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Girl Guides archives a treasure trove of members' contributions to war effort

Their motto — Be Prepared — and their promise to “help others” may seem like simple tenets, but during the wars of the last century, it appears members of the Girl Guides of Canada took those words to heart and translated them into action.

That’s what archivist Catherine Miller-Mort discovered when she started going through publications and other records tracing the history of the organization, which came to Canada in 1910, a year after British general Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes began the movement in England.

“Leading up to Remembrance Day … I found this scroll which caught my eye because it looks very similar to scrolls I’ve seen in schools and churches, with the coat of arms of Canada at the top,” said Miller-Mort. “It says ‘For King and Country, members of the Canadian Girl Guides Association who have volunteered for active service with Canada’s fighting forces.'”

The document lists 36 names, and while it isn’t dated, she believes it comes from the Second World War, when young Canadian women did enter the armed services in non-combat supportive roles.

“Because it doesn’t have a date, we have no other contextual information around it,” said Miller-Mort, who hopes research will turn up more definitive details about the three dozen females who answered the call to duty.

But ferreting out that scroll whetted her appetite for more.

“And I started digging a bit more, with Remembrance Day coming up, to see other sorts of information in the archives about the history of guiding and our members’ activities with relation to the war effort.”

Leafing through two long-running publications — the Canadian Guider and the now-defunct Canadian Guide — she found that even during the First World War in 1914-18, young women who had donned the blue uniform of the Guides had worked in munitions factories and made khaki clothing for the Dominion of Canada’s soldiers heading to the trenches of Europe.

“They made surgical dressings and bandages, they made socks for soldiers, they assisted in the distribution of leaflets for war relief societies and collected waste paper for the Red Cross Funds,” she said.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Girl Guides of Canada instituted the Overseas Gift Project, which saw members knitting and sewing articles of clothing and making care packages to be sent to women and children in England who were victims of Nazi Germany’s bombing raids.

That fund later morphed into the Canadian World Friendship Fund, which collects money that is sent to “sisters in guiding” across the world, most recently in Haiti and Pakistan.

In March 1945, the Canadian Guider reported that girls in the 10th Calgary Ranger Company had produced 29,650 surgical dressings to be sent to overseas military hospitals.

The 1939-1945 conflict also saw the formation of the Wartime Emergency Service program, which was aimed at preparing Rangers, the over-15 girls in the organization, to help meet the needs of their communities across the country in the event fighting moved to Canadian soil.

“That would have entailed taking care of younger children, acting as messengers, being able to orient themselves” with a map, compass and even the sun and stars, Miller-Mort said.

“It included things like nursing and first aid, being able to do household repairs and also theoretical and practical knowledge, so being able to produce foods” by working the land and caring for livestock if farm workers enlisted or were needed elsewhere.

“We often think, ‘Well, of course the girls were sewing the pants, of course the girls were sewing the uniforms for the soldiers,’ but they were also learning how to repair motors and to transport groups from a danger zone,” she said.

“These are things that might be outside of the scope of what we think of as traditional women’s roles, but Girl Guides were doing them and have been doing them for over 100 years.”

A uniform from the period at the Guides’ national headquarters in Toronto carries the Wartime Emergency Service badge the wearer earned for taking part in the program — and even it is a symbol of the privations Canadians experienced during the war.

“You can tell just by looking at it, the War Service patch is hand-sewn where the other patches are all machine-made,” she said. “And that just speaks to the time when the machines were all occupied with the war effort.”

Shortages of steel and other metals needed for making aircraft and munitions meant newly minted Guides received a fabric patch or a tin button at enrolment, instead of the regular shiny pin.

Rationing and shortages during the war even affected the famed Girl Guide cookies, said Miller-Mort, who came across a 1944-46 contract from the baker that stated: “Due to war conditions and wartime prices and trade board regulations, Barker’s Bread Ltd. reserves the right to change prices and ingredients of the cookies as they may be affected by conditions, but will make no changes except with the consent of the Toronto committee of Girl Guides.”

Those cookies are still playing a role during wartime: in recent years, the Guides have sent hundreds of cases of the boxed baked treats to Canadian military personnel serving as far afield as Afghanistan, Africa and Alert, Nunavut.

Miller-Mort said Baden-Powell, who commanded British troops during the Boer War, created the Scout movement with a military structure aimed at teaching boys — and later girls in the Guides — leadership skills.

The goal of the Girl Guides is to helps young women to be “confident, resourceful, courageous and to make a difference in the world,” she said.

“So there’s certainly a parallel between that and the idea of the military … and service to community, locally and globally.”