Women in the Canadian Forces are equal, including the right to die for their country

·National Affairs Contributor

Canadian women serve on the front lines of the battlefield today and three have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.

It's a grim kind of equality, a long climb for women whose role in the military has grown from nursing and support jobs in the First World War to an explosion of participation in the second. Some 50,000 served in various branches of the armed forces, including ferrying fighters and bombers to military bases.

Today, women make up more than 15 per cent of the armed forces according to the Department of National Defence.

"By adopting a 'no exclusion policy,' it has become one of the only militaries in the world to remove all barriers to full and equal service for its women members," DND says. "This means that women members have the opportunity to work any job in the Canadian Forces."

About 2,800 women served with the army medical corps in the First World War, most of them overseas and on hospital ships. The Great War also saw the first steps towards giving women military training in small arms and battle drills.

Women's roles expanded in the Second World War, with units in the army, navy and air force doing administrative jobs but also working as mechanics, parachute riggers and heavy-equipment operators. They were still not permitted to serve directly in combat units.

It was not until 1987 that a woman - Sheila Hellstrom - reached the rank of brigadier-general. The following year, the first female gunners were posted to a regular force unit. And in 1989, Private Heather Erxleben became the first regular force infantry soldier, while Major Dee Brasseur was the first woman fighter pilot of a CF-18 Hornet.

Capt. Nichola Goddard of Calgary became the first Canadian woman to die in battle in Afghanistan. She was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while acting as a forward artillery observer in May 2006.

In April 2009, Trooper Karine Blaise of Les Mechine, Que., died in a roadside-bomb explosion. And in June 2010, Master Cpl. Kristal Giesebrecht of Wallaceburg, Ont., was one of two army medics killed by an improvised explosive device.

The Memory Project, an archive of stories as told by thousands of Canadian Second World War and Korean War veterans contains a number of accounts by Canadian women soldiers. They're not categorized separately but can be found by typing "women" into the search box or searching a specific name or unit.

A casual search turns up stories like that of Phoebe Magee, who served as an air force reconnaissance photo interpreter in Britain.

"(It was) only once that I had any problem and there was a wing commander who got very angry about a report that I had one of his people dropping their bomb load way off target," Magee recalls in her profile.

"And he came in and I had written about that part, he was furious and he couldn't believe what I had interpreted. Anyway, I showed him and explained to him and he could see that it was right so in the end, I don't think I got an apology but he accepted it anyway. But no problem after that."

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