'We weren't pretend soldiers': Statue commemorating women veterans marks 20 years
A bronze statue standing in Kitchener in commemoration of Canada’s women veterans is celebrating 20 years.
The statue was erected in 2001 to honour those women who gave their lives on active duty.
“Having worked with some of the women who promoted memorialization I know what they thought, they said, ‘We were soldiers. We weren’t pretend soldiers. We were in uniform. We had discipline,’” said Roger Sarty, a historian based in Waterloo.
Sarty is a former deputy director of the Canadian War Museum and history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
He says women in the military proved immediately invaluable.
“They were right; as the war went on, they were so effective that more and more trades were opened to them during the war – not combat – but virtually everything else,” said Sarty.
The “Stepping Out” statue on East Avenue in Kitchener is one of few memorializations of women’s service in the military. There are 25 names on plaques that surround the base of the statue which sees a women standing atop – featured in uniform.
Region of Waterloo Chair Karen Redman was involved in the statue’s installation during her time as a Member of Parliament and describes the monument as a reminder of the role women played to secure Canada’s freedoms.
“It is a reminder to everyone of the significant role and the sacrifices women made in the war effort to secure our freedom,” said Redman, in an emailed statement. “There is a significant number of local women who both served and trained in Waterloo Region.”
Sarty says the end of the war didn’t see mass mobilization to erect statues and monuments commemorating the allied victory over Nazi Germany; instead commemorations often involved new school names.
However, the end of the ensuing Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 began to spark interest in memorializing those who served.
“It was in the late ‘90s that people really began to get interested in Second World War heritage and a large part of that was the veterans were getting on,” said Sarty. “Perhaps the biggest thing, and people don’t remember this now, was the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 1994 and this became an international explosion of interest.”
Sarty says a focus on women veterans required the intersection of a number of social movements.
“It was a mixture of social change that was taking place in the 1980s and the 1990s, that’s sort of the backdrop to it,” said Sarty. “It was in the late ‘80s and the 1990s that the Canadian government effectively opened the whole of the armed forces to women.”
It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century the Stepping Out statue was installed and up until that point, Sarty says paying respects to veterans looked a lot like social gatherings.
“These were mainly gatherings of reminiscences and that sort of thing,” said Sarty.
BRINGING WOMEN ON BOARD
The statue also commemorates the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, which was established in 1941 and disbanded in 1946.
Sarty says the emergency of the war pushed a resistant Canadian society to open the doors to women to serve.
“There was real resistance in Canada to having women services as part of the formal armed forces,” said Sarty. “We were pushed into doing it by the British.”
Sarty says as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the war, training at Canadian bases was carried out by British officers – many of whom were women.
“The British experts came over, many of them were women officers and other personnel in the Royal Air Force and Canadian women had been lobbying for us to do the same and the government’s resistance had to melt away when all these British women showed up and that was the main impetus for the creation of these services,” said Sarty.
Sarty says women’s military service comprised of 50,000 people during the war.
“About 4,500 of them were military nurses,” said Sarty. “But the other 45,000 were these new women’s corps of the armed forces and they were fully-fledged parts of the armed forces.”
IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SERVED
In memory of those who died while on active duty 1941-1946:
PTE Alexander, Selena P.
PTE Beauchemin, Leonne
PTE Burney, Doris
L/CPL Buchanan, Emile
PTE Baker, Laura M.
PTE Brewster, Winifred L.
PTE Cooney, Patricia J.
PTE Connor, Evelyn C.
A/SGT Fowler, Florence M.
PTE Grant, Jean
PTE Harkans, Mary E.
PTE Henry, Rosella B.
PTE Hart, Margaret V.
PTE Heavens, Beatrice M.
PTE Millar, Mary L.
PTE More, Phyllis E.
PTE Muise, Mary M.
SGT McBride, Mona E.
PTE Pugh, Rosemary E.
CPL Passant, Thelma F.
PTE Rennie, Barbara S.
PTE Roney, Lillian I.
PTE Stewart, Edith M.
PTE Trebbie, Phyllis M.
CPL Wallace, Olive M.