Historical Milestones of Women in the Canadian Armed Forces

Fact Sheet / March 7, 2019

March 7, 2019 – Ottawa – National Defence / Canadian Armed Forces

Canada’s military history, from colonial times to today, includes the significant contributions and sacrifices of women. 

Women actively participated in serving their country, from nursing and munitions manufacturing during the First and Second World Wars to the increasing contributions of Canadian women in current military operations.

Today, women serve in all military occupations and roles within the Canadian Armed Forces including in combat and are represented in ranks from recruit to Chief Warrant Officer/Chief Petty Officer and from Officer Cadet to Lieutenant-General in positions across the institution.

This fact sheet presents a non-exhaustive list of the historical milestones, contributions and accomplishments of Canadian servicewomen from modern day back to 1885.

2019

Under Operation IMPACT, from September 2018 to March 2019, the all-women Canadian Armed Force Engagement Team - Capt Aisha Jawed and Sgt Gerri Davidson - trained the first all-women platoon within the Jordanian Armed Forces.

The Canadian Army continues its push to have 50 percent of their Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel and/or an Honorary Colonel positions filled with women by 2024. In 2019, 11 percent of 243 honorees are women, all prominent and respected in their communities, representing the highest number ever.

2018

By the end of 2018, the Canadian Armed Forces achieves the highest number of woman General/Flag Officers in history with a total of 13, a record high with four in each service.

Major-General Frances Allen becomes the first woman Deputy Vice Chief of the Defence Staff.

The number of women in senior non-commissioned member (NCM) ranks also rose to 57 Chief Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers 1st Class, as did the number of women in Special Forces roles.

On 16 July 2018, Cpl Andrea Pixley became the first female Cyber Operator in the CAF; a brand new trade that still only has two female members.

Master Warrant Officer Renee Hansen becomes the first woman Station Warrant Officer at Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut.

Commander Nancy Setchell is named Commanding Officer of HMCS Charlottetown.

2017

Major-General Tammy Harris becomes the first woman Deputy Commander of an environmental command (the Royal Canadian Air Force).

Commodore Genevieve Bernatchez becomes the first woman CAF Judge Advocate General.

Brigadier-General Frances Allen becomes the first woman Director General of Information Management Operations.

CWO Veronica Gibson was appointed as the Formation Chief Warrant Officer of the Canadian Materiel Support Group within Canadian Joint Operations Command.

Chief Warrant Officer Martine Guay is the first woman Regimental Sergeant Major in the Special Operations Command (CANSOFCOM) headquarters, where women make up 10.2 percent of the strength of CANSOFCOM.

Captain Megan Couto, a member of 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI), becomes the first woman Infantry Officer to serve in the role of Captain of the Queen’s Guard.

2016  

Brigadier-General Jennie Carignan becomes the first woman General in the CAF combat arms.

Lieutenant-General Chris Whitecross becomes the first woman Commandant of the NATO Defense College in Rome.

Chief Warrant Officer Colleen Halpin becomes the first woman Chief Warrant Officer for the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff Group.

Commander Michele Tessier is named Commanding Officer designate of the Future HMCS Margaret Brooke.

2015  

Lieutenant-General Chris Whitecross becomes the first woman promoted to that rank and the first woman Commander of Military Personnel Command.

Brigadier-General Lise Bourgon becomes the first woman Commander of a Joint Task Force on operations overseas, commanding JTF-Iraq during Op Impact.

Brigadier-General Frances Allen becomes the first woman Director General Cyberspace.

2014

Brigadier-General Frances Allen becomes the first woman Director General Defence Security and in the same year Joint Force Cyber Component Commander.

2013  

Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett becomes the first woman Defence Champion for Women.

Colonel Jennie Carignan becomes the first woman Commandant of Royal Military College Saint-Jean.

Chief Warrant Officer France Dupuis becomes the first woman Chief Warrant Officer at Royal Military College Saint-Jean.

2012  

Commander Michelaine Lahaie becomes the first woman Commanding officer for the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School.

Captain Ashley Collette becomes the first woman to receive the Medal of Military Valour for her "fortitude under fire and performance in combat" as a Platoon Commander in Nakhonay, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, from May to December 2010.

Colonel Tammy Harris becomes the first woman Base Commander of CFB Borden.

2011  

Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett becomes the first woman promoted to that rank in the Royal Canadian Navy and first woman Chief Reserves and Cadets, the CAF's highest Reserve Force position.

2010  

Lieutenant-Colonel Susan Wigg becomes the first woman Director for Cadets for the Royal Military College. In 1980, she had been one of the initial women to enroll at the college.

Lieutenant-Colonel Maryse Carmichael becomes the first woman Commanding Officer of the Snowbirds.

2009  

Commander Josée Kurtz becomes the first woman Commander of a major warship – HMCS Halifax.

2008 

Vice-Admiral Drew Robertson becomes the first Defence Champion for Women.

2007  

Lieutenant-Colonel Tammy Harris becomes the first woman Wing Commander at 9 Wing Gander.

Commodore Jennifer Bennett becomes the first woman Commander of the Naval Reserve and the first woman to command a naval formation.

2006  

Brigadier-General Christine Whitecross becomes the first woman to command Joint Task Force North.

Captain Nicola Goddard was the first woman killed in action in Afghanistan, serving with the 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.

Master Corporal Mélissa Paquet becomes the first woman to join the Canadian Special Operations Regiment and is deployed with the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command mission in Afghanistan in 2007.

2004  

Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Jan Davis becomes the first woman Coxswain of a major warship – HMCS Regina. 

2003  

Major Anne Reiffenstein is the first woman to command a combat arms sub-unit.

Lieutenant-Commander Marta Mulkins is the first woman to command a Canadian warship – HMCS KINGSTON.

Major Jennie Carignan becomes the first woman Deputy Commanding Officer of a combat arms unit, for 5 Combat Engineer Regiment (5 CER).                      

Leading Seaman Hayley John and Leading Seaman Marketa Semik become the first woman non-commissioned member clearance divers.

Master Seaman Colleen Beattie becomes the first woman qualified as a submariner, followed shortly by Master Seaman Carey Ann Stewart.

2002  

Chief Warrant Officer Camille Tkacz is the first woman appointed to a Command Chief position as Chief Warrant Officer in Assistant Deputy Minister (Human Resources - Military).

2001  

The Chief of the Defence Staff announces that women can serve in submarines, making all occupations and trades open to women.

Captain Maryse Carmichael is the first woman Snowbird pilot, for the Air Force's aerobatic demonstration flying team.

2000  

Major Micky Colton becomes the first woman pilot to complete 5000 flying hours in a Hercules aircraft.

Lieutenant Ruth-Ann Shamuhn becomes the first woman Combat Diver.

1998  

Lieutenant-Colonel Karen McCrimmon becomes the first woman to command an Air Force squadron, as Commander of 429 Transport Squadron in Trenton, Ontario.

Chief Petty Officer Second Class Holly Kisbee becomes the first woman Combat Chief of a major warship.

1997  

Colonel Marcia Quinn assumes command of 41 Canadian Brigade Group.

Colonel Patricia Samson becomes the first woman Canadian Forces Provost Marshall.

Captain Eva Martinez becomes first Canadian woman to serve as a United Nations Military Observer as part of Operation Vision.

1996  

Lieutenant Commander Wafa Dabbagh becomes the first CAF member to wear the hijab.

1995  

Chief Warrant Officer Linda Smith becomes the first woman Wing Chief Warrant Officer, serving at 17 Wing Winnipeg.

1994  

Major-General Wendy Clay becomes the first woman promoted to that rank.

1993  

Lieutenant (N) Leanne Crowe is the first woman to qualify as a clearance diving officer and subsequently the first woman Commanding Officer of the Experimental Diving Unit.

1992  

Corporal Marlene Shillingford becomes the first woman member of the Snowbirds, while serving as a technician for the Air Force's aerobatic demonstration flying team.

1991  

The Minister of National Defence creates an Advisory Board on Women in the Canadian Forces to monitor the progress of gender integration and employment equity in the CAF.

1990  

HMCS Nipigon becomes the first Canadian mixed-gender warship to participate in exercises with NATO's Standing Naval Force Atlantic.                 

Lieutenant Anne Reiffenstein, Lieutenant Holly Brown, and Captain Linda Shrum become the first women officers in combat arms, serving in the artillery.

1989  

Private Heather R. Erxleben becomes Canada's first woman infantry soldier.

Major Dee Brasseur and Captain Jane Foster become the first two women pilots in the world to qualify to fly the CF-18 Hornet jet fighter.

1988  

The first serving women gunners in the Regular Force graduate from qualification 3 training. The CAF posts them to the 5e Régiment d'artillerie légère (5 RALC) in Valcartier, Quebec, as part of the Combat Related Employment for Women (CREW) trials.

Private Shannon Wills wins the Queen’s Medal for Champion Shot of the Reserve Forces at the Connaught Ranges in Ottawa.

The first all-women Canadian Forces team completes the Nijmegen March in Holland carrying the same weight as male teams. They are: Team Captain Lieutenant Marion MacKay, Second-in-Command Lieutenant Lisa Noonan, Corporal Allison Van Reeuwijk, Corporal Lorraine Clark, Warrant Officer Merle Mylrea, Corporal Darlene Fisher, Corporal Rachel Durand, Private Gail Duhamel, Corporal Ginette Dupont, Sergeant Judy Pearcey, Master Corporal Daphne Bauer, Corporal Lise Royer, Master Corporal Donna Hill and Master Corporal Carol Groleau.

1987  

Brigadier-General Sheila A. Hellstrom becomes the first woman officer to hold that rank.

The CAF launches Combat Related Employment of Women trials for selected army units and naval vessels. The Air Force announces that no further trials are required and all Air Force occupations, including fighter pilot, are open to women.

1986 -1988 

Following a discrimination complaint, Canadian Human Rights Tribunal instructs the CAF to:

  • continue the Combat Related Employment trials as preparation for the full integration of women in all military occupations;                    
  • Forces, with the exception of submarines; 
  •  remove all employment restrictions and implement new occupational personnel selection standards; and 
  • devise a plan to steadily, regularly, and consistently achieve complete integration within ten years.

1982  

Canada adopts the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibits discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, and mental or physical disability.

1981  

Captain Dee Brasseur, Captain Leah Mosher, and Captain Nora Bottomley become the first three women to serve as RCAF pilots, following the opening of the pilot classification to women in 1980.

Second Lieutenant Inge Plug becomes the first woman helicopter pilot.  

Lieutenant Karen McCrimmon becomes the first woman air navigator.

1979 -1985 

The CAF runs trials as part of the Servicewomen in Non-Traditional Environments and Roles (SWINTER) project.

1979  

Canadian military colleges open their doors to women.

1978  

Corporal Gail Toupin becomes the first woman member of the SkyHawks, the Army's skydiving demonstration team.

1970  

As part of its mandate to advise the Government of Canada on how to increase equal opportunity for Canadian women, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women makes six recommendations aimed specifically at the CAF:             

  • standardize military enrolment criteria; 
  • establish equal pension benefits for women and men; 
  • open Canadian military colleges for women to attend;
  • open all military trades and officer classifications to women; and     
  • the release of servicewomen upon the birth of a child.

1965  

The Canadian military continues to employ women with a fixed ceiling of 1500 for woman enrollment in all three services. This ceiling represents approximately 1.5 percent of the CAF’s total strength in 1965.

1950-1953 

Following the large reduction in personnel after the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army, and the Royal Canadian Air Force again opened enrollment to women in the early 1950s when Canada commits military forces to the Korean War, though their employment was restricted to traditional roles in medicine, communication, logistics, and administration. More than 5000 women were serving by 1955.

1942  

The third women’s military corps, the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS, or “Wrens” informally), was established in 1942.    

An important role for women 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.

1942  

Mary Greyeyes of Saskatchewan’s Muskeg Lake Indian Reserve becomes the first Aboriginal woman to enlist in the Canadian Army.

1941  

The first two women's services were created as auxiliaries to the air force and the army in 1941. 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. 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.

1939-1945 

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.   

Approximately 5000 nurses serve in the Army, Navy, and Air Force Medical Corps during the Second World War. They serve overseas in hospitals, casualty stations near combat zones, mobile field hospitals, and in many theatres of war. However, they are excluded from service on warships, combat aircraft, or in combat arms units.    

Starting in 1941, the Canadian government recruits volunteers for full-time military service in the women's divisions of all three services – the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division, the Canadian Women's Army Corps, and the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS, or “Wrens” informally). Some 50,000 Canadian women eventually enlisted in the three services.

The range of duties for women expands during the Second World War from traditional trades such as clerks, cooks, drivers, and telephone operators to include mechanics, parachute riggers, and heavy mobile equipment drivers.

1914-1918 

More than 2800 nurses serve with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War. The majority of these women work overseas in hospitals, on board hospital ships, in several theatres of war, and in combat zones with field ambulance units.   

The First World War also sees the creation of women paramilitary groups that, for the first time, provide women with a means to serve outside of nursing. The members of these groups dress in military-style uniforms and train in small arms, drill, first aid, and vehicle maintenance in case they are needed as home guards.

1898-1902 

Nurses start supporting the Yukon Field Force in 1898.  

 Following the formation of the Canadian Army Medical Department in June 1899, the Canadian military creates an Army Nursing Service in 1901. The Service dispatches four nurses to support a volunteer force of 1000 Canadians in South Africa during the Boer War. The Service grants these nurses the relative rank, pay, and allowances of an army lieutenant. By the war’s end on May 31, 1902, eight Canadian Nursing Sisters and more than 7000 Canadian soldiers volunteer for service in South Africa.  

Into the 20th century, factors including 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 drill.

1885

Women serve as nurses for the first time in Canadian military history during the Northwest Rebellion, albeit in a civilian capacity.

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