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Who was the first Canadian woman to be decorated for gallantry during the Second World War and was the first living Canadian to have a ship named after her?

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In her lifetime, Lieutenant Commander Margaret Martha Brooke, M.B.E., C.D. (10 April 1915 – 9 January 2016) achieved a number of notable 'firsts'. Born and raised in the small farming community of Ardath, Saskatchewan during the Great Depression, her mother Maude was determined that her daughter would attend university. At the age of 18, in 1933, Margaret moved to Saskatoon (about 80 kilometres North) with her brother Hewitt to attend the University of Saskatchewan where she earned her Bachelor of Health Science (1935 B.H.Sc.) after which she moved to Ottawa to complete her dietetic internship at the Ottawa Civic Hospital.

On 9 March 1942, Margaret Brooke enrolled in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) at the rank of Sub Lieutenant and serving as a Nursing Sister Dietician in RCN hospitals, she was assigned to: HMCS 'Unicorn' in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; HMCS 'Avalon' in St. John's, Newfoundland; HMCS 'St. Hyacinth' in St. Hyacinth, Québec; HMCS 'Naden' in Esquimalt, British Columbia; and HMCS 'Stadacona' in Halifax, Nova Scotia. While serving at HMCS 'Avalon' in St. John's, Sub Lieutenant Brooke was returning from leave travelling on the passenger ferry SS 'Caribou'. On the night of 14 October 1942, while sailing the Cabot Strait 75 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland, the German submarine U-69 was searching for targets and at 3:31 a.m. fired a torpedo that struck the ferry. Brooke as well as a fellow Nursing Sister Sub Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie (b. 5 September 1904) were thrown from their bunks when the torpedo hit and scrambled to the deck to find the remaining lifeboats in splinters. As the ship sank beneath them, the two managed to cling on ropes of an overturned lifeboat until Wilkie became unconscious from the icy cold water. With one hand holding the lifeboat and her other clinging to her friend, Brooke continued to hold Wilkie until daybreak when a strong wave swept her away from Brooke's grip, succumbing to the frigid water. Of the 237 passengers on board, 136 perished on that day. As outlined in her citation, Margaret Brooke was to be decorated: "For gallantry and courage. After the sinking of the Newfoundland Ferry S.S. Caribou, this Officer displayed great courage whilst in the water in attempting to save the life of another Nursing Sister." Sub Lieutenant Margaret Brooke was the first woman – among a total of 40 other women who served during the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Navy (8), Canadian Army (16), or the Royal Canadian Air Force (16) – to be appointed a Member of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Her award was published in the London Gazette on 1 January 1943. She ultimately attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander on 1 April 1957, while serving in the RCN until her retirement in September 1962 and returned to Saskatoon to assist her aging parents.

During this time, to broaden her horizons, she returned to the University of Saskatchewan where she earned a B.A. (1965) and then a Ph.D. (1971) majoring in biostratigraphy and micro-palaeontology. She remained in the Department of Geological Sciences instructing and as a research associate until 1986, when she retired from her career as a palaeontologist and subsequently moved to Victoria (British Columbia) to fulfil her long-cherished desire. Dr. Brooke was named an Alumni of Influence by the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan in 2018.

While the United States Navy's first ship named for a living person in modern times was USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in 1975, the Royal Canadian Navy's first ship named for a living person was to honour Margaret Brooke in recognition of her heroic actions on the night of 14 October 1942. In January 2015, the Government of Canada announced that six Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships would be built as part of the national shipbuilding strategy and that the contract was awarded to Irving Shipbuilding Inc. Designated the Harry DeWolf-class in honour of Vice-Admiral Harry DeWolf (1903–2000), a Canadian wartime naval hero, all six of the new vessels were to be named after Canadians who served in the Navy "with the highest distinction and gallantry." Lieutenant Commander Brooke learned about the honour on her centennial birthday when she received a telephone call from then-minister of national defence, Jason Kenney (b. 1968), as well as a personal visit the following day from Commodore Bob Auchterlonie (b. 1969), commander of Canadian Fleet Pacific. Officially named HMCS 'Margaret Brooke' (AOPV 431), the second of six vessels was launched on 10 November 2019 at the Halifax Shipyard. Dr. Brooke passed away in Victoria in her 101st year.

On this day, 10 April 2022, we commemorate the 107th anniversary of the birth of Lieutenant Commander Margaret Brooke and mark more than 79 years since she was the first Canadian woman to be decorated as a Member of the Order of the British Empire during the Second World War and mark seven years since she was the first living Canadian to have a ship named after her. Dr. Brooke's "courage and self-sacrifice have inspired, and will continue to inspire, generations of Canadian naval personnel for years to come."

André M. Levesque

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