never suspecting what horrors they would face. They met the challenge, serving with great courage and distinction. Some of them would never return.

Each woman’s story is different and all the stories share the backdrop of misery and heroism, excitement and boredom, life at its most vivid heights and at its most drab depths. Millions died in World War I and the war changed every one of the millions of people who had even been remotely involved.

Chapter 5: After World War I


The joy and relief felt by Canadians at the signing of the Armistice was tempered by the knowledge that 60,000 lives had been lost and many more thousands of people who had gone overseas would never recover fully from the horror they had endured. The deaths and injuries resulting from the Halifax explosion in 1917 and the flu epidemic of 1919, which claimed 50,000 more lives, were further blows to the fabric of Canadian life. Would War I resulted in a significant break with traditional values and practices. A way of life had been changed forever. Commentators often spoke of the “lost generation” who could not recreate the world they had known. The communities that had come through the war and to which so many returned from overseas offered a very different society.

A Society Transformed

Canada in 1919 was profoundly different from the Canada of 1914 in a number of important ways – demographic, economic, political and social. Serious divisions between French and English, between the eastern and western parts of the country, between labour and capital, created a climate of uncertainty.

Unemployment and inflation increased during the post-war economic slump and labour militancy intensified, culminating in mass walkouts across the nation in 1919.

Even though women had proven their worth as citizens during the war, and women relatives of service men and those in the service themselves had been granted the vote, when the war was over and large numbers of men returned to Canada, the women were expected to return to their homes and give up their hard-won jobs to returning veterans. Many widows had to support their families, and thousands of other women did not want to return to the home; their wartime experiences had opened their eyes to new possibilities.

Many women strongly objected to the demands to return to the home and give up their places in factories and offices. The attitude toward working women had changed in other ways. It was now acceptable for a young woman to work until she married, since her wages could help with the family expenses. Women’s presence in the workforce was tolerated as long as they did not try to take jobs normally reserved for men. Women were strongly encouraged to focus on so-called “women’s jobs.” More and more women were being employed as sales help in stores, as filing clerks and stenographers in business offices, and as factory workers because they could perform such duties as well as men – and they were paid much lower wages.

Opportunities expanded for women in nursing and medicine. Female doctors gained wide praise for their work during the war. Some had gained their reputations in hospitals in Canada; others had done so in field hospitals in France.

When the war ended, women were urged by governments to return to their homes to make way for returning servicemen. This bulletin, from the Ontario Department of Labour, was directed to female employees, others to their employers.


Are you working for love or for money?

Are you holding a job you do not need?

Perhaps you have a husband well able to support you and a comfortable home?

You took a job during the war to help meet the shortage of labour.

You have “Made good” and you want to go on working. But the war is over and conditions have changed.

There is no longer a shortage of labour. On the contrary Ontario is faced by a serious situation due to the number of men unemployed. This number is being increased daily by returning soldiers.

They must have work. The pains and dangers they have endured in our defence give them the right to expect it.

Do you feel justified in holding a job which could be filled by a man who has not only himself to support, but a wife and family as well?


New freedoms in dress came for several reasons. Women working on the farm and in munitions during the war adopted appropriate clothing. This was out of necessity, as the fabric needed for the war effort took priority. The new fashions in dress and hairstyles suited the new confidence many women had gained as they explored work opportunities that had previously been closed to them. Clothes were less constricting and the shorter hairstyles less time consuming.

Opportunities for Black women, however, were limited. Violet Blackman came to Toronto in 1920, almost two years after the end of the war. She described the city and the opportunities for Black women:

That was 1920; then Toronto was just a village. The streetcars had no sidings to them; you could jump on and off, but they always had the motorman and a conductor on them. The Exhibition Ground and Sunnyside, that was all the lake, and the Union Station – there was nothing but like. You couldn’t get any position, regardless who you were and how educated you were, other than housework because even if the employer would employ you, those that you had to work with would not work with you.

Peggy Bristow, We’re rooted here and they can’t pull us up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History, © The Authors (University of Toronto Press, 1994)

For all the changes and increased opportunities for women, emphasis still remained on the importance of women’s role as homemaker. However, so many men had died in the conflict that many women lived their lives alone, whether or not they wished to follow the social norm.

Even as women gained new rights, society would still seek to confine them to the stereotypical “woman’s place.”

Mass circulation magazines and advice books acknowledged the hopes raised in this new decade by featuring “the girl of the new age,” creating the popular notion of the “flapper.” On the other hand, there were some doubts about the idea of “the new woman.” The end of the Great War had left many Canadians feeling threatened and insecure, and they turned to traditional values and institutions for a sense of stability. Marriage remained the accepted occupation for women, and many magazines offered advice and information on the subject.

The experiences of seven decades of grassroots organizing, speaking, writing and cooperating and created a pool of experienced women reformers ready to cope with the aftermath of the Great War. They had deep concerns about the human cost of the war and strong commitment to preventing another, as expressed in the poem In Flanders Now by journalist and author Edna Jaques which has been widely published, they still had high hopes for the future.

In Flanders Now

We have kept faith ye Flanders dead,
Sleep well beneath the poppies red
That mark your place,
The torch your dying hands did throw
We held it high before the foe
And answered bitter blow for blow
In Flanders fields.

And where your hero’s blood was spilled
The guns are now forever stilled
And silent grown.
There is no cry of tortured pain
And blood will never flow again
In Flanders fields.

Forever hold in our sight
Will be those crosses gleaming white
That guard your sleep
Rest you to peace the task is done
The fight you left us we have won
And peace on earth had just begun

Edna Jaques, Uphill All the Way

Loss and Remembrance

Soon after the war was over, the governments of the world went about reburying the dead. Those who had been buried quickly while the bombs exploded above were permanently interred in peaceful cemeteries. Monuments were erected, as cities and towns were rebuilt. Canadian nurses who died were honoured for their courage and sacrifice by the Nursing Sisters’ marble Memorial located in the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill, and the Cavell monument in downtown Toronto, created by sculptor Florence Wyle.

Annual, sometimes daily, remembrance ceremonies became a part of life – proof that those who survived the Great War would not forget. The poppy – that sturdy flower that decorated the hastily dug graves in Flanders, and survived the ravages of war, soon became a symbol of all that had been lost and accomplished. By 1920, the poppy was officially adopted in the United States. A year later, French widows and orphans were making and selling silk poppies; their profits were going to veterans’ families or programs for disabled veterans.

Mary Riter Hamilton

The Canadian War Memorial Fund and the Canadian War Records Office hired official war artists to record Canada’s participation in the war. Near the battlefront, the war artists were always male; a few women artists secured commissions to record activity on the home front and to produce portraits of military and political figures.

At the end of the war, a magazine called The Gold Stripe offered Mary Riter Hamilton a commission that required her to return to Europe. The magazine, whose proceeds went to the War Amputations Club of British Columbia, hired her to paint the battlefields of Britain and France. The paintings would appear in The Gold Stripe, which published articles and illustrations relating to the war.

In 1919, only six months after the end of the war, Mary returned to Europe. Her special mission was to record the battlefields before all signs of battle were removed. At Vimy, Mary suffered in snow and extreme cold, yet she wrote in one of her letters to The Gold Stripe, “I want to get the spirit of it…I feel that it is fortunate that I arrived before it is too late to get a real impression.”

It took courage for Mary to live in war-torn Europe. Gangs of criminals roamed the countryside, live ammunition littered the battle zones, and her only neighbours were Chinese labourers hired to clear the wasted battlefields. She lived alone in a military hut and the food was often inedible. She was “mighty cold and uncomfortable” she wrote n one letter, but in another she stated she would not leave until “I finish the work I have come here to do.” And so Mary persisted in her task of producing a unique record of the Canada’s part in The Great War.

The Battlefield Paintings

From 1919 to 1922, Mary produced over three hundred battlefield paintings, many completed on site. She had travelled widely in Europe before the war and must have been deeply moved by the wasteland around her. Her grim, impressionistic paintings bear witness to the lasting horrors of war.

Mary focused on battles where Canadian soldiers had fought and died. Her paintings show ruined buildings, scorched woods, overturned tanks and deserted roads scattered through Europe’s ravaged countryside.

Yet, as if to emphasize that Canadian soldiers did not die in vain, some of the paintings hint at new life. Some show flowers growing in the trenches beside no man’s land, or ordinary people gathering in markets.

The paintings she produced in 1919 were exhibited in Victoria and Vancouver by the War Amputations Club and the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire. As usual, however, her work received more attention in Europe. In 1922, some of Mary’s battlefield paintings were exhibited in the Foyer of the Paris Opera as well as at the Société des Artistes, the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and at the Somme Memorial Exhbition held in Amiens, France. At the Somme Memorial Exhibition, Mary was awarded the purple ribbon of Les Palmes Académiques, the Order of Public Instruction. Her award was as high a distinction as a woman could receive in France at the time. In 1923, over a hundred of her battlefield paintings were exhibited in London, England. While in Europe, Mary received a number of offers to purchase her collection, but she refused. She had other plans for her battlefield paintings.

Mary donated 227 of her paintings to Canada’s Public Archives, as a memorial to Canadians who died in the war. Unfortunately, in spite of the attention received in Europe and the generosity of her gift, she received little attention. She was forgotten by the world and died in poverty in 1954.

Susan Merritt, [_Her Story II: Women of Canada’s Past _]( Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1995), pp. 105-108

Looking to the Future

By 1920, Canadian women would experience a world very different from that which their mothers and grandmothers had known. Partly through the contributions they had made to the war efforts, and partly through the dedicated campaigning of the suffragists, Canadian women had made some substantial gains in their struggle for equality of status.

Anges Campbell Macphail of Ontario became the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1921. Nellie McClung won a seat in Alberta the same year, becoming the third woman to sit in that province’s legislature (after Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams in 1917).

Later in the decade, great female athletes like Ethel Calderwood and Bobby Rosenfeld won Olympic gold medals for Canada.

Agnes Campbell Macphail

A teacher in rural Ontario before running for election, Macphail was the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1921, representing the riding of Grey South East as an independent, keeping close links with the United Farmers of Ontario party.

Macphail was an ardent feminist and an advocate of social change, and devoted most of her life to public service at a time when women were not welcomed in the public arena. Defeated federally in 1940, she moved to Toronto to become a newspaper columnist and in 1943 was nominated as the CCF candidate in the provincial riding of York East and won, thus becoming one of the first two women elected to the provincial legislature.

She worked for women, miners and prisoners, founded the Canadian branch of the Elizabeth Fry Society and was largely responsible for Ontario’s first pay equity legislation in 1951. Macphail was never afraid to speak her mind. Along with Nellie McClung, she was noted for her pithy, quotable comments:


“That seems to be the haunting fear of mankind – that the advancement of women will some time, some way, some place, interfere with some man’s comfort.

Agnes Macphail


The Persons Case


“It would be absurd to ask a woman today if she thought of herself as a person.

Ontario Women’s Directorate – Moments in History, 1992


A significant and symbolic barrier to public office – and by extension to full participation and recognition in all aspect of life in Canada – remained for the women of Canada after the end of World War I. Having fought for the right to hold public office and to vote, women continued to be told by the Government of Canada that they were not qualified to be appointed to the Senate.

The British North America Act, 1867 (since 1992, the Constitution Act, 1867) stated that the Governor General could “summon qualified Persons to the Senate” as provided in section 24. The Government took the position that women were not “qualified Persons”.

Although the formal legal initiative to change this started in 1927, the roots of the campaign reach back to 1916 when Emily Murphy had just been created the first woman police magistrate within the British Empire. During her first day a judge, an enraged defence lawyer told her that she was not a “person” under the British North America Act (BNA Act) and therefore had no right to sit as a judge.

In 1919, the first conference of the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada sent a resolution to the Prime Minister of Canada of the day requesting that he appoint a woman to the Senate. Other powerful womens’ organizations followed suit, but they were told that the appointment of a woman was impossible without an amendment to the BNA Act.

In 1927, Emily Murphy, with Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, decided that the political campaign for change was not working, and they chose another route. They petitioned (asked) the Government to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to interpret section 24. When a government does this, it is called a “reference”. The Government asked the Supreme Court of Canada: “Does the word ‘Persons” in section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?”

Argument was heard in the Supreme Court of Canada on March 14, 1928. The verdict came five weeks later and was a bitter disappointment for the petitioners. The Court ruled against them and said no. The five Supreme Court justices decided that the BNA Act must be construed in the light of what was intended in 1867, when no woman could vote in Canada, and that therefore women were not eligible for appointment to the Senate.

After waiting a year, during which the petitioners hoped that the government would introduce a motion to amend the BNA Act, they decided to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England. At that time, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was the highest court of appeal for Canada. On October 18, 1929, Lord Sankey, the Lord Chancellor, read Judicial Committee’s decision at Temple Bar. The Judicial Committee ruled for the women, and said yes.

Their Lordships have come to the conclusion that the word persons includes members of the male and female sex and that therefore the question propounded by the Governor General must be answered in the affirmative, and that women are eligible to be summoned and become members of the Senate of Canada.

It further declared that:

The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.

The Persons Case also established one of Canada’s most influential principles of constitutional interpretation, one that continues to apply today:

The British North America Act planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within natural limits.

One year later, Cairine Reay Wilson was appointed by the Governor General to be the first woman to sit in the Senate of Canada. She would serve until her death in 1962.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council decision was indeed a huge victory for the women of Canada. But that did not mean women would have an easy time finding equality from this point on, because although some laws had changed, attitudes and practices had not.

The ensuing decades, the Great Depression of the thirties followed by World War II, and the next round of activism against sexism and racism would once again engage women in all their diversity, challenging and changing Canada in ways that no one could ever have imagined…

Classroom Activities

Chapter 2: On the Home Front

Knowledge and Understanding

View the National Film Board film about women in factories during World War I – “And We Knew How to Dance” (it is available for download, and many public libraries have it). Make a list of the contributions these Ontario working women made during the war. Pretend you were one of the women in the film. Write a letter to a friend in another town, telling her about your adventure.

Thinking, Inquiring, Communicating

Posters to the women of Canada: As a class discuss the probable impact of World War I propaganda on women. Compare the messages or images (or both) presented in the poster and explain why there are significant differences.

Have students imagine they are one of the women of the time, and create diary entries about their reaction to posters.


Compare World War I and World War II propaganda posters.

Ada Kelly: Read and discuss the letter of recommendation. You might want to raise such questions as:

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  • The principal implied that there might be a problem hiring a Black woman to teach for the Board. Do you think his concern was justified? Why?
  • Do you think the principal placed too much emphasis on Ada’s personal experience? Does this have any relationship with her ability as a teacher?

Applying Knowledge

Have each student create a page in an imaginary diary in which Ada Kelly records her teaching experiences. See Resources for sources on early 20th century teaching.

Write or perform a skit – a day in the life of a factory worker.

Hattie Rhue- Hatchett In groups, write music and lyrics for a song about female factory or farm workers.

Chapter 3: The Fight for the Vote

Knowledge and Understanding

As a class, discuss what it means to deprive people of the right to vote – disenfranchisement – from the perspective of those people and of the society or place in which they live.

As a class, decide on a social/equity issue that you feel should be addressed at your school. Create a petition and circulate it within the school. Research where to send the petition.

Thinking, Inquiring, Communicating

Opinions differ regarding the granting of the vote. Initially, Canadian women in the military (nurses) and women relatives of men serving in the military received the right to vote. Later it was granted to some women. Some historians see granting the first franchise as a cynical attempt to gain votes for the Union Government, guaranteeing that the Conscription Act would pass. Others say that the vote was an acknowledgement of women’s support of the war effort. Still others say that the franchise was an inevitable outcome of the years of work by suffrage groups. Have students discuss these different views, and support one of them, giving reasons for their opinion.


Individual research: What rights, if any, did women have during this time? Property? Parental? Did all women, regardless of race or colour, hold these rights?

Research the life of Nellie McClung or any other suffragist, or any woman in your family who lived during the time when women could not vote.

Using the documents in this chapter and other research, create a chart with two columns. In column one, list the arguments against women’s suffrage. In column two, in your own words, comment on the logic of the arguments. Do the same with the arguments for women’s suffrage.

Applying Knowledge

Re-enact the Mock Parliament described in Chapter 1: Before the War to this book. Imagine that the women of the Manitoba Political Equality League had access to contemporary technology (email, internet, text messaging). How would their strategies have been different? In what ways? Valentine greetings postcard: This postcard shows one public view of the issue of votes for women. Analyze the image. Create a pro-suffrage satirical postcard.

Chapter 4: Far from Home

Knowledge and Understanding

Discuss the 1918 bombing of No. 1 Canadian General Hospital in Etaples, France. Did you know that Canadian nurses were killed in World War I?

Use the headline as an opening discussion for other questions such as: Was Canada bombed during World War I? What do you think the reaction was in Canada?

Using The War Diaries of Clare Glass or Nobody Ever Wins a War: The War Diaries of Ella Mae Bongard, create letters from family members to Clare or Ella Mae.

Thinking, Inquiring, Communicating

Very little has been written about women in the military during World War I. What might be some of the reasons for this?

How can letters and diaries help historians understand the roles women played during the war?

How do these documents provide important historical information for Canada?


Individual research: Read letter written by nurses during World War I and World War II and compare and contrast them.

Class project: Do further research on Canadian Nursing Sisters during the war.

Applying Knowledge

Using The War Diaries of Clare Glass or Nobody Ever Wins a War: The War Diaries of Ella Mae Bongard, discuss a typical day of a military nurse.

Chapter 5: After World War I

Knowledge and Understanding

In groups, make a list on chart paper of all the important roles women played during the war and explain how their contribution was essential in the war effort both at home and overseas. Compare your results and find common themes.

Thinking, Inquiring, Communicating

Discuss in class whether you think it was fair that women were pressured to give up their jobs to make room for returning veterans. Could there have been a solution that was more equitable?

What do you think happened to the fruit pickers, factory workers, nurses and ambulance drivers after the war?


Research the life of sculptor Florence Wyle, the artist who depicted women contributing to the war effort at home and who created the monument honouring Edith Cavell and serving nursing sisters.

Compare Edna Jacques’ poem In Flanders Now with In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. What are the differences?

Applying Knowledge

Create a bulletin board display on women’s contributions to the war effort. You could arrange the board by themes such as work in the war factories, nursing, and activities on the home front. Include pictures, maps and letters.

Design a monument or a tribute in any other medium honouring women who served at home and abroad.

What other ways can Canadians honour these women?

Selected Resources


A History of Women in the Canadian Military by Barbara Dundas (Art Global Editions, 2001) ISBN 9782920718791

A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War by Sarah Glassford & Amy Shaw (UBC Press, 2012) ISBN 9780774822572

Agnes Macphail and the Politics of Equality by Terry Crowley (J. Lorimer, 1992) ISBN 9781550283266

Agnes Warner and the Nursing Sisters of the Great War by Shawna M. Quinn (Goose Lane Editions and the New Brunswick Military History Project, 2010) ISBN 9780864926333

Art at the Service of War by Maria Tippett (University of Toronto Press, 2013) ISBN 9781442616042

But This Is Our War[_ by Grace Morris Craig (University of Toronto Press, 1981) ISBN 9780802024428_]

Canada’s Nursing Sisters by Gerald W.L. Nicholson, Historical Publication No. 13 of the National Museums of Canada (Samuel Stevens, A.M. Hakkert, 1975) ISBN 9780888665676

Canadian Women: A History by Gail Cuthbert Brandt et al (Nelson Education, 2011, 3rd ed) ISBN 9780176500962

Canadian Women on the Move 1867-1920, edited by Beth Light & Joy Parr (New Hogtown Press and The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1983) ISBN 9780919940185

Firing the Heather: The Life & Times of Nellie McClung by Mary Hallett & Marilyn Davis (Fifth House, 1993) ISBN 9781895618204

Give Your Other Vote to the Sister by Debbie Marshall (University of Calgary Press, 2007) ISBN 9781552382288

Her Story I by Susan E. Merritt (Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1993) ISBN 9781551250007

Her Story II: Women from Canada’s Past by Susan E. Merritt (Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1995) ISBN 9781551250229

Her Story III: Women from Canada’s Past by Susan E. Merritt (Vanwell Publishing Limited, 1999) ISBN 9781551250373

Margaret Macdonald: Imperial Daughter by Susan Mann (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005) ISBN 0773529993

Nobody Ever Wins a War: The World War I Diaries of Ella Mae Bongard, R.N. edited by Eric Scott (Janeric Enterprises, 1998) ISBN 9780968354803

On All Frontiers: Four Centuries of Canadian Nursing. Editors: Christina Bates, Dianne Dodd & Nicole Rousseau (Canadian Museum of Civilization and University of Ottawa Press, 2005) ISBN 9780776605913

Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery [1921] (Penguin Random House Canada, 2011) ISBN 9780143177760

Spotlight Canada by J. Bradley Cruxton & W. Douglas Wilson (Oxford University Press, 2000) ISBN 97801954033473

Tapestry of War: A Private View of Canadians in the Great War by Sandra Gwynn (HarperCollins, 1992) ISBN 9780006394853

The Great War & Canadian Society: An Oral History edited by Daphne Read (New Hogtown Press, 1978) ISBN 9780919940017

The War Diaries of Clare Gass 1915-1918 edited by Susan Mann (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000) ISBN 0-7735-2126-7

The Parliament of Women: The National Council of Women of Canada 1893-1929 by Veronica Jane Strong-Boag (National Museums of Canada, 1976) ISSN 0316-1900

The Persons Case: The Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood by Robert J. Sharpe and Patricia I. McMahon (The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and the University of Toronto Press, 2007) ISBN 97808020975007

The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada by Catherine L. Cleverdon (University of Toronto Press, 1974, 2nd ed.) ISBN 0-8020-6218-0

Those Splendid Girls: The Heroic Service of Prince Edward Island Nurses in the Great War by Katherine Dewar (Island Studies Press, 2014) ISBN 9780919013803

We’re rooted here and they can’t pull us up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History coordinated by Peggy Bristow, (University of Toronto Press, 1994) ISBN 9780802068811

Women at Work, 1850 – 1930 edited by Janice Acton, Penny Goldsmith & Bonnie Shepard (Canadian Women’s Educational Press, 1974)

Yesterday’s Dead by Pat Bourke (Second Story Press, 2012) ISBN 9781926920320


Angels of Mercy: Nursing Sisters in World War I and II”, Sound Venture, soundventure.com

And We Knew How to Dance”, National Film Board

John McCrea’s War: In Flander’s Fields”, National Film Board


Canadian War Museum: Canada and the First World War

Veteran Affairs Canada: Women and War

Library and Archives Canada: Canada’s Nursing Sisters

Women and the Vote 1916 – 1919

Women in Government

www.section15.ca: Nellie McClung; Agnes Macphail; Cairine Wilson;

Historica Canada Heritage Minutes: Women

Finding the Forty-seven: Canadian Nurses of the First World War


Four Centuries of Canadian Nursing (Green Dragon Press, 2005), www.greendragonpress.com



Cover Farmerettes. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 640 A

Chapter 1: Before the War

[(_]Chapter Cover[) National Council of Women at Rideau Hall Aberdeen Lord & Lady in centre; Gordon, Majorie Lady at left. Ontario, October 1898._] Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-028034

Figure 1.1[_ Working Girl: “Mr. Eaton, can’t you please make life a little easier for us?”._] Jack Canuck (“a weekly review of what the public say, do and think”), March 1912

Figure 1.2[_ “The Club Woman”, postcard, 1905._] Archive and Special Collections, University of Ottawa, Canadian Women’s Movement Archives Collection, 10-001, item ELMI-0090, [R.H.L.L]

Figure 1.3 Program from 1896 Mock Parliament. Courtesy of Moiza Armour

Figure 1.4[_ Plan of Members’ Seats for 1896 Mock Parliament._] Courtesy of Moiza Armour

Chapter 2: On the Home Front

[(_]Chapter Cover[) Women munitions workers, Russel Motor Car, Toronto, c. 1917._] Library and Archives Canada, PA-024639

Figure 2.1[_ The Shell Finisher, Frances Loring. _]Canadian War Museum, 1970261-0414 Beaverbrook Collection of War Art © Canadian War Museum

Gallery 2.1 WWI Propaganda posters

[_Canada Food Board sensitive campaign: Are You breaking the Law? Patriotic Canadians Will Not Hoard Food, c. 1918. _]Library and Archives Canada, e010697116

Some Women are Sending Their Men, Poster c.1914. Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin, 1914-1918. Patriotic Fund. Item 5. L

How Can I Serve Canada?, Poster c.1914. Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin, 1914-1918. Patriotic Fund. Item 7. L

To the Women of Canada, Enlist Today, c. 1914-1918. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-834

To Her Undying Honor, c.1919. Library and Archives Canada, e010756930

Fight for Her Come with the Irish Canadian Rangers Overseas Battalion : recruitment campaign, c. 1914-1918. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-1017

Buy Fresh Fish : Canada Food Board sensitive campaign, c.1918. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-702

Figure 2.2 Send the boys what they really want, c.1914. Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin, 1914-1918. Tobacco. SB

Gallery 2.2 The Autograph Quilt

The quilt that went to war on display at the Dufferin County Museum & Archives. Courtesy of Dufferin County Museum & Archives, DSC_5725.jpg, photograph by Pete Paterson

[_Detail of one of the 30 quilt blocks with embroidered names. _]Courtesy of Dufferin County Museum & Archives, DSC_5733.jpg, photograph by Pete Paterson

Figure 2.3[_ Poster from Selkirk, Ontario, 1919._] Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin, 1919. Last Call. S

Gallery 2.3

[_Women hold bazaar for war aid. _]City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, item 872

Canadian Red Cross ambulance. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, item 885

Red Cross, fund-raising tag day, 1915. Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin, 966-2-41

Women knitting socks as part of their war effort, 1914. Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin, S275, Series I, Misc. album

_Women knitting for the armed forces, 1914. _ City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, item 873

Figure 2.4[_ Hattie Rhue Hatchett._] Courtesy of Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

Figure 2.5[_ Preparing to defend Canada in case of a German Invasion._] City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 981

Figure 2.6[_ Teacher Winnifred Cassel and three friends on the farm. _]Courtesy of Winnifred Cassel

Figure 2.7[_ Farmerettes_]. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 640 A

Figure 2.8[_ Women at Clark’s Factory._] Courtesy Glenbow Archives, NC-6-3311

Figure 2.9[_ Ada Kelly_]. Courtesy of Christine Kelly

Figure 2.9 Letter of Introduction for Ada Kelly (page 1-2), 17 Aug, 1913. Courtesy of Christine Kelly

Gallery 2.4 Patriotic Fund Posters, c. 1914-1918

Overseas Service Scale of Pay. Archives of Ontario War Poster Collection, C 233-2-4-0-194

G-Bye Mary, the Patriotic Fund Will Care for You. Archives of Ontario War Poster Collection, C 233-2-5-0-268

Chapter 3: The Fight for the Vote

[(_]Chapter Cover[) Presentation of petition by the Political Equality League for the enfranchisement of women, 1915. Front L to R: Dr. Mary Crawford, Mrs. Amelia Burritt. Back L to R: Lillian Thomas, Mrs. Fred Dixon. _]Archives of Manitoba, Events 173/3 (N9905)

Figure 3.1[_ Manitoba Suffrage Petition, 1915_]. Archives of Manitoba, Events 173, 5(N9907)

Figure 3.2[_ “Valentine Greetings”, postcard 1906._] Archive and Special Collections, University of Ottawa, Canadian Women’s Movement Archives Collection, 10-001, item ELMI-0091, [R.H.L.L]

Figure 3.3[_ Women’s Right to Vote in Provincial Elections_]

Figure 3.4[_ Letter from Mrs. R.D. Farquharson._] Library and Archives Canada, Robert Laird Borden Papers, MG26 H, Vol. 61, 30683

Figure 3.5[_ Letter from Janie Smythe._] Mrs. Flora M. Denison Papers, Thomas Fisher Rare Books, University of Toronto Library Mss Coll.

Figure 3.6[_ Election poster for Roberta MacAdams, 1917._] Glenbow Archives, M-711-2

Chapter 4: Far from Home

[[ Nurses voting No 1. Canadian General Hospital, December 1917._] Library and Archives Canada, PA-002279

Figure 4.1[_ Nursing Sister Ruby Gordon Peterkin, 1916._] Library and Archives Canada, e002283118

Figure 4.2[_ Victory Bonds appeal following the sinking of the Llandovery hospital ship, c.1918._] Archives of Ontario War Poster Collection, C 233-2-0-1-19

Figure 4.3[_ Linda Thompson at the Edith Parkin headstone in the Boswell Cemetery, Chisholm Township_]. Courtesy of Doug Mackay

Figure 4.4[_ Georgina Pope, possibly in her nurse’s uniform from Bellevue Hospital, New York, c.1898._] Alfred George Pittaway, Library and Archives Canada, e002283119

Figure 4.5[_ Margaret Macdonald._] Dalhousie University Archives, Waldren Studios Photographic Collection, PC2, Box 123, Folder 107

Figure 4.6[_ Margaret Lowe._] Courtesy of Arlene Hill

Figure 4.7[_ The official record of Margaret Lowe’s service as a Nursing Sister._] Library and Archives Canada, Service Files of the First World War

Figure 4.8[_ Ella Mae Bongard._] Courtesy of Eric Stott family

Figure 4.9[_ Medal set, Colonel Elizabeth Smellie: Royal Red Cross Class 2 (AARC); 1914-1915 Star; British War Medal; Victory Medal MID (Mentioned in Dispatches); Canadian Volunteer Service Medal; War Medal 1939-1945; King George V Silver Jubilee Medal; and Canadian Centennial Medal._] Tilston Memorial Collection of Canadian Medals © Canadian War Museum, CWM 20000105-049a

Figure 4.10[_ Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, Six Nations of the Grand River._] Courtesy of Helen Monture Moses

Figure 4.11[_ Canadian General Hospital 7 c.1917._] Album of Photographs of No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, France, Library and Archives Canada, C-080026

Figure 4.12[_ Canadian nursing sisters working among the ruins of the 1st Canadian General Hospital.which was bombed by the Germans, killing three nurses, June 1918_]. Canada, Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-003747

Figure 4.13[_ Grace MacPherson, Voluntary Aid Detachment driver, at the front, May 1917._] Department of Defence Collection, Library and Archives Canada, PA-001305

Gallery 4.1 Canadian nurses

Canadian nurses, May 1917. William Ivor Castle, Canada, Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-001291

At a casualty clearing station, wounded Canadians present a nurse with a dog brought out of the trenches with them, October 1916. William Ivor Castle, Canada, Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-000931

Chapter 5: After World War I

[(_]Chapter Cover[) Last pay at a munitions factory._] City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, item 940

Figure 5.1[_ “Re-establish Him”, poster, c.1919_]. Toronto Public Library, 1914-18, Victory bonds. Item 28. L

Gallery 5.1 Loss and Remembrance

Pour que la Terre leur Soit Légère [So that the earth may lie lightly on them]. Archives of Ontario, I0016154

[_Mothers of Soldiers, 1920. _]Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 727

Gallery 5.2 Mary Riter Hamilton battlefield paintings

Trenches on the Somme, 1919. Mary Riter Hamilton fonds. Library and Archives Canada, C-104640

Filling the Shell Holes in No Man’s Land, 1920. Mary Riter Hamilton fonds. Library and Archives Canada, C-101328

Dug Out on the Somme, 1919. Mary Riter Hamilton fonds. Library and Archives Canada, C-104800

Interior of a Pill Box, 1920. Mary Riter Hamilton fonds. Library and Archives Canada, C-132004

Villiers-au-Bois, 1919. Mary Riter Hamilton fonds. Library and Archives Canada, C-132015

Cemetery of the 7th Battalion, British Columbia, Canada, 1919. Mary Riter Hamilton fonds. Library and Archives Canada, C-132006

Canadian Monument, Passchendaele Ridge, c.1920. Mary Riter Hamilton fonds. Library and Archives Canada, C-104640

Figure 5.2[_ Agnes Macphail, First woman member of the Canadian House of Commons, c. 1921-1935_]. Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada, C-021557

Figure 5.3[_ Hon. Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first woman senator, c.1930._] George Horne Russell, Library and Archives Canada, e01107961

Selected Classroom Activities

(Cover) Canadian Red Cross ambulance. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, item 885

Selected Resources

(Cover) Grace MacPherson, Voluntary Aid Detachment driver, at the front, May 1917. Department of Defence Collection, Library and Archives Canada, PA-001305


(Cover) Canadian nurses, May 1917. William Ivor Castle, Canada, Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-001291

It Was Their War Too: Canadian Women in World War I

The years of World War I, 1914-1918, were years of change for Canada. Canada made a place for itself in world affairs, and the country found its stride. Women in Canada too found their stride, making significant contributions to Canada’s war efforts, and becoming fully engaged in the social, economic, political and cultural life of the country. Canada and the place of women, in all their diversity of origin, race and class, would be transformed by the actions of women and like-minded men. It Was Their War Too, by Pat Staton, is a unique book that brings these women and their contributions alive and connects them to the present. Written for students and the general reader, the book richly sets the background, tells the stories of the times through the voices of the women themselves, and brings the period to life with stunning visuals. This book is not a memorial to war. It is a doorway to understanding the critical, but often invisible, contributions made to the 20th century development of Canada by women. It includes suggested student activities and a resource list for further exploration. Even though women were prohibited in these war years from doing everything that men could do, they pushed every boundary to contribute. This book tells the stories of what they did and how they did it, showing their day to day choices and their dreams, their sorrows and their joys – and the sheer life they brought to everything they did.

  • Author: Nancy's Very Own Foundation
  • Published: 2016-07-06 19:52:09
  • Words: 29219
It Was Their War Too: Canadian Women in World War I It Was Their War Too: Canadian Women in World War I