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Cryptography in Québec

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Cryptography in Québec

Mrs. Duchesnay-Marra tells how she started working in cryptography in Québec for National Defence.


Marie Duchesnay-Marra

Marie Duschesnay-Marra was born in Québec on October 14, 1920. Her father, a First World War veteran, fought with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry before being injured in the Battle of Ypres. She was educated by the Ursulines and then attended business college. Early during the Second World War she worked in Québec City as a civilian employee for the Navy but she subsequently enlisted in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) in June 1943. The members of this service are often referred to as WREN, an easily pronounced adaptation of the acronym WRCNS. She took further Morse code training and she was transferred to Halifax, where she worked as a cryptographer (cipher expert) in the message centre. She continued her work in Ottawa and Gaspé before being demobilized in August 1945. Mrs. Duschesnay-Marra has had a long carreer as a cryptographer for various agencies of the Canadian government here and overseas.


Cryptography in Québec

In March 1942 I was called and asked it I wanted to work for National Defence in Québec. So off I went to work there. The day before, I’ll just tell you a little story, I had curled my hair to look pretty and on April 1, I went from the Upper Town down to the port in a horrible snowstorm, and arrived with wet hair hanging around my face [laughter]. I walked into the commander’s office. He had his officer’s jacket around his shoulders, and was wearing a cast. “That’s the first war injury I’ve seen,” I thought to myself. Then the commander called the Petty Officer (unfortunately, I don’t remember his name). He was a very nice man, very big and strong, and an expert cryptographer. So I was in good hands and that first day he taught me about encryption, which I hadn’t even known existed. Of course, I was doing something none of my friends were doing, something secret and unusual. If they needed us at eight or nine at night, we were always escorted. During the day I took the tram but if we had to work at night, there was a [inaudible] with two sailors, armed almost to the teeth, who came to the girls’ homes to get them, one by one. We were very well protected, and it was very nice. Then they installed teletypes in our office . . . no one in Québec had had one before so they sent me to the CPR offices in Québec to see Mr. Barclay (I haven’t forgotten his name), who taught me how to use the teletype because they had them there. Then after I got back they installed the teletype machines. We had them in Ottawa, Québec, Moncton and Halifax. Everything that was encoded for Halifax . . . we had a telephone line we used to send our messages. Everything was secret, top secret, all the movements, even the weather. You never saw weather reports in any of the papers, or anywhere, whether it was nice out or whether it was raining. It was top secret information because we couldn’t let the enemy know the weather, because of potential attacks. When you think about it, there were problems with the June landing in Normandy because the weather was so-so and sea conditions were bad. Weather is a big problem during a war.

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