“Across the clouds I see my shadow fly:” Some words about Gertrude Dugal, the first francophone Québec woman to obtain a pilot’s license – unless it was someone else

Gertrude Dugal, the first francophone Québec women to obtain a pilot’s license – or not, Cartierville airport, Cartierville, Québec. Anon., “La seule diplômée.” La Patrie, Journal du dimanche, 18 May 1947, 1.

Do you like Pink Floyd, my reading friend? I have to confess to being very fond of their music, including the hugely popular 1987 song Learning to Fly. That piece is most appropriate given the subject yours truly wishes to address today.

And yes, I will be brief. Very brief. Pinky promise.

Our story began in Montréal, Québec, at an unfortunately undetermined date, during the First World War perhaps, with the birth of Gertrude Dugal. In the 1930s, the young woman took a business course at Villa Maria, a private institution for young girls from good families located in Montréal. In 1939, Dugal completed a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the Université de Montréal. Wishing to work for a trading house, she then took a (correspondence?) course in stenotyping offered by La Salle Extension University of Chicago, Illinois. Was Dugal’s upbringing somewhat atypical for a francophone Québec woman of the time? Yes, it was.

Dugal landed her first job, as a stenotypist and translator, during the Second World War. She then worked for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board – an organisation for which her father, Armand Joseph Dugal, worked for free for about 4 years (1941-45).

In her spare time, Dugal worked for the Canadian Red Cross Corps – a volunteer service she continued to fulfill for several years after the end of the conflict.

In 1945, she joined the staff of the Consulado General de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela en Montréal, as a secretary. The failing health of her mother, Diana Dugal, born Lecours, forced her to leave that position.

Dugal discovered a passion for flying around that time, possibly as a result of a flight aboard an airliner in 1946. She contacted a flight school founded no later than April 1946 in Cartierville, Québec, Laurentide Flying School (Incorporated?), which became Laurentide Aviation Limited in March 1949. Dugal began her training during the summer of 1946. She was most likely one of the first people and the first lady trained by the instructors of that firm formed by a trio of Anglo-Canadians, brothers in fact, Jack, Robert and Donald Scholefield, who had come to Québec around 1925-26, with their parents, when they were children.

Would you believe that the eldest of the trio, Jack Scholefield, a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, just like his brother Robert actually, was the chairperson of the Montreal Council for the Golden Anniversary of Flight in Canada, a council created in June 1958 to coordinate Montréal activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of the first sustained and controlled flight of a powered aeroplane on Canadian soil, made in February 1909 by the AEA Aerodrome No 4 Silver Dart? That coordination was done in collaboration with the National Co-ordinating Council for the Golden Anniversary of Flight in Canada.

Before I forget, Donald Scholefield served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War.

And yes, you are right, my reading friend, the replica of the Silver Dart which flew in February 1959 to commemorate said 50th anniversary is in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. Ours is a small world, is it not? So let us go back to our story and the year 1947, but not right away.

Indeed, would you believe that Laurentide Flying School had among its staff one of the 5 female instructors active on Canadian territory and the only one on Québec soil? Then 23 years old, Gloria Kathleen “Sally” Large was perhaps a veteran of the Second World War. Yes, yes, a veteran. That young woman from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, was one of the few Canadian women who enlisted as a pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), a civilian organisation formed in 1939 to transport mail, personnel, supplies, etc. destined to the British armed forces within the British Isles. The ATA was soon made responsible for the ferrying new, repaired and damaged aircraft of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm aircraft between the various factories, maintenance units and bases. The ATA proved all but indispensable throughout the Second World War, but I digress. Again.

Large was back in Canada as of June 1943. The extent of her activities with the ATA was / is virtually unknown.

Would you be interested to read that Large’s father, Heber Rowan Large, was a fighter pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and RAF during the First World War? He accepted, perhaps without too much enthusiasm, that his daughter go to California around 1939-40, when she was only 15 or 16 years old (!), to continue her studies. While there, Large began to take flying lessons. Large turned out to be very talented. She seemingly completed her flight training in Ontario in 1942, and got her licence, but back to Cartierville.

Dugal switched to solo flying after 18 hours of learning. She passed the written exam and air tests of the Department of Transport with flying colours. Dugal obtained her pilot’s license in March 1947. As was said (typed?) at the beginning of this text, she was the first francophone Québec woman to obtain such a license – or not.

You see, Dugal was not the first francophone Québec woman to obtain a pilot’s license. Nay. That honour apparently belonged / belongs to Rose-Alma Gilbert, née Gaudreau. That lady was born in March 1895, in Saint-Mathieu-de-Rioux, Québec. Unwilling to spend her life in some isolated village, Gaudreau moved to the United States during her teenage years, to learn English and live a little. She returned to Canada in 1921.

Not too long after, Gaudreau married a railway company employee who became the manager of an isolated station in Ontario. Increasingly frustrated by the isolation, she learned to operate the station’s telegraph. And no, female telegraph operators were not exactly numerous back then. His years of life in the middle of the forest eventually ruined the mind of Gaudreau’s spouse, however. The couple divorced.

Gaudreau moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1927. There, she met a pilot, Frank W. Gilbert. The sequence of subsequent events in Gaudreau’s life was confusing to say the least, at least to me. She married Gilbert in 1928 or 1930 for example. In 1930 perhaps, the couple opened a small flight school at Sea Island airport, near Vancouver. This being said (typed?), Gilbert Flying Service Limited was incorporated only in July 1941, while the Second World War raged. Indeed, the small firm trained a number of pilots who subsequently joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, but back to the very beginning of the 1930s.

Initially responsible for keeping the small flying school’s books in order, Gaudreau / Gilbert was soon affected by a passion for wings. She wanted to learn to fly. Her husband initially disagreed. Gaudreau / Gilbert only obtained her pilot’s license in April 1934. Increasingly fascinated by flight, she wished to obtain a commercial pilot's license. Her husband would hear none of it.

During the fall of 1936, Gaudreau / Gilbert joined forces with a sextet of women aviators from British Columbia to found a women’s flying club – a Canadian, if not North American, if not world first. That group was soon christened the Flying Seven. Gaudreau / Gilbert was its first president. Encouraged by her new friends, she defied her husband and obtained her commercial pilot’s license, in September 1941. Gasoline rationing measures put in place in April 1942 by the federal government put an end to Gaudreau / Gilbert’s dream of obtaining her instructor’s license. These measures, coupled with her spouse’s disapproval of her flying activities, may well have grounded her.

Gilbert sold Gilbert Flying Service in 1945. Acquired, renamed and merged on moult occasions over the years, that small air carrier was one of the firms which eventually gave birth to Jazz Aviation Limited Partnerships of Halifax, Nova Scotia, a subsidiary of Chorus Aviation Incorporated of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

By the time the Second World War ended, in 1945, Gaudreau / Gilbert and her spouse were not on friendly terms. They ended up divorcing. Forced to fend for herself, Gaudreau initially worked in the real estate sector before joining the staff of a fur store. She died in July 1994 at the age of 99, but back to our story.

Did Dugal have Large as an instructor, you ask, my reading friend? That is highly possible. Large did indeed have a few female student pilots no later than August 1947, but I digress.

As you can imagine, Dugal’s success certainly did not go unnoticed. The Montréal weekly Photo-Journal placed a fairly large photograph of Dugal with a Laurentide Flying School aircraft on the front page of a March 1947 edition. A great American actress, Myrna Loy, born Myrna Adele Williams, got a much larger photograph, however.

La Patrie did better still. A photograph of Dugal with a Laurentide Flying School aircraft occupied the entire front page of the illustrated magazine section of one of its Sunday editions published in May 1947. A week later, that major Montréal daily published a long article devoted to Dugal. In December, La Patrie offered itself the luxury of celebrating the return to the country of Dugal, after a stay of more than 2 weeks in Cuba. A large photograph showed her with her father. Dugal was the guest of the Ecuadorian minister in Cuba and former consul general of Ecuador in Montréal.

Virtually all of the 1947 articles which highlighted Dugal’s success highlighted the fact that she was the daughter of the vice-president and general manager of a well-known Montréal department store, Dupuis Frères Limitée. Indeed, it was in the company of her father that Dugal saw her photograph published by the other major Montréal daily, La Presse, in February 1948. Dugal senior was among the many people who had received the British medals granted approximately 19 months earlier, in July 1946. He thus became Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Would you believe that the first Canadian woman to obtain a pilot’s license received said license in March… 1928? Yes, yes, 1928. Yours truly cannot say if this was / is an example of the backwardness of francophone Québec society at the time, but one is entitled to ask questions. Incidentally, it was the very conservative Parti liberal du Québec which was then in power. That party had in fact controlled the destinies of the Belle Province since May 1897 and would continue in that role until August 1936.

Before I forget to say (type?) so, the first Canadian woman pilot was Mary Eileen Vene Vollick, born Riley, the name of her biological father. She was not yet 20 in March 1928, but back to our story.

Dugal stated that she wanted to pursue a career in aviation as an instructor. She had to give up that dream more or less quickly, however. One can wonder if she found herself more or less forced to take care of her mother, who died in June 1953, and her father.

The aforementioned Large found herself in a similar situation, if for different reasons. She had returned to Prince Edward Island around 1948-49 where she tried to earn a living through various means (crop dusting, charter flying, barnstorming, etc.). That did not work too well. Large’s attempts to get a job with some Canadian airlines fared even worse. Like many Canadian and foreign women aviators, she gave up flying in the early 1950s. Flight schools and airlines, run by male Homo sapiens, did not see the point of hiring women, no matter how competent, but back to our topic for this week.

Dugal seemed to become a real estate agent towards the end of the 1950s at the latest. One can wonder if her need for employment was linked to the fact that her father, then honorary vice-president of Dupuis Frères, had died in May 1956. In 1968, Dugal founded Script Service Enregistrée of Montréal, a tiny firm (1 employee: Dugal) specialising in writing texts in French and English. Mind you, Script Service offered translation services afterwards. That small firm still existed in 1981.

Dugal remained independent throughout her life. She died in October 1993. That upbeat and multi-talented lady deserves to be remembered.

See ya later.

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Rénald Fortier