2020-12-23

Lunenburg-born trailblazer for women in the military dies

by GAYLE WILSON

  • <p>FACEBOOK PHOTO, RCAF</p><p>The late Brigadier-General (retired) Sheila Hellstrom</p>

Lunenburg lost a renowned trailblazer for women in the military with the passing earlier this month of Brigadier General (Retired) Sheila Hellstrom in Ottawa at the age of 85.

Another local advocate of women in the military, Cheryl Lamerson of Lunenburg, said it was the Progress Bulletin that helped reunite her with her mentor, and that she will be sorely missed.

Born in Lunenburg in 1935, Hellstrom graduated from Mount Allison University with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. She joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) at the age of 20, just two years after the RCAF was authorized to accept women volunteers.

In 1987, when women were still barred from combat roles, she became the first woman serving as a Regular Force officer to be promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General. With the promotion, Hellstrom took on the job of Director-General for personnel. In 1989, she was appointed the chair of the Committee on Women in NATO Forces (CWINF).

There were just 1,500 women in the military in 1971, according to a tribute to Hallstrom printed in The Ottawa Citizen. When Hellstrom made general, there were 7,700, or about nine per cent of the total. Today, women make up about 16 per cent of Canada's 71,000-strong military, reports the newspaper.

"Brigadier General Sheila Hellstrom believed that by including women into the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the organization would be stronger. Her contribution to the diversity and inclusion of the CAF in general, and the RCAF in particular, will not be forgotten," the RCAF commented in a social media post.

"Her greatest gift was her ability to be supportive to so many people," Lamerson commented in an email to LighthouseNOW. "I was one of the beneficiaries of her kindness. First as a young RCAF Captain doing research on women in the military. Sheila (ma'am, as I then addressed her) brought me and my basic training colleagues to her office in Ottawa and asked me to present on my research.

"Later, as the head of gender integration and diversity in the CF, she was retired, but she was very involved in gender integration and she was so supportive. When I became the Chair of the Committee on Women in NATO Forces, a role that she had held before me, her advice on handling a committee with representatives from 29 countries was immeasurably helpful," Lamerson recalled.

Lamerson, who founded Lunenburg Community Consignment, lost track of Hellstrom when she herself retired and moved to Lunenburg. Then one day she received a phone call from Hellstrom.

"She had seen my name in your newspaper, which she kept a subscription to although she had long ago left Lunenburg and had no relatives left in this area. She was just as supportive and kind as ever."

Lamerson told LighthouseNOW, Hellstrom would call or email her, "whenever she saw something of our mutual interest in your paper."

The Camp Norway project was one. Lamerson was involved from the South Shore Genealogical Society and Hellstrom called to tell her about how her father had been Swedish.

"Because he could speak a bit of Norwegian their home became a place where the sailors liked to visit. She was inspired to join the Royal Canadian Air Force because of that connection to the Royal Norwegian Navy."

Lamerson reported that her last contact with Hellstron was in the fall, when the retired brigadier general contacted her about a report on Project Lunenburg that she had seen in the Progress Bulletin.

"She was so supportive of the innovative, collaborative, participative approach of our project. It was, as it always was with Sheila, an enjoyable conversation. Oh, how I shall miss her," said Lamerson.

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