My Tribute to Women Veterans

It is my great privilege to rise today on behalf of the Ontario NDP caucus to pay tribute to the often under-recognized contributions of the courageous women who served in the military during World War II. On the eve of International Women’s Day, it is fitting that we honour these remarkable woman veterans—heroes—from the Second World War.

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n particular, I want to talk a bit about June Rudd, Helen Kerr and Clara Bateman. These trail-blazing women in uniform paved the way not only for Canadian women in the military, but for the struggle for women’s equality in Canada and the achievement of women’s rights.

Canadian women first contributed to the military during World War I as nurses tending to the sick and wounded. Their wartime service and sacrifice, in addition to political considerations related to support for the war effort, led to the federal government’s decision in 1917 to grant suffrage to women working in the armed forces and the wives, mothers and sisters of soldiers overseas.

During World War II, Canadian women successfully lobbied the government to form military organizations for women, to allow them to play an active role in the war. In 1941-42, the military was forever changed with the creation of women’s forces, allowing women to serve our country in uniform for the first time in the air force, army and navy.

The war years saw more than 50,000 Canadian women serving as transport drivers, cooks, clerks, typists, stenographers, messengers, mechanics, parachute riggers, wireless operators, intelligence officers, weather observers, pharmacists, photographers and more. World War II women veterans fixed airplanes. They flew Spitfires. They broke codes and they managed offices.

Yet despite this broad array of roles and despite the significance of these contributions, women’s involvement in military efforts was essentially predicated on the availability of men. Women were allowed to fill military roles not because of the skills they brought to these positions, but because men were not available. Recruitment advertisements reinforced this devaluing of women’s skills. The armed forces advertised for women to serve so that men may fight. The air force advertised for women to serve so that men might fly.

Women in World War II struggled for equality in a military system that applied different criteria to their eligibility, limited their job opportunities once they had joined and paid them lower wages. Initially, military women earned two thirds of a man’s salary, with the rationale that it took three women to replace two men. This was later increased to four fifths, the difference justified this time by the fact that women did not serve at the front.

It was not until later in the century that military women were valued for their own skills and contributions instead of as replacement workers for men, when the government made the decision in 1965 to make permanent the employment of women in the Canadian military.

This morning, we are recognizing the pioneering women from World War II who helped open the door for the many women who served in later conflicts and peacekeeping missions and who now make up 15% of today’s Canadian Forces.

The first is June Rudd. Like many young British women during the war, June Rudd joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, or Wrens, in 1943. At her first station near Liverpool, she was responsible for typing and staffing the telephone. Later, she trained in coding and ciphering for naval communication. At Southwick House, the manor house requisitioned as the advance command post for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, she was involved in planning for Operation Overlord. In the months after D-Day, June would then follow the Allies through liberated Europe.

The Crestwood School website posts video interviews of June sharing her incredible war stories with a grade 9 student. June recounts her involvement in the liberation of Paris and describes riding through the French country with a young boy who borrowed a plane without permission.

June has maintained many of the friendships that she developed during the war and belongs to the Naval Association of Toronto, where she is held in the highest esteem. June, we thank you and salute you for your service.

Helen Kerr grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan and served as a first lieutenant in the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the Second World War. Her training as a nurse at an Ontario mental hospital was put to the test while tending to wounded Allied soldiers at the front in France, and later in army hospitals in England.

Following the war, she worked as an RN in London and in Toronto, and was recently recognized with the French Legion of Honour medal in recognition of her service in France. Helen Kerr remains an active member of Pickering Branch 606 of the Royal Canadian Legion and a women’s auxiliary volunteer. Helen, we thank you and salute you for your service.

Finally, Clara Bateman was born in England and enlisted in the Wrens at age 17, after convincing her sister to forge their mother’s name on the enrolment papers. She served as a clerk in the supply department and was stationed at HMS Daedalus, one of the primary shore airfields. There, she has vivid memories of the tanks, equipment and personnel that filled the station during D-Day preparations. She was recently awarded a Royal Canadian Legion Branch 228, Stirling, life membership in recognition of 45 years of dedicated service to the branch. Clara, we thank you and salute you for your service.

I am so proud today to recognize these three brave women and all the women who served, to honour their sacrifice and to celebrate their contribution to advancing the rights of women to full and equal participation in society, on our front lines and around the world. Thank you.