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Edmonton’s World War II Heroines

Women are expected it to do it all with a smile: volunteerism, working outside the home and taking care of a family under a tight budget in a city growing faster than its infrastructure can handle.

Sound like 2014? More like 1944.

During the five years of the Second World War, Edmonton came into its own as a city, where anything is possible, a phrase women of the city took to heart.

In 1943, Edmonton’s population reached 130,000, a huge spike from 1942’s population of 96,725. with many transients coming to Edmonton to serve in the RCAF or work with the American Army to build the Alaskan Highway. War meant the economy was heating up with fewer men to do it, meaning women were encouraged to step out of the home and into the workplace all while still volunteering for the war effort, raising a family and making due under food and materials shortages.

Canada’s food preservation program focused on the needs of Canadian and allied soldiers overseas, asking civilians at home to make do with less so the boys had plenty of energy to keep up the good fight. Canadian food exports were considered the lifeline of Britain, but some exports suffered because Europeans weren’t interested in them; thus the food preservation program encouraged consumers to buy more apples and lobster, for example, as part of their patriotic duty.

From early on in the war, women across the country took up home canning, contributed in the fats and bone collections (used for ammunition) and grew their own victory gardens.

Red Cross in Alberta grew from 47 active branches in 1939 to 325 in just six months, and the first Red Cross drive in Edmonton raised $80,000. A number of service clubs dedicated their time to the war effort, including Kiwanis (who built a home for children), Gyro Club (who built playgrounds), Lion’s Club (who built seniors cottages) and Kinsmen (who had a British milk fund). As the leaflet Edmonton, A Crossroads of the World notes, these members “occupy a high place for the way they foster the true spirit of service in their clubs, and encourage by their example the same thing in others.”

Women were also asked to make care packages for men overseas, and sent everything from baking and toiletries to sewing kits and knitted garments to keep the chill at bay and the homefires burning. Edmonton philanthropist Gertrude Poole, wife of Ernst Poole of Poole Construction Limited, opened up her home to a group of 40 women who knit and sewed for the Red Cross.

But women were not just expected to stay in their homes. Many sought to work in factories and offices vacated by men joining up. The 200 manufacturing plants and factories in Edmonton employed 6,000 men and women, with combined salaries over $7.5 million in 1943 Canadian dollars. The boom was expected to continue after the war, with Edmonton, A Crossroads of the World declaring “we have everything it takes: cheap coal power, natural gas and electricity and raw materials.”

200 Edmonton women enrolled in the first mechanics class offered by Dominion Motors Ltd, with women finding employ at local establishments like Kenn’s Garage, which saw a boom in business during the war.

“The staff grows even under war conditions. This includes several instances where work has been taken over by women who have been trained right on the job,” as was written in Edmonton, A Crossroads of the World. Women at Aircraft Repair Ltd. made up 40 per cent of the workforce.

Edmonton’s busiest wartime factories, the Great West Garment Company, provided an essential wartime service, and the 500-some workers were unable to resign unless they were enlisting. Over five years, the factory produced about 6.5 million military clothes and became the British Empire’s largest garment manufacturing company. Of the factory’s workers—who worked in three shift segments, 24/7—87 per cent of workers were women.

Women also flocked to the service. While they couldn’t fight overseas, many women joined the non-combat support corps of the air force (RCAF WD), armed forces (CWAC) and navy (Wrens). Thousands of women joined up only to find they’d be doing mundane tasks like office work, while the top recruits were sent to serve overseas.

Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) volunteers were among the first to join the call for women to enter the military service, and were sent to either Toronto or Winnipeg for two weeks training before heading to the front. In fact, so many nurses left for the front that there was a small civilian nurse shortage, and the government increased the output from nursing schools.

As employment in Edmonton during WWII saw a huge spike in women workers, many journalists in Alberta and across the country championed for the change to become permanent, and allow women, married or not, to retain their jobs once the war was over.

As Lotta Dempsey wrote in Macleans in 1943: “You can tell your great-grand-daughter some day that this was the time and the place it really started; the honest-to-goodness equality of Canadian women. … It began to happen that hour when Canadian girls left desks and kitchens… stepped into overalls and took their places in the lines of workers at lathes and drills.”

However, as the light at the end of the tunnel neared, many employers prepared women to make way for returning veterans and head back to the kitchens and nurseries. Many feared an economic downturn, and women were compelled not to overcrowd the job market. Canada’s female participation rate in the paid employment market dropped from 33.5 per cent in 1945 to 25.3 per cent by 1946.

By 1946, the women’s services of the Armed Forces were disbanded. Employment barriers to married women were back up. As quickly as they had been eagerly welcomed into the working world, women were being shut out of it again.

While many Edmonton women returned to their roles as homemaker and primary caregiver as the men returned from the front, their efforts were not so quickly forgotten. Even 70 years later, we still remember their spirit of hard work, tenacity and helping hands, which helped laid the foundation for the spirit that encompasses Edmonton today. Not to mention that, out of all the propaganda messaging that came out of the Second World War, the most enduring is Rosie the Riveter—the symbol for women’s equality in the western world.

© Laurie Callsen 2014

 

Photo:

Kenn’s Garage, January 1944. Provincial Archives of Alberta, BI.685/2.

Sources/further reading:

“Food on the Home Front during the Second World War” by Ian Mosby

Edmonton, A Crossroads of the World by Robert Alvin Cantelon

“Revisiting Canada’s Civilian Women During World War II” by Jeff Keshen

For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War , edited by Ken Tingley

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