Early Life

Mary Greyeyes was born in 1920 on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation reserve north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. (See also Cree.) She had four brothers and six sisters. At age five, she attended St. Michael’s residential school in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan.

Her favourite brother, David Greyeyes-Steele, who went on to serve in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, helped to support the family financially. (See also Indigenous Peoples and the World Wars.)

After grade eight, Greyeyes took lessons from a nun at night. By day, she cooked, cleaned, sewed and did laundry for the school.

Enlistment

After her brother David enlisted in the military, Greyeyes decided to join too. She travelled to Regina in June 1942 to enlist.

The Canadian armed forces started recruiting women in 1941. Required to write a test, Greyeyes felt nervous due to her limited education, but she passed. At age 20, she became the first Indigenous woman to join the nation’s armed forces as a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.

Military Career

Shipped out to a Canadian base in Aldershot, England, Greyeyes was made to cook and do laundry, a task she disliked. When she requested a transfer, her sergeant lied on her papers in an attempt to keep her there, writing: “Does not speak English.”

However, Greyeyes was eventually transferred to London, England, where she cooked at the war headquarters. Her superiors, who wanted to provide the appearance of a pro-diversity workplace, brought Greyeyes to public events. It was then that she met Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother and King George VI. Photos of her with public figures appeared in London newspapers.

Greyeyes stayed in London until 1946. In September that year, the Canadian government disbanded the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, considering women’s service in peacetime unnecessary. Discharged, Greyeyes returned to Muskeg Lake, later calling her wartime years the best of her life.

Wartime Photo

In late June 1942, Greyeyes’s sergeant and two Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers asked her to pose for a photo that would be used to encourage more women to enlist. They offered her a new uniform and hearty lunch in return.

The RCMP paid Harry Ball, a First World War veteran and band councillor for the Piapot First Nation reserve northeast of Regina, $20 to participate in the same photo opportunity. He posed as a chief (though he did not become one until later), wearing a feathered headdress and blanket with borrowed accessories, including a pipe.

The resulting photograph showed Greyeyes kneeling, in uniform, before Ball. For many years, the image, first published in the Regina Leader-Post, bore the caption: “Unidentified Indian princess getting blessing from her chief and father to go fight in the war.” The photo was distributed across Canada and the British Empire.

More than a half-century after the 1942 image appeared, Greyeyes’ daughter-in-law, Melanie Fahlman Reid, corrected the caption, adding Greyeyes’ name and editing some of the details. It became: “Private Mary Greyeyes, Cree, from Muskeg Lake, Cree Nation, Canadian Women’s Army Corp.”

Personal and Postwar Life

After returning to Muskeg Lake in 1946, Greyeyes spent time with family. She later moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she met her future husband, Alexander Reid.

They moved to Victoria, British Columbia and raised two children, Stephen and Stephanie. Greyeyes, then also known as Mary Reid, worked for a time as a restaurant cook in Victoria.

The family moved to Vancouver, likely in 1960, where Greyeyes worked as an industrial seamstress downtown. 

Death

In 2002, suffering from dementia, Greyeyes was moved to a residential care facility in Vancouver, where she died in her sleep at age 90 on 31 March 2011. Greyeyes is buried with her husband (who died in 1989) on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation reserve.

Significance

Mary Greyeyes Reid made history as the first Indigenous woman to join the Canadian army. In a widely circulated wartime photograph, she symbolized the military’s attempts to recruit women and Indigenous peoples in Canada.