At the Canadian War Museum, thousands of people have seen a painting of a Black Canadian woman in a military uniform, standing behind a canteen counter, with crossed arms and a stern face. Most Canadians neither know the woman in the painting nor the artist. It is one of the most famous canvases to come from the brush of Molly Lamb Bobak, Canada’s first female war artist.
The painting is of Sergeant Eva May Roy and it remains in storage at the Canadian War Museum. She is one of many Black women who served in the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II and is among the people whose stories are largely missing not only from public record but from public conscience as well.
Roy was a trailblazer, who served overseas at a time when it was rare to see a Canadian military woman working in Europe. After the war broke out, Roy left her job as a presser in a laundry to become a machine operator and fuse assembler at the General Engineering Co. munitions plant in Scarborough, Ontario.
Roy enlisted in 1944 and joined the CWAC, a new division created just three years earlier. CWAC had 50,000 women in its ranks during World War II in support roles ranging from cooking to decoding. Roy trained as a cook and served in military canteens in Canada, the United Kingdom and Holland.
Many people associated with Roy say that the stern image presented by her portrait is somewhat misleading. She had an outgoing personality, was enthusiastic about the army and loved to sing.
After returning to Canada in January 1946, Roy worked as a government postal clerk in Toronto. Almost a decade later, when CWAC launched another recruiting campaign, Roy re-enlisted, served from 1955 to 1965 and attained the rank of sergeant. She died in 1990.
Molly Lamb Bobak (1920–2014) was the first Canadian woman war artist. In 1942 Bobak joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) and was appointed Official War Artist with the rank of Lieutenant in 1945. She served overseas in London where she painted women on military training as well as dynamic scenes of marches and parades.
Upon her return from London, Molly married fellow war artist Bruno Bobak. For her role in the Second World War and many other accomplishments she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1973 and presented with the Order of Canada in 1995.