She has pearly white hair and stands two inches shy of five feet, an unlikely warrior on an uncelebrated front. Rita Alarie was a soldier of industry in the Second World War. She says she was just doing her job.
Ms. Alarie was only 17 when she left her family farm northwest of Montreal and walked through the gates of the Plan Bouchard, a sprawling wartime factory devoted to arming the Allies. Every day, she changed into a smock and stood 4 p.m. to midnight stamping munition shells on Line 4. It paid $35 a week.
“The men were off to war,” the 86-year-old recalls. “They needed women. And they realized that women can do many things – sometimes better than men.”
Ms. Alarie’s wartime work and the place where she did it have largely been forgotten in the passage of time. The Plan Bouchard has slipped into obscurity, its vestiges reduced to a few ghostly ruins in the woods of the lower Laurentians.
But now city staffers in Blainville are trying to reconstitute the story of the lost industrial powerhouse and track down former employees like Ms. Alarie, intent on offering them a measure of belated recognition for their work.
“What happened here was part of something much bigger, something national and even international,” Martin Rodgers, a history graduate spearheading the effort, says as he tramps through the underbrush on the former site. “It’s an important part of Quebec history. But it’s been forgotten.”
In its time, the Plan Bouchard – a mistranslation of the Bouchard Plant – was a massive industrial enclave of 6,000 workers who churned out munitions around-the-clock for troops overseas. It rose in the dense woods of present-day Blainville, spreading out onto a site that included a hospital, baseball diamond, four tennis courts, 30 Ping-Pong tables, more than 400 work buildings and a Catholic chapel. Day in and day out, employees filled shells and other weapons to ship to the front.
“Bouchard is now the biggest shell-filling plant in the Empire,” the plant’s in-house newspaper, Shell-Dite, trumpeted in August, 1942.
About half the employees were women like Ms. Alarie, real-life Rosie the Riveters who staffed the production lines. Women joined the homefront effort in other provinces, but in Quebec they faced a church-dominated society that saw women’s roles as in the home. One Quebec MNA, René Chaloult, rose in the National Assembly in 1945 to warn that hiring women in wartime industry was “the surest way to destroy the family – Quebec’s sole means of survival.”
For Ms. Alarie, it was simply an opportunity. She saved up enough money to buy a trousseau for her marriage.
“The salaries were good, that’s why when they opened the plant all the women around went to work at Plan Bouchard,” she said recently at her seniors’ residence in Blainville, a bedroom community 42 kilometres northwest of Montreal. “We wanted to take advantage of the chances we had. We felt useful.”
The plant operated under the management of Defence Industries Limited from 1941 until 1945, when it was converted to a National Defence ammunition depot. That vocation did not go unnoticed, at least by some. During the 1970 October Crisis, two days after the Front de libération du Québec kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross, Ottawa launched the secret Operation Night Hawk and sent in troops to protect the Bouchard depot.
Today, little of the once-formidable complex remains. Down a path just off a busy roadway, thick cement walls rise from the forest floor like remnants of an abandoned city. One set of walls is scrawled with graffiti; once, it held up Camp Bouchard’s Building No. 1216, where workers spent the war years assembling trench mortar bombs.
The relics are slowly being reclaimed by nature, their floors and walls swallowed by moss, brush and trees. Time is slipping away – not just for the buildings, but also for their onetime workers, now mostly in their 90s. Mr. Rodgers wants to honour them and get the site protected as a cultural property; the depot closed in 1972 and the land now belongs to the city of Blainville. Mr. Rodgers dreams of turning it into an open-air museum or interpretation centre.
In Ontario, there are initiatives to recognize the contributions of the Second World War’s “Bomb Girls.” But Mr. Rodgers says he feels there’s ambivalence toward war and military matters in Quebec.
“It’s a paradox,” he says. “We were in the middle of the war industry, but it’s been lost in the collective memory. The women who worked there are anonymous. The military issue is not really appreciated in Quebec.”
Desmond Morton, a prominent military historian and McGill University professor emeritus, argues that the entry of armies of workers into wartime factories during the Second World War shaped the destiny of Quebeckers and all Canadians.
“The Second World War brought Canadians from a majority poverty situation around to a case where by the 1951 census, for the first time, most people had enough money to put all the necessities of life together,” he said. In Quebec, it had a transformative effect. “People talk about the Quiet Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Prof. Morton says. “I think it began in the ‘40s, where people had jobs and therefore could stand up for themselves and have opinions.”
For Ms. Alarie, it was 18 months of her young life that has mostly faded into the past. Today, her home is just down the street from where the vast plant once stood. “I feel that no one knows what happened. There’s nothing left,” she says. “It’s like it was a dream.”