Historical Milestones of Women in the Canadian Armed Forces

Fact Sheet / March 7, 2018

March 7, 2018 – Ottawa – National Defence / Canadian Armed Forces

Canada has been involved in various wars from the beginning of its colonial history and women have contributed to Canada’s rich military history and heritage in a variety of ways over the history of our nation. Women actively participated in serving their country, from nursing and munitions manufacturing during the First and Second World Wars to the increasing involvement of Canadian women in today’s military.

Today, women serve in all military occupations and roles within the Canadian Armed Forces including 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 insitution.

This fact sheet presents a non-exhaustive list of the historical milestones, contributions and accomplishments of Canadian servicewomen.


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


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.


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 female 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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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 allowed women to enroll 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.


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


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;
  • allow women to attend Canadian military colleges;
  • open all military trades and officer classifications to women; and
  • remove regulations prohibiting the enrolment of married women and requiring the release of servicewomen upon the birth of a child.


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


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


Canadian military colleges open their doors to women.


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 female helicopter pilot.

Lieutenant Karen McCrimmon becomes the first female air navigator.


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.


Brigadier-General Sheila A. Hellstrom becomes the first female 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.


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;
  • integrate women into all aspects of the Regular and Reserve 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.


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.


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

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


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.


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 female officers in combat arms, serving in the artillery.


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


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


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


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


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


Colonel Marcia Quinn assumes command of 41 Canadian Brigade Group.

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

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


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.


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

Lieutenant Ruth-Ann Shamuhn becomes the first female combat diver.


The Chief of the Defence Staff announces that women can serve in submarines.

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


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


Major Anne Reiffenstein is the first female 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 female 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 female non-commissioned member clearance divers.

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

The first and only all-female Canadian Forces team completes the Nijmegen March in Holland carrying the same weight as male teams. They are: team leader Lieutenant Debbie Scott, second-in-command Captain Lucie Mauger, Lieutenant Jody Weathered, Corporal Elizabeth Mutch, Warrant Officer Nathalie Mercer, Warrant Officer Jackie Revell, Master Corporal Denise Robert, Corporal Melissa Cedilot, Corporal Danette Frasz, Lieutenant-Colonel Teresa McNutt, Lieutenant Donna Rogers and Corporal Anne MacDonald.


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


Lieutenant-Colonel Susan Wigg becomes the first female 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 female Commanding Officer of the Snowbirds.


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


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

Captain Ashley Collette becomes the first female 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 female base commander of CFB Borden.


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Major-General Tammy Harris becomes the first female deputy commander of an Environmental Command (the Royal Canadian Air Force).

Commodore Genvieve Bernatchez becomes the first female CAF Judge Advocate General

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

The Canadian Armed Forces achieves the highest number of female General/Flag Officers in history with a total of twelve including one Lieutenant General, two Major General/Rear Admiral, and nine Brigadier-General/Commodore with four in the RCN, four in the Canadian Army and four in the RCAF. 

There are four female Chief Warrant Officer/Chief Petty Officers currently occupying Senior Appointments. 

Women make up 10.2% of the strength of the Special Operations Command (CANSOFCOM).


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

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