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Transcript: Minnie Gray’s Public Recognition Certificate

The Canadian War Museum holds millions of objects in the National Collection. Each one tells a story.

This simple certificate tells us about a person and a city after the end of the Second World War.

Certificates are often used to acknowledge someone’s accomplishments. In fact, you may have received a similar one yourself, celebrating something that you did. Who gave you that certificate? What does it look like? And what does it represent?

In this case, Private Minnie Gray received this certificate from the town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia. It was awarded to her “in recognition of her patriotic spirit and noble sacrifices,” for having voluntarily served in the Canadian military during the Second World War.

The ideas of patriotism and sacrifice are also revealed in the certificate’s decoration. The ornate border, typical of these kinds of documents, is full of symbols: poppies to represent the war dead; and maple leaves, flags, and crests to represent both Canada and the British Empire. And at the top is the town’s seal.

So, what does this certificate tell us about Minnie Gray?

Well, we know by reading it that she volunteered for military service during the Second World War. We know that she survived the war and returned home to Wolfville.

We also know that she kept this certificate. It was important enough to Gray that, after her death in 2005, friends donated it to the museum. In fact, they told the museum that she looked back at her war experience as a highlight of her life.

For many, the memory of the Second World War was dominated by loss and sorrow. But for Private Minnie Gray, the war was a time of friendship and opportunity. To understand that, we must explore what happened to her before and during the war.

Gray enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1944, at the age of 32. Prior to serving in the military, she worked as a domestic servant. She was also unmarried, Black, and living in a society where both of those factors meant that she was subjected to societal and economic barriers, as well as overt discrimination.

In fact, Gray had tried to enlist a year earlier but had been rejected. The official reason given was flat feet. But this may not have been the real reason. Recruitment officers had some discretion to decide who to accept and who to reject.

Early in the war, the ideal candidate was a British subject, young, single, white, and in excellent health. As a Black woman, Minnie Gray missed the mark.

But recruiting criteria later loosened. The next time she tried to enlist, she was accepted.

Most of the 21,624 women in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps served in Canada, but around 3,000 were posted overseas. These were coveted assignments.

In 1945, Private Minnie Gray learned that she was among the lucky few: she was being sent to Europe, to chaperone the Canadian Women’s Army Corps Pipe Band as it toured the continent, entertaining troops.

Minnie Gray wrote in her diary, “I [am] going to the continent as [medical orderly] to the Pipe Band. What a day! — and what a break. I certainly never expected anything as perfect as that.”

Gray toured England, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium with the Pipe Band. They visited 83 cities over seven months.

For Gray, then, looking back on her time in the army meant remembering the sites she had seen, her dedication to looking after band members, and the lifelong friendships she made. It is no surprise then that mementos like her certificate held special meaning for her.

But what about the town of Wolfville, which awarded the certificate? What did it mean to them?

With the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of veterans returned to villages, towns, and cities across Canada. They were honoured with banquets, parades, ceremonies, and banners in storefront windows. Such rituals allowed municipalities, social organizations, former employers, neighbours, friends, and family to reconnect with veterans, and thank them for their service in defence of the country and its ideals.

For the small town of Wolfville, recognizing the return of sons and daughters was a positive experience. And yet some never came home. Citizens had the somber task of adding names to the local war memorial to remember forever the people who had died in service. Nine local men were killed in the Second World War.

After the war, Gray had no desire to return to her pre-war job. Instead, she built on the training she received in the army. She moved to Montréal for more schooling.

After graduating in 1947, she remained in the city, working in the health care field until her retirement.

She passed away in 2005.

Today, Minnie Gray’s certificate helps the museum tell a story about a veteran. A woman. A daughter of a Black father and a White mother. But it also speaks to the ways communities across Canada welcomed back their own and helped launch them into their new lives as veterans.