One of the first Black Canadian women soldiers tells her story

Article / February 16, 2018 / Project number: 18-0082

By Josée Poirier, 5th Canadian Division Public Affairs

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February is Black History Month, a time to honour Black Canadians past and present who have served in uniform and as civilian employees in the defence and service of Canada since before Confederation.

Halifax, Nova Scotia — “You couldn’t get a job in a store or anywhere if you were Black, so we joined the Reserves,” said Corporal (Retired) Marelene Clyke.

In 1951, 17-year-old Cpl (Retd) Clyke enlisted as a Reservist in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) when she was unable to find other employment due to racial discrimination; “A number of us girls did,” she recalled. Although the pay was not very much, it was a stable job. “We made under a hundred dollars, I think it was $65 a month,” she said.

Cpl (Retd) Clyke, who held an administrative position, would work three nights a week and spend her summers training at Camp Aldershot in Kentville, Nova Scotia. Many of her most cherished memories from her military career come from her summers in at Aldershot.

During her time there, Cpl (Retd) Clyke would work in the office, while other women practiced field exercises. The comradery of training camp is what stands out in her mind when she looks back at her time with the military.

“I really enjoyed it, going to camp, meeting different people. People came from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – you got to meet a lot of girls, and we just had a great ol’ time.”

The CWAC was a place where Cpl (Retd) Clyke received the respectful treatment that she deserved from her fellow soldiers, “I didn’t have any problems with racism in the service,” she said.

Military life taught her “discipline, respect and how to get along with others,” and she said she would recommend it to any young Black Canadian woman who is interested in enlisting.

“I think it’s a fabulous lifetime job, the pay is much better now, and while you’re in there, you can get your education too. It’s different today, there’s so many other things that they can do, and we don’t have the colour problem as evident as it was back then, but I think the travel in it is great, it’s just a great way to live and meet people from all over the world.”

When she married her military husband in 1957, she retired from service, although she remained a part of military life for his entire career. Now 84 years old, Cpl (Retd) Clyke resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is an active member of the community.

(Note that the correct spelling of Cpl (Retd) Clyke’s first name is “Marelene”, while in some historical references it is incorrectly spelled “Marlene”.)

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