Wednesday, 13 May 2015




The objects and buildings of the Fort la Reine Museum are vessels for meaning and memory; they are constantly being adopted into new narratives by staff and visitors. This blog post is the first in a three-part miniseries that aims to reveal the multiple ways staff and volunteers of the Fort la Reine Museum work with, learn from, and enjoy its objects. Their stories examine the memories and meaning in the museum and its collections.

Pioneer village as seen through a wagon wheel
A view of the Fort la Reine Museum pioneer village. Photo courtesy of Tracey Turner.
Between 2008 and 2014 I was a summer student at the Fort la Reine Museum, a heritage museum located in my hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man., about 70 km west of Winnipeg. While on an extended visit home this past April and May, I was invited to return to the museum as a volunteer. My understanding of particular objects around the museum has been enriched greatly by talking to the people who have invested time and emotion in them.

The first object story of this miniseries belongs to an unassuming black-and-white poster on display in the museum’s military collection. The poster depicts eight young women posing arm-in-arm in front of a Second World War multiengine navigation trainer. With their infectious smiles and grease-stained coveralls, these women were, in fact, mechanics.

Eight female mechanics standing in front of a WWII airplane
These female mechanics were also referred to as flight line girls. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Maxwell.
A former summer student of the Fort la Reine Museum, Tim Pedden connected with this object while leading school groups on guided tours. “It’s a unique piece of history and I think I like it because its local, but it also tells a story about a very important part of Canadian history,” says Tim.

The original image was taken sometime in the early 1940s at, what was then, RCAF Station Portage la Prairie. The construction of RCAF Station Portage began in 1939, and just over a year later, it was in full operation. Throughout the Second World War, it served as the home of No. 14 Elementary Flying Training School. As part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the purpose of No. 14 was training aircrew, but this training could not have been possible without the male and female ground crew mechanics.

“A few years before this photograph was taken, male pilots would have laughed or even berated a woman who wanted to become a mechanic. With the start of World War II, however, the attitude of these pilots had to change because they now had to rely on these female mechanics to survive,” explains Tim. On average, it took 10 persons on the ground to keep one in the air.

Small military display in museum
The photograph as it appears on display at the museum. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Maxwell.
Of the 97,000 ground crew working in RCAF Stations across Canada throughout the Second World War, an estimated 17,000 were women. The women in this photograph could have been trained as aero-engine mechanics (“fitters”) or airframe mechanics (“riggers”), instrument technicians, or even vehicle mechanics.

As a former student of History at Brandon University, Tim also sees a lot of national significance in the photograph: “This image represents the altered social dynamics of World War II in that Canadian women became an indispensable element of the workforce, as well as in society.”

Women’s participation on the home front was essential to the war effort. The outbreak of the Second World War forced Canadian society to rethink women’s roles outside of the home. When men left their jobs to fight overseas, women had important new roles to play in the home, in civic life, in industry, in nursing, and even in military uniforms.

The eight women depicted in this image have never been positively identified, but local residents have assured Tim that many of the female mechanics employed at RCAF Portage remained in the area following the end of World War II.

“It’s a very remarkable, simple artefact: it’s not the oldest, it’s not the rarest, and it’s not an original photograph by any means. Its importance speaks beyond what is there to be seen.”

Former museum summer student poses with photograph
My friend and museum mentor Tim Pedden posing with the photograph. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Maxwell.
Part II of this miniseries will be posted to Musings on June 3rd.

1 comment:

  1. Even after all this studying, I still find it fascinating how objects connect with people and the "aura" of an object. For me, it's an unfinished painting of a HBC canoe on bark in the HBC collection at The Manitoba Museum. It's funny how these objects automatically have "meaning" for us, even though we may know so little about them.