Mi’kmaq Sisters from Stratford Served in the Second World War

On Prince Edward Island, no community had a greater percentage of its population serve in the First and Second World Wars than the Mi’kmaq. From among those who served, there were but two women: sisters Rachael and Blanche Thomas.

Group of female officers
Rachael Thomas (back left) and Blanche Thomas (front left), Canadian Women's Army Corps, Germany.

Rachael and Blanche were the daughters of Michael and Mary Ann Thomas. As a young man, Michael Thomas of Lennox Island had been the top distance runner in Eastern Canada between 1909 and 1912. At the peak of his career, he was forced to quit running due to arthritis. Mary Ann Peters was the eldest daughter of Chief Isaac Peters of Lennox Island. Following her mother’s death, Mary Ann assumed responsibility for the household. On occasions when Chief Peters had to leave Lennox Island, he would ask Michael Thomas to watch over his family. A relationship between Michael and Mary Ann grew, and on 28 January 1913, in Moncton, New Brunswick, 29-year-old Michael Thomas married 17-year-old Mary Ann Peters. The couple had a family of eight children, all but the youngest born on Lennox Island.

Children of Michael and Mary Ann Thomas:
1. Laura Sophie (b. 1914)
2. Ernest (b. 1916)
3. Mabel (b. 1918)
4. Rachael (b. 1920)
5. Blanche (b. 1922)
6. Nanette (b. 1926)
7. Lillian (b. 1927)
8. Mary Jane (b. 1930)

Around 1929, the family left Lennox Island and moved to Southport in search of better opportunities, as it was important to both Michael and Mary Ann that their daughters receive a good education. Michael established a fishing operation near the end of the Hillsborough Bridge, and there he built their small two-room house.

Rachael and Blanche Thomas were born just two years apart, and their lives were very similar until the end of the Second World War. Rachael began school on Lennox Island, and after moving to Southport, both girls attended Rochford Square School on Pownal Street in Charlottetown. The girls’ school was founded in 1863 as Saint Joseph Convent but renamed Rochford Square School when it was transferred to the School Commission in 1916. However, Catholic Sisters continued to teach grades 1 through 10 even after the school became public. Around the time that the Thomas girls began attending, the school’s student population was 463 girls. 

By 1941, the Second World War was entering its third year. Both Rachael and Blanche continued their education by attending Charlottetown’s Union Commercial College, located in the Royal Bank building on Queen Street. The college offered courses to prepare young people for business careers. Students were granted a shorthand diploma when they attained the speed of one hundred words per minute. Beginning in 1940, students were able to enroll in a special 3-month course to prepare for entry into the civil service. At the 1941 college closing, Rachael received her shorthand diploma and was among a list of students achieving high proficiency in spelling. The following year, Blanche received similar recognition.

Fresh out of college in 1942, Blanche was one of 500 women from the Maritimes enticed to work in a large munitions factory in Ajax, Ontario. At its peak, the factory had 9,000 workers (most of them women) and produced over 40 million rounds of shells.

After a few months in Ajax, Blanche returned to PEI. In Charlottetown on November 13, 1942, Blanche followed Rachael’s lead and signed up with the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC). Rachael, who had joined the CWAC some months earlier, was one of the first from this province to enlist.

The CWAC was a non-combatant branch of the Canadian Army established in 1941 for the purpose of releasing men from non-combatant roles in Canada’s armed forces. Women served in a variety of occupations, such as drivers, mechanics, cooks, clerks, typists, and stenographers. Private Rachael Thomas and Private Blanche Thomas both began their service in Halifax as administrative clerks. In September 1944, Rachael arrived in England to serve the CWAC overseas, with Blanche following soon after.

With the German surrender on 8 May 1945, both Rachael and Blanche Thomas were among hundreds of CWAC personnel transferred to northern Europe to work on the complex task of repatriating the army to Canada. Both Rachael and Blanche served with the Canadian Army Occupation Force in Germany. Privately they hoped to be part of any future occupation force in Japan, where the War was still active. However, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki quickly led to victory over Japan, and the War was over. Rachael and Blanche were discharged in July 1946, each with the rank of Corporal.

On periods of leave, the two sisters would travel and sight-see together, visiting Scotland and Paris, coming home with fond memories and humorous stories. Nevertheless, both were impacted by the tragedy of war. Blanche Thomas recalled one of her more vivid memories. “I served overseas with the occupational forces. I have a lot of sad memories. It was terrible to watch the young soldiers all in casts on their way home. One young man was pulling the hairs out of his chest, and he had sores from that. He saw his parents when he came into Montreal and nearly went crazy trying to get to them, but he wasn’t allowed out. That was one of the saddest things of my time.”

While most Indigenous personnel were treated as equals while in uniform, upon discharge things were different. Despite their service, Status Indians did not receive equal access to Veterans’ benefits or the right to vote. Mi'kmaw Keptin John Joe Sark observed, “These great men and women showed exceptional loyalty to Canada…for a country and flag that did not recognize them as citizens.”

At the end of their service, both Rachael and Blanche Thomas received two military medals: the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with the Overseas Service Bar — granted to persons who voluntarily served on Active Service; and the War Medal 1939-1945 — awarded to all full-time personnel of the Armed Forces.

Upon returning to Canada, Rachael Thomas lived the remainder of her life in the Greater Toronto Area. She never married, choosing to retain her Indian status, which she would have lost if she had married a non-status man. Rachael took vocational training provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and ultimately became an Aboriginal Courtworker in Hamilton, Ontario, helping to identify and repatriate victims of the Sixties Scoop. Finding justice for these children was Rachael’s greatest pride. She was involved with Indian Affairs as well as her community and was a proud member of the Army Navy Air Force Veterans in Canada (ANAF) Unit 262. Rachael Thomas spent her final years in Mississauga, where she died on 5 November 1996.

Blanche Thomas returned home after the War and moved to New Brunswick to attend Saint John Vocational School to become a beautician. While at a North End diner, Blanche and her friend overheard a Veteran army engineer give questionable administrative advice. Blanche later corrected him, adding “You have no idea what you’re talking about!” Blanche and the young man, Gerard Thomas Doucett, were married on 27 June 1947, and had six children: Geraldine (died at 2 weeks), Virginia, Thomas, Dennis Michael, Paul (died at 14 months), and Peter.

After Blanche married, she continued as a beautician, working out of her new home in Saint John. Eventually, the chemicals proved too harsh on her hands, so she decided to become a full-time homemaker and mother. Once the youngest was in school, Blanche returned to the workforce as a clerk at Canadian Tire and then as security at Simpsons-Sears. For many years, she was an active member of The Royal Canadian Legion “Fundy Ladies” Branch 68, and the Catholic Women’s League. In 1985, amendments to the Indian Act allowed Blanche, like other women who had lost their Indian status upon marriage to a non-status man, to have status restored and applied to her children. Blanche died in Saint John on 21 September 2009.

Throughout their lives, Rachael and Blanche remained proud of their Mi’kmaq heritage. Their service to Canada lives on in the legacy they left behind, with Blanche’s daughter having served in the Royal Canadian Navy, and her granddaughter serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Today, thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis are serving with the Canadian Armed Forces at home and overseas with the same dedication and pride as their ancestors.