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Rita (Gallant) St. Onge

This story was submitted by Debbie Thomas. Mrs. St. Onge was the first woman shipbuilder in Canada.

My name is Rita (Gallant) St. Onge. I was born in Woodstock, Prince Edward Island. I left home in 1940 to find work. I had $15.00 in my pocket and took off for Halifax. It cost $7.00 for the train ride and with the rest of my money I bought a present for myself – a wristwatch. I worked for two years as a domestic. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper that the National Selective Service was looking for people to fill positions in the shipyard. It sounded interesting so I decided to apply. I had to take a quiz and to my surprise I was hired. There were hundreds of workers hired and only six were women. We were hired to build the HMCS Nootka. I was the first of these women hired. It was the best job I ever had. I worked as a pattern maker in the mould loft. This is where all the plans of the ship were made to scale and all placed on the floor. My job was to take measurements for an individual part and then make it using one-inch plywood. I put the holes and rivets in the wood. After these wood models were made, they were taken to another room and were made from steel. The HMCS Nootka took three years to build.

Rita (Gallant) St. Onge and her husband Albert

As it turned out, I was the first woman shipbuilder in Canada. I never thought of myself as a celebrity, but others did. I received cards and letters from politicians, I had my picture in the paper, and I was interviewed on the radio in Halifax. I even got $35.00 for an interview with Lorne Greene, who was a Canadian newscaster at that time.

The most exciting moment of my shipbuilding career was when I was chosen to christen the new destroyer that I helped build. The Nookta was the second destroyer to be launched during wartime and the first one had been christened by the Lieutenant Governor's wife. So I guess it was a big thing.

On April 24, 1944, the HMCS Nootka was launched. I got to cut the ribbon and smash a bottle of champagne on the ship. I was in the company of many dignitaries. There were many newspaper pictures and I saved them all. I received a silver plaque for my part in the christening.

I met my husband who was a returning sailor and we married and moved back to Cornwall, Prince Edward Island. I never did woodworking since then, but I wish I had kept my tools. I gave them to the person who replaced me when I left.

It was an interesting and fun time. We played a lot of pranks and practical jokes to ease the tension. I was glad when the war was over. It doesn't solve anything and hopefully it will never happen again.

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