Five milestones for Canadian women in military service

Generations of women have served in the Canadian military. Many of them have overcome obstacles of tradition and prejudice. Some were the first to clear a barrier, blazing a trail for others to follow. Here are five notable milestones.

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1914–1918: Canadian women serve as military nurses.

Some 2,800 women served as nurses in the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War. Known as Nursing Sisters, many of them worked overseas in military hospitals or on hospital ships. In Canada, they tended to wounded soldiers who had returned home but still needed treatment for their wartime injuries.

1941: Women are full-time service members.

In 1941, Canada began recruiting women to serve full-time in three new military organizations. The groups were the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. Women filled conventional roles such as clerks and telephone operators. They also carried out atypical tasks, serving as mechanics, parachute riggers and drivers of heavy mobile equipment. Mary Greyeyes Reid was one of these women. She was the first Indigenous woman to join Canada’s armed forces, volunteering for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942.

1980: Three Canadian women become Royal Canadian Air Force pilots.

In 1980, the Canadian Armed Forces opened pilot classification to women. Three women soon became Royal Canadian Air Force pilots. They were Captain Dee Brasseur, Captain Leah Mosher and Captain Nora Bottomley. Captain Brasseur later became one of the first two female CF-18 Hornet fighter pilots in the world in 1989. Some other notable firsts included Second Lieutenant Inge Plug, who became the first Canadian woman to pilot a military helicopter. Lieutenant Karen McCrimmon became the first woman to be an air navigator in the Canadian Armed Forces.

1989: A woman completes training as an infantry soldier.

Private Heather Erxleben became Canada's first female infantry soldier in 1989. She achieved this distinction upon graduating from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) Battle School. She served with the 3rd Battalion of the PPCLI following completion of the 16-week training course.

2012: A woman receives the Medal of Military Valour.

Captain Ashley Collette was the first woman to receive the Medal of Military Valour. She earned it for her service as a combat platoon commander in Afghanistan. The Medal of Military Valour is Canada’s third-highest award for bravery in uniform. Only the Victoria Cross and the Star of Military Valour rank higher.

Date published: 2020-02-11

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