Mary Greyeyes-Reid was the first woman of the First Nations to join and serve in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) during World War II. Born in 1920, she was part of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation located just north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Mary came from a large family with four brothers and six sisters. When a child, she was raised by her widowed grandmother, Sarah Greyeyes. At five, she was put into the residential school system at St. Michael’s School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. As Natives attending these schools weren’t allowed to go past Grade 8 and Mary was hungry for learning, a nun was tasked with giving lessons in the evenings to Mary and two other girls. During the days, the older girls helped run the school, cooking, doing laundry, cleaning and sewing.
Mary was nine when the Great Depression struck and the Cree Nation reserve was hard hit. It is therefore no wonder that this reserve had the highest enlistment during WW2. Her older brother David George Greyeyes-Steele, with whom she was closest in age and in heart, left to find work so he could send money back to their mother. He soon enlisted in the Saskatoon Light Infantry in 1940. With few opportunities on the reserve, Mary decided to join the army as well. Her son Stephen later commented that his mother “saw the Army as an opportunity to learn and expand her knowledge.” So she wrote to the War Department and eventually received a letter asking her to present herself in Regina to take a test. The Canadian army was just starting to recruit women and each of the twenty-two girls ahead of her in the recruiting office had been rejected. So with her limited education, she was somewhat apprehensive. However, she did pass the test with flying colours and became the first Native to join the new Canadian Women’s Army Corps.
This Corps, a non-combatant branch of the Canadian Army, had been officially established on July 30th, 1941, in response to a shortage of personnel caused by the increase in the size of Canada's navy, army and air force. In all, 21,624 Canadian women served in the CWAC and approximately 3000 of these served their country overseas. The founding driving force to the unit's creation was Mrs. Joan Kennedy, of Victoria, British Columbia. She initially faced a great deal of opposition from conventional (male) military authorities. One senior army officer sneered at the very idea of what he called a "petticoat army." But, on March 13, 1942, the first female volunteers were inducted in the CWAC and became subject to the same military discipline as in the Canadian Army
As old attitudes died hard, segregation by gender did remain overt. Women were still only paid two-thirds of what the men received for the same occupation (this figure became four-fifths in 1945). Still, it was a step forward. New recruits followed basic physical fitness training to develop strength and discipline, at the Kitchener, Ontario, or Vermilion, Alberta, camps. Since women were not allowed to enter in combat of any kind, they trained and worked as secretaries, clerks, canteen workers, vehicle drivers, telephone operators, messengers, mechanics, cooks, launderers and so on. By December 1943, there were three CWAC companies in London and one in Aldershot. Despite the desire of many women to remain in the military, the authorities deemed women’s services no longer necessary in peacetime and the CWAC was disbanded on September 30th, 1946.
After enlisting, Mary probably trained at the Vermilion military camp, in Alberta. As the white women did not readily accept her in their barracks, she was forced to board outside. In late June 1942, her sergeant and two Mounties came by her boarding house and told her that, if she came with them and had her picture taken, they would give her a new uniform and a really good lunch. She accepted and they drove out to the Piapot Reserve which is northeast of Regina. There, Mary knelt in the grass before the band councillor (later Chief) Harry Ball, a WWI veteran, and had her picture taken. This now iconic photograph was meant to increase the recruitment of women, and mainly non-Aboriginal women, into the military. At the time, it was said to represent an Indian princess being blessed by her father and chief, when in fact, the two had never met.
In more recent years, her daughter-in-law and instructor at Capilano University, Melanie Fahlman Reid, discovered the true story behind this staged photograph. Her story was published in The Tyee (Aug. 7, 2012). She tells how WWI veteran and councillor Harry Ball agreed to partake in this setup in exchange of 20 dollars. Pieces of clothing and accessories were gathered together by the Mounties from nearby homes to make Ball appear to be a Native American chief or someone of importance. The resulting photograph became famous across Canada after first being published in the Regina Leader-Post, and soon after all across the British Empire. It would take years for M. Fahlman Reid to persuade LAC to include Mary Greyeyes' name in the caption of the photograph.
Soon after this episode, Mary was sent to Aldershot, England, where she first worked as a laundress, a task which she detested. When she asked her sergeant for a transfer, her sergeant wrote on the papers: "Does not speak English." But she was eventually sent to headquarters in London to become a cook for the war centre. There, she came to be known as “the Indian”. But it wasn’t all bad. As one of the few Native Americans in service in the region, her picture often appeared in newspapers and she was invited to events where diversity was needed. This is how she eventually got to meet King George VI, the Queen Mother and princess Elizabeth who would succeed her father in 1952. Mary remained in London until 1946, cooking for the officers as the paperwork was processed to end the war. Later, she admitted that these were some of the best years of her life.
After her discharge from the army, she returned to Muskeg Lake where she spent some time with her grandmother Sarah. She then travelled to Winnipeg where she met her future husband Alexander Reid, known to all as Bud. The couple later moved to Victoria to start their new life and eventually raise their two children, Stephen and Stephanie. Mary went through some very lean years in Victoria, which she got through with determination, hard work and self-sacrifice. She worked as a cook at McEwan’s Restaurant, where her skills and work ethic made her a valued employee.
In 1960, the family moved to Vancouver and life improved. In 1966, they bought a house on Commercial Street. Mary, whose life revolved around her family, lived there for 36 years, hosting thousands of dinners, and keeping herself busy with sewing, knitting and gardening. She also worked as an industrial seamstress in downtown Vancouver. After her husband died in 1989, she carried on but eventually dementia began creeping up on her. In 2002, she moved to Haro Park Centre, where the staff took great care of her. That’s where Mary Greyeyes-Reid passed away in her bed on the March 31st, 2011 at the age of 90. She is buried with Bud on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation Reserve, and near her beloved grandmother Sarah and brother Dave.
|Full Name||Greyeyes, Mary|
|Also Known As||Reid, Mary|
|Band Name||Muskeg Lake Cree Nation|
|Birthplace||Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, SK|
|Date of Death||2011-03-31|
|Biographical Notes||Mary Greyeyes was posted overseas to the Aldershot Base Laundry as a cook. Cf. "Invisible women" by Grace Poulin, p. 35, Greyeyes appeared in the National Film Board documentary: Forgotten Warriors. https://www.nfb.ca/film/forgotten_warriors, Mary was born on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and raised by her widowed grandmother, Sarah Greyeyes. To Mary, she was "Mom". When she was five she was put into the residential school system at St. Michael’s School in Duck Lake SK. She was hungry for learning. After grade 8, when the native schools stopped teaching their students, a nun was tasked with giving lessons in the evenings to Mary and two other girls. During the days the older girls helped run the school - cooking, doing laundry, cleaning and sewing. Mary was nine when the Great Depression struck, and the reserve was hard hit. Her brother Dave, with whom she was closest in age and in heart, left to find work so he could send money back to their mother. Dave also joined the Army when the war started. Mary worried that there were few opportunities on the reserve, and decided to join the Army too. She ended up being the first native woman to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and was sent to England. She worked in Aldershot first as a laundress and then as a cook, staying on until 1946 cooking for the officers as the paperwork was processed to end the war. After spending time with her mother on the reserve, she travelled to Winnipeg, where she met her future husband Alexander Reid, known to all as Bud. They moved to Victoria to start their new life, where Stephen and Stephanie were born. Mary went through some very lean years in Victoria, which she got through with determination, hard work and self-sacrifice. Her children never realised until they were adults how much Mary sacrificed for them. She worked as a cook at McEwan’s Restaurant, where her skills and work ethic made her a valued employee. In 1960 the family moved to Vancouver, and life improved. Since moving west they had changed houses every few years, but in 1966 they bought a house on Commercial Street, where Mary lived for 36 years. Mary’s life revolved around her family, and after her children left home she hosted thousands of dinners, on Sundays, birthdays, holidays and hosting visiting relatives. She worked as an industrial seamstress in downtown Vancouver. In 1989 Bud, the love of her life, died. She carried on, keeping herself busy with sewing, knitting and gardening and her cats, but eventually dementia began creeping up on her. In 2002 she moved to Haro Park Centre, where the staff took great care of her. Although the disease stole her memories, her mobility and voice, she remained cheerful and sweet. Cf Obituary http://www.obitsforlife.com/obituary/328397/Reid-Mary.php|
|CEF Unit||C.W.A.C. (Europe)|
|Date of Enlistment||1942-01-01|
|Age at death||90|
|Burial location||Bud on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation Reserve, SK|