Thousands of people have seen it over the past 70-plus years: a dramatic oil portrait from 1946 of a Black Canadian woman in a military uniform, standing behind a canteen counter.
Her arms are crossed. Her face is stern. Decades later, the portrait still conveys an image of strength.
It’s one of the most famous canvases to come from the brush of Molly Lamb Bobak, Canada’s first female war artist. It’s been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world.
But while the painting itself is familiar, the story behind it — of its subject, Eva May Roy — is far more obscure.
“This painting of Private Roy has been part of the public imagination for decades,” said Laura Brandon, a retired curator of war art at the Canadian War Museum. “It’s well known, but Private Roy’s story is not.”
“She was right in there with everybody else doing the same thing,” said her granddaughter Shannon Roy. “She didn’t hesitate…She commanded respect.”
Roy enlisted in 1944 and joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), a new division created just three years earlier. CWAC had 50,000 women in its ranks during the Second World War in support roles ranging from cooking to decoding.
Historians say that before the CWAC was created, the only option available to Canadian women looking to get involved in the war effort was to serve as a nurse — and it was nearly impossible for Black women to get that training.
Roy trained as a cook and served in military canteens in Canada, the United Kingdom and Holland.
“That was pretty unusual,” said Mélanie Morin-Pelletier, the acting director of research and chief historian at the Canadian War Museum.
“Only one in nine Canadian women in the army served overseas. So it was amazing that she was able to do that.”
“There’s no official reason why she didn’t make it, but we have to remember she would have been the only Black woman in the chorus,” said Morin-Pelletier. “So it’s easy to read behind the lines.”
After returning to Canada in January 1946, Roy worked as government postal clerk in Toronto, the museum said. Almost a decade later, when CWAC launched another recruiting campaign, Roy re-enlisted, served from 1955 to 1965 and attained the rank of sergeant.
Shannon Roy said her grandmother wasn’t the type to be pushed away from something she wanted to do.
“It was a different time back then, and unfortunately there was a lot of racism,” she said. “So the fact she was able to make the rank of sergeant is just incredible in my mind.
“You think they may hold her back, but I’m sure she wouldn’t have let them because that’s just the type of person she was. She would have stood her ground.”
“People would gravitate toward her,” said Shannon Roy. “Just for her smile alone.”
Her family describes Roy as an outgoing, determined and hard-working single mother who lived in Cobourg, Ont. for more than 25 years. Roy worked at the Queen’s printing shop and was known for having the “best laugh,” said Marney Massy.
Roy’s son Peter was known in town for his support for the Royal Canadian Legion and for helping with the annual poppy campaign in his mother’s memory.
Before he died in 2018, he travelled to Ottawa to see his mother’s portrait in person.
“He was so happy to have another picture taken with his mother,” said his wife Hilda Roy.
“When I looked at that first, I was looking at her and wondering what it must have felt like to fight for your country … knowing that at home you’re still considered a second-class citizen,” said Lee.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
Credit belongs to : ca.news.yahoo.com