Canadian Women and War | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadian Women and War

Canada has been involved in various wars from the beginning of its colonial history. Just as the nature of these wars has changed over time, so, too, has their effect on Canadian women. Women have actively participated in war, from nursing and munitions manufacturing during the First and Second World Wars to the increasing involvement of Canadian women in the military.

Women's royal canadian naval service (wrcns)
Signallers Marian Wingate and Margaret Little of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service at work in St. John's, Newfoundland, April 1945.

War has impacted Canadian women’s lives in different ways, depending on their geographical location and racial and economic status. Pre-20th-century conflicts had a great impact on women in Canada, especially Indigenous women, whose communities could be dispossessed and devastated by colonial militaries. Women were interned in Canada during wartime — that is, detained and confined — because their background could be traced to enemy states.

Japanese Canadian Internment
Relocation of Japanese Canadians to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia, 1942.
Japanese Canadian Internment Camp
Community kitchen at a Japanese Canadian internment camp in Greenwood BC, 1943.

While some women have been traumatized profoundly by Canada’s wars, others have indirectly benefited from them. Women have often assumed traditionally male work during wartime — a pattern that has, in some cases, contributed to the advancement of  women’s rights .

(See also Women in the Military; Wartime Home Front.)

New France and British North America

Women who accompanied the French and English military forces of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries cooked, laundered, sewed, and tended to the sick and wounded. Some protected their property from marauders and prepared ammunition, food and medicines.

Civil War in Acadia
Madame La Tour bravely defends the fort against d'Aulnay 's assault (drawing by C. W. Jefferys, courtesy Library and Archives Canada).

In mid-17th-century Acadia, the wife of Charles de Saint-Étienne, Françoise-Marie Jacquelin (better known as Madame de La Tour), took command of her husband’s colonial army corps in his absence and defended Fort La Tour against a rival militia (see Civil War in Acadia). Similarly, in 1692, the 14-year-old Marie-Madeleine Jarret de Verchères played a decisive role in defending Fort Verchères from Haudenosaunee raiders. During the War of 1812, Laura Secord famously walked more than 30 km to warn the British military of an impending attack.

Madeleine de Verchères

During the 1885 North-West Resistance, women were admitted officially to the military for the first time, as nurses (see Nursing Sisters). Civilian nurses also accompanied the Yukon Field Force during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, as well as the Canadian contingent in the South African War (1899–1902).

Minnie Affleck
Miss Minnie Affleck, nursing sister with the 1st Canadian Contingent, South African War, 1899-1902

(See also Nursing Sisters and the Costs of War on Women.)

Expansion of Women’s Wartime Roles in the 20th Century

Into the 20th century, factors like the distance of conflicts and restrictive ideas about women’s abilities combined to prevent direct participation by women as combatants. Nonetheless, during both the First and Second World Wars, women organized for home defence, outfitting themselves in uniforms, and training in rifle shooting and military drills.

Nurse with wounded soldiers
At a casualty clearing station, wounded Canadians present a nurse with a dog brought out of the trenches with them, October 1916
Princess Mary's royal air force nursing service
Nursing sisters of Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service talking with wounded soldiers, Beny-sur-Mer, France, June 16, 1944
Nursing Sisters at the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital
Nursing sisters dispensing medical supplies at the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital, St. John's, Newfoundland, ca. 1942

The first two women’s services were created as auxiliaries to the air force and the army in 1941. Some 50,000 Canadian women eventually enlisted in the air force, army and navy. While the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division members were initially trained for clerical, administrative and support roles, they eventually came to work as parachute riggers, laboratory assistants, and within the electrical and mechanical trades.

Canadian Women's army corps
Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) Pipe and Brass bands preparing to take part in a march past in Apeld oorn, Netherlands, August 13, 1945, at the end of the Second World War
Canadian Women
Lance-Corporal A.W. Hartung with Pipers Flossie Rose (centre) and Mona Michie of the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) Pipe Band, Zeist, Netherlands, August 25, 1945
Women's royal canadian naval service (wrcns
Signallers Marian Wingate and Margaret Little of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service at work in St. John 's, Newfoundland, April 1945.

The Canadian Women’s Army Corps followed the same path, with its members starting out as cooks, nurses and seamstresses, but later becoming drivers and mechanics. The third women’s military corps, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS, or “Wrens” informally), was established in 1942. Growing wartime bureaucracy opened the way for women as officially recognized members of the armed forces outside of nursing, and many women in the service gained employment in clerical positions as stenographers, switchboard operators and secretaries.


In 1917, amidst the tremendous reconfiguration of labour practices on the home front, the movement for women’s suffrage won a major victory with the passage of the Wartime Elections Act, which granted some women the right to vote in federal elections. Suffrage at this time was limited to women working in the armed forces and the wives, mothers and sisters of soldiers overseas. At the same time, however, the Act revoked voting rights from Canadian citizens of enemy-alien birth who were naturalized after 1902. Today, most historians view the Act partly as the product of women’s growing presence in the public sphere and partly as a move by Prime Minister Robert Borden to bolster electoral support for his government (see Election of 1917).

The term enemy alien referred to immigrants from countries that were legally at war with Canada. During the First World War, Canada interned 8,579 enemy aliens in 24 receiving stations and internment camps from 1914 to 1920. Those interned included Ukrainians, Germans, Turks, Bulgarians and people of Austro-Hungarian origin.

Wartime Roles on the Home Front

Another important role for women during wartime, especially the Second World War, consisted of code breaking and espionage. The Canadian government recruited members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service and the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, among others, to break coded messages. They worked in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario, including at Camp X.

The Bren Gun Girl
Veronica Foster, known as "The Bren Gun Girl," poses with a finished Bren gun at the John Inglis & Co. plant, May 1941.
The Operator, Clémence Gagnon
The operator, Clémence Gagnon, watches a machine carding asbestos fibre, Johns Manville factory, Asbestos, Quebec, June 1944.
Woman factory worker files a machine part while piped music plays on loudspeakers, November 1943.
Two female laboratory workers test synthetic rubber in the Polymer Rubber Corporation plant, January 1944.
Unidentified “lumberjill” painting “Aero Spruce Product of Canada” stencil on a pile of lumber, April 1943.
Female shipyard workers walking down a path returning to work after a 30-minute lunch break in the shipyard cafeteria, May 1943.
Female shipyard workers walking down a path returning to work after a 30-minute lunch break in the shipyard cafeteria, May 1943.

While a few women had produced ammunition in factories during the South African War, during the First and Second World Wars they entered the munitions industry en masse. According to the Imperial Munitions Board, about 35,000 women worked in munitions factories in Ontario and Quebec during the First World War. In 1943, approximately 261,000 women were involved in the production of war goods, accounting for more than 30 per cent of the aircraft industry, close to 50 per cent of the employees in many gun plants, and a distinct majority in munitions inspection.

Women also worked to ensure a thriving domestic economy. During the First and Second World Wars, they produced and conserved food; raised funds to finance hospitals, ambulances, hostels and aircraft; and volunteered their services inside and outside the country. Many women also joined such public service organizations as the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Whatever the conventional role for women in the social order, war required the full scope of Canada’s human resources. At the same time, the temporary nature of women’s contributions during the First and Second World Wars ensured that their wartime efforts did not challenge the established system and that they reverted to conventional female roles after hostilities ended. In war, women’s labour was essential, but in peace it was expendable.

(See also Wartime Home Front.)

Women in the Canadian Armed Forces

Despite women’s contributions to Canada’s military efforts in the 20th century, they were not allowed full entry into the armed forces until the late 1980s. Canada only opened all military positions to women in 1989 (except for submarines, which admitted women in 2001). By 2001, women made up 11.4 per cent of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

CAF recruitment and retention of men and women slowed during the early- to mid-2010s — and full- and part-time membership fell short of targets. The recruitment of women stagnated, and women left their positions at a slightly higher rate than men. In response, the CAF established a recruitment and retention strategy that sought to increase the number of female personnel by one per cent annually, with a goal of reaching 25 per cent representation by 2026.

By February 2018, 15.3 per cent of CAF personnel, 4.3 per cent of combat personnel and 17.9 per cent of all CAF officers were women. Of the 14,434 women serving, 7,408 were in the Army, 2,856 in the Royal Canadian Navy and 4,160 in the Royal Canadian Air Force. A year later, 4.8 per cent of combat personnel in the regular force and primary reserve were women. By February 2020, women made up 16 per cent of CAF personnel: 19.1 per cent of officers and 15.1 per cent of non-commissioned members. The percentage of women was highest in the navy (20.6 per cent), followed closely by the air force (19.8 per cent). Women comprised 13.5 per cent of the Canadian army in 2020. 

(See also Women in the Military.)

Sexual Misconduct in the CAF

Though the Canadian military actively recruits women, it has struggled for some time with a culture of misogyny and sexual violence. A 2014 investigation by Maclean’s magazine found that, from 2000, military police received an average of 178 complaints of sexual assault per year, which experts believed represented a fraction of the total number of sexual assaults. From 1999 to 2013, the average number of soldiers court-martialled for sexual assault each year was 8, with an average of 2.5 soldiers found guilty per year (see Military Justice System).

An external review of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the military was conducted by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps from July to December 2014. Published on 27 March 2015, the External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces found that “there is an undeniable problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the CAF, which requires direct and sustained action.” The report made 10 recommendations to help address the issue, including: acknowledging the problem; establishing and implementing a strategy to “effect cultural change”; and, forming an independent centre to handle claims of sexual abuse and misconduct.

In response, the CAF agreed to the recommendations and established Operation HONOUR, an operational approach to the elimination of harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour, in August 2015. As well, Canada’s chief of defence staff, General Jonathan Vance, issued an order to all CAF personnel prohibiting behaviours that “perpetuate stereotypes and modes of thinking that devalue members on the basis of their sex, sexuality or sexual orientation.”The Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, a support centre for CAF members affected by sexual misconduct, was established 15 September 2015. The centre is led by a civilian executive and operates within the Department of National Defence and outside the CAF chain of command.

In November 2016, Statistics Canada released a review of sexual misconduct in the CAF. According to the review, over 25 per cent of women in the regular force claimed to have been victims of sexual assault since joining the CAF. That number reached over 37 per cent among women with 15 or more years of service.

In the wake of the Statistics Canada review and the publication of three Operation HONOUR progress reports, 77 members of the CAF were released from duty in April 2017 and another 29 that November. According to the third Operation HONOUR progress report, military police received 288 reports of potential offences of a sexual nature between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017. Of those, 21 cases were deemed unfounded — meaning police determined that no laws were violated. The unfounded rate accounted for 7.3 per cent of complaints, which was down from nearly 29 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

Of 267 sexual misconduct cases in 2016–17, military police laid 64 charges, which led to 30 court martials with 27 guilty verdicts.

According to Statistics Canada, approximately 900 members of the regular force (1.6 per cent) and 600 members of the primary reserve (2.2 per cent) reported that they were victims of sexual assault in 2018. These numbers were similar to those reported in 2016. Women were far more likely to report being victims of sexual assault. Moreover, more than half of women (and about 40 per cent of men) in the CAF believed that inappropriate sexual behaviour was a problem in the military. However, the 2018 survey also revealed some positive developments. Nearly half (45 per cent) of the regular force and primary reserve felt that Operation HONOUR had been very effective in combatting sexual misconduct in the armed forces. Awareness of the problem had increased, particularly among those who had not been victims themselves. 

Women and the Anti-War Movement

Canadian women have impacted warfare as much as warfare has impacted them. Some have significantly affected the character of the Canadian military by climbing its ranks and promoting its activities, while others have joined pacifist and anti-war movements that have sharply criticized the military. Many Canadian women have undertaken leading roles in the struggle against war. This was especially the case during the First World War, when women across Europe and North America organized for peace on an unprecedented scale.

Yet the war also had a very divisive impact on Canadian women. A number of mainstream women’s organizations, such as the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) and the National Committee of Women for Patriotic Service (NCWPS), openly or tacitly supported the war. Other women contested the war at its outset but became increasingly convinced of its necessity. Prominent suffrage leaders Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy and Flora MacDonald Denison, for instance, all held to their longstanding pacifist beliefs when war broke out in 1914, but later changed their position as they became convinced that Germany’s attacks on Britain could only be stopped through military defeat.

In 1915, prominent American reformer Jane Addams organized the Women’s Peace Conference at The Hague. Addams had invited the NCWC and the NCWPS, but both declined. A handful of Canadians did ultimately attend as independent delegates, including Julia Grace Wales and Laura Hughes. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded by women active in the women’s suffrage movement in Europe and North America who attended the conference at The Hague. These women wished to end the First World War and seek ways to ensure that no more wars took place.

In the subsequent century, the alignment of the pacifist movement and nationwide women’s activism was never again quite as strong as it was during the First World War. Nonetheless, Canadian women did play a leading role in the struggle for nuclear disarmament in the 1960s, which gave birth to the Voice of Women (now the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace). In the early years of the 21st century, thousands of women across the country also mobilized to prevent Canada’s involvement in the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq.