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'Times have changed': Design of Halifax’s first monument to women unveiled

Peggy McAlpine, a 101-year-old World War II volunteer, unveils two of the three designs for monuments honouring women volunteers during the Second World War in Halifax on March 9, 2017.

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

During the Second World War, Peggy McAlpine made a lot of sandwiches — thousands of them.

Halifax was bustling in wartime, clogged with young servicemen waiting to board ships headed overseas, and they needed food, and often a sympathetic ear.

It wasn't glamorous work at the North End Service Canteen, but it was part of a massive volunteer effort, run mainly by women.

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"I made sandwiches and I listened to the heartbreak stories ... They would usually sail the next day," the 101-year-old said Thursday after helping unveil the design for a unique monument that will pay tribute to female volunteers during the Second World War.

"It brings back sad memories, but happy memories, too. The women were there for these young men ... We tried to send them off feeling better."

The proposed bronze sculpture will be called "A Woman on the Waterfront."

It will be the first in the city to pay tribute to women. Of the 280 statues in Halifax, fewer than a dozen show women, and virtually all of them are mythical figures, such as fairies and nymphs.

"Their story has to be told — we want to make them visible," said project leader Janet Guildford, chairwoman of Halifax Women's History Society.

"They are symbolic of all the women in our city who have contributed to its history without any recognition. This is the very first significant monument to women in the Halifax area."

The design sketches unveiled Thursday show three life-size figures, each from a different generation.

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The first statue will be that of a young girl pulling a wagon, collecting metal scraps as part of a salvage drive. The scarce material was recycled during the war to make tanks, airplanes and munitions. At the time, movie theatres across Canada granted children free admission to matinees for every scrap of aluminum they brought in.

The second sketch shows an African Nova Scotian woman carrying coffee cups on a food tray. Nova Scotia women served meals to the more than 100,000 servicemen who passed through Halifax on their way to Europe, but the canteens and hostels were segregated.

"Women's stories are untold, but African Nova Scotian women's stories are even less told," said Guildford.

The third figure is that of an older woman seated with a Mi'kmaq basket, knitting needles in hand. The Canadian Red Cross estimates that 750,000 volunteers knit 50 million articles of clothing during the Second World War, including socks, stocking caps and sweaters.

The plan is to place the monument in a busy spot along the city's waterfront boardwalk, across from the Port of Halifax building, in mid-November.

Sculptor Marlene Hilton Moore said of the two dozen figures she has sculpted over the years, only three were women.

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"This monument will end the invisibility of women in public art in the city," she said.

"To bring to the public real women, who are doing real things, and then monumentalize those real activities, that's what's so valuable ... Times have changed. In the contemporary art world, you might be embarrassed to create a little fairy and put it in a public space. It's not done any more."

To be sure, that sentiment has taken hold in other Canadian cities, where tributes to women have been popping up over the past two decades.

The "Women are Persons! Monument" in Calgary, unveiled in 1999, pays tribute to the "Famous Five" Alberta women who fought to have Canadian women recognized constitutionally as "persons." A similar monument was erected in Ottawa in 2000.

A statue of Laura Secord, a heroine in the War of 1812, was unveiled in Ottawa in 2006.

And the renowned Canadian artist Emily Carr was immortalized in a statue unveiled in Victoria, B.C., in 2010.

Video: Taxi driver's sex assault acquittal sparks protest in Halifax (The Canadian Press)
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