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The unsung heroes who shaped Canadian identity: women and children in wartime

War shaped Canadian literature for kids, invaded homes, schools and play, and allowed women to enter the workforce.

War invaded homes, schools and play, and allowed women to enter the workforce

Kristine Alexander, an associate professor of history at the University of Lethbridge, has studied handwritten letters of families during the First World War. The letters opened a window into the lives of children who felt a sense of responsibility toward their mother, younger siblings and even to work.  (Kristine Alexander )

During the First World War, soldiers went off to fight, leaving family and friends behind. Children and mothers were left with the aching uncertainty of whether they'd ever see their beloved fathers, brothers and husbands again. 

Four years and a deadly influenza pandemic can change a lot. 

Experts say the Great War, as well as the Second World War, saw women take on new roles and shaped generations of children, ushering in societal change that resonates to this day. 

Kristine Alexander, an associate professor of history at the University of Lethbridge, has studied handwritten letters of families during war. In those letters, she found that for most children, war began when their fathers put on the uniform and left for training and, eventually, overseas to fight. She says children worked, worried and waited during war years. 

"They were old enough to remember, but too young to fight."

Elizabeth Galway's book looks at some of the many roles children took on: farming, tailoring clothes, being a teenage soldier and, as some speculate, an innocent unpredictable spy. (Elizabeth Galway)

The letters opened a window into the lives of children, who felt a sense of responsibility toward their mother, younger siblings and even to work. 

"War invaded children's worlds in all kinds of different ways … their home, their family life, but it also changed the kinds of things they were learning in school. You can see that it shapes their play, as well," Alexander said. 

Elizabeth Galway is a professor of English literature at the University of Lethbridge and the author of The Figure of the Child in WWI American, British and Canadian Children's Literature: Farmer, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. 

The name of her book itself defines some of the many roles children actively played, from farming, tailoring clothes, being a teenage soldier and, as some speculate, an innocent unpredictable spy. 

Sometimes, during both wars, boys as young as 13 would lie to enlist in the military.

Approximately 700,000 Canadians under the age of 21 served in uniform during the Second World War. 

She said literature for children during war years has helped in fostering the Canadian identity.

"Canada's participation bolstered this pride in Canada and strengthened the developing sense of Canada as an independent nation with a history of its own, but also these military achievements to celebrate," she said. 

Elizabeth Galway, a professor of English literature at the University of Lethbridge, says literature for children during war years helped foster the Canadian identity. (Elizabeth Galway)

Galway said many writers were instilling a sense of pride and inspiring children to contribute as much as they could, and there were some that expressed concerns surrounding war. 

The balancing act, she said, is also seen in the celebration of Remembrance Day. While some remember the horrors of war, there is also a sense of pride and celebration. 

Women in war, the start of a social-economic change 

When the First World War began, there were limitations to what women were allowed to do. Regardless, women started entering all kinds of jobs that were deemed inappropriate for them. 

Many wore uniforms and were enlisted as nursing sisters. Many ran a household themselves while also working in factories or farms, selling postcards to raise war funds and so on. 

In 1917, when the Canadian government granted limited wartime suffrage to some women, that included women working in the army. 

By the Second World War, over half a million women served in all three branches of the armed forces: navy, army and air force. 

Amy Shaw, an associate professor of history at the University of Lethbridge, said even though the change was supposed to be temporary, it allowed women to push for it to become permanent. 

"You have these 1950s suburban housewife images that we have of the aftermath of the Second World War, when everybody was trying to return to retrogressive gender roles," she said. 

She said the women who drove a jeep in France, fought for their country and knew how capable they were to work and raise children when their husbands were away, did not want to return to "normal." 

"Then the children they raised were the children who really pushed the issue, and we had what was called the Women's Lib [liberation] movement in the '70s and this sort of effort to make things more equal," Shaw said. 

Historian Amy Shaw says the women who drove a jeep in France, fought for their country and knew how capable they were to work and raise children when their husbands were away, did not want to return to 'normal' when the war was over.  (Amy Shaw)

She said war is seen as a men's story.

"But in both of these wars, the soldiers were sustained by connections back at home, were armed and fed and clothed by connections back at home," she said.

"Trying to do an unfamiliar job with less money, while also raising your children, is a difficult thing. Also, in the Second World War, women were part of those who went overseas."

War shaped literature, the Canadian identity and the women's movement. A reminder of these lasting effects of war are seen in the letters of daily correspondence between children and parents, Alexander said.

"Reading each piece of correspondence, seeing him describe his daily life experiences, whether he's on leave, or he's in the trenches. And then at a certain point, it just goes quiet. And I know that he has met his end, somehow, tragically.… It has been a brutal reminder that war is awful … that it comes at a really, really enormous cost."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saloni Bhugra

Reporter | Editor

Saloni Bhugra, who studied at Humber College, joined CBC News in Calgary in May 2022. She is now running CBC's bureau in Lethbridge. Contact her by email at Saloni.bhugra@cbc.ca.

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