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Saint John, New Brunswick

Daphne H. Paterson of Saint John, NB
Photo from Canada's Flying Heritage by Frank Ellis, 1954 Daphne H. Paterson of Saint John was New Brunswick's first female pilot, Canada's first female commercial pilot, and claimed to hold the speed record for driving between Saint John and Montreal. In this portrait, she looks every bit the daring aviatrix.

New Brunswick's Female Aviation Pioneer
Saint John native challenged airline industry

By Pierre Vachon

   One of the fascinating things about researching someone's life is to see them come alive in your mind's eye. An unusual bit of information about them might first catch your attention and you begin looking for more, almost like a detective in a murder story looks for clues. As you find out more in terms of what they did and what they said, a kind of mental sketch begins to emerge, your imagination fills in details of dress and mannerisms and, pretty soon, the person you were looking for is right there. You would swear you had known them for quite some time.
   That's the way it was for me when I first heard about Daphne Paterson, about two years ago. I had been invited to dinner at the Westfield Golf and Country Club one evening and there I met Bruce Paterson. When he heard I was interested in aviation history, he told me he had an aunt from Saint John who had been a very famous aviatrix in this country. But, I had never heard of her, and that piqued my curiosity.
   I found a book by historian Shirley Render titled No Place for Lady: The Story of Canadian Women Pilots 1928-1992 and there she was, just as Bruce had claimed. She was the first Canadian female to qualify as a commercial pilot, back in 1929, when commercial aviation was in its infancy in this country. Then, I read that she used to boast she had once held the speed record for driving between Saint John and Montreal. I was hooked.
   Now, my wife and I have driven that road twice or three times a year for the past 45 years of our marriage in all sorts of weather and cars, with and without children. Usually it takes us close to 12 hours, what with pit stops for refuelling, food and other necessities. I wanted to meet the person who had the temerity to make that claim, particularly when the roads and the automobiles were even worse than those l had known.
   This is a brief account of what I found out about an exceptional woman from New Brunswick who has been virtually ignored over the years. When she passed away in 1982, in Trenton, Ont., her obituary in the local Trentonnian made no mention of her accomplishments. And when her remains were interred here in Saint John, a few days later, no mention of her importance to Canadian aviation was made, not even of her return home.
   Yet, when you look at her life, you can see that she was a very exceptional person. As a young girl she had a lot of promise. She got a university degree in science from McGill, when very few women in this country acquired much more than a high school education.
    When she was but 24 years of age, in 1928, she obtained a private pilot's license, becoming the seventh woman to do so in Canada. And, immediately, the following year, she went on to become the first Canadian female commercial pilot.
   That was a very special accomplishment at that time because commercial aviation was just beginning in Canada. For example, one of the first air transport companies, Canadian Transcontinental Airways, had just launched an airmail service in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. Their first airmail flight from Charlottetown to Moncton was flown in March of 1928. The first airmail flight from Ottawa and Montreal to Saint John had just been accomplished in January of 1928.
   Daphne wanted a job as a commercial pilot. She was qualified. As Render puts it: "she was a natural pilot"; "she was a frequent competitor, and winner, in the Webster Trophy competitions." But no one in Canada would give her a chance at the job. So she waited for another opportunity. In 1937 she acquired a rating as a public transport pilot - today we would call that an airline pilot - and she was the first Canadian female to do so. Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA) had just been created. Canadian Airways, the future Canadian Pacific Air Lines (CPA) and TCA were Canada's first two national airlines.


This painting by Don Connolly, reproduced in his book Painting Planes, captures Daphne Paterson's Gypsy Moth CF-AAA biplane in action. The original painting, commissioned by Daphne Paterson in 1980, hangs in the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg.

In 1942, she was the first of her gender in Canada to become a flying instructor. The country very badly needed flying instructors for the war effort, and she had been advised this was her best bet to earn a living in that profession. Yet, military authorities refused to accept her for that position.

    However, again, her ambitions were thwarted. No one would acknowledge her qualifications and abilities.
   In 1942, she was the first of her gender in Canada to become a flying instructor. The country very badly needed flying instructors for the war effort, and she had been advised this was her best bet to earn a living in that profession.
   Yet, military authorities refused to accept her for that position.
   Frustrated and disheartened, her personal life in disarray after a divorce to Squadron Leader A. J. Shelfoon, she left Saint John at the end of hostilities and went to live in Trenton, Ont., where she shared a home on the lake waterfront with a long-time friend, Evelyn Grey.
   Why she chose this particular location is not clear.
   Last year, while researching old newspapers in Trenton, I found she had been the first non-military person ever to land at the Trenton Air Force base, back in 1931. So, she knew the region and, possibly, she had other friends in the area, like Evelyn Grey.
   Born in 1905, she had but one brother, Pierce - Bruce's father. Her father was the Honourable A.P. Paterson, a local and apparently quite successful businessman who went into politics in the mid-1930s. Elected in this area when Premier Dysart's government first went into power, A.P. Paterson was appointed this province's first minister of education.
   This would certainly explain why her parents encouraged Daphne to acquire a university degree from a top Canadian university, like McGill. And that would also explain the need to travel to Montreal and back, many times each year.
   In the 1920s, the road between Saint John and Edmunston, on the way to Montreal, was narrow and serpentine, laced with railway crossings, and often bordered with large trees.
   So Daphne had to be an exceptionally good driver and was obviously proud of it.
   Perhaps it was on some of these long drives that the idea of flying occurred to her as a means of simplifying her own travel challenges and of making an interesting career; a little bit like a girl today might want to take up a career in space.
   But this was not to be. Daphne Paterson fought hard and long to make a place for women in Canadian commercial aviation. Today, if we have many women who have made a successful career in that field, they owe a considerable debt to Daphne Paterson, who pioneered changes in Canadian social attitudes in the world of aviation.
   At twelve noon, Saturday, Sept. 14th, a plaque commemorating Saint John's first municipal airfield Bat Millidgeville is being unveiled by Mayor Shirley McAlary at the M. Gerald Teed School on Daniel avenue.
    Daphne's name is on that plaque because she flew from Millidgeville airport, along with the famed aviatrix, Amelia Earheart. She landed there in 1932, on her way to make the first eastwest North Atlantic crossing by a woman.
    Those were real pioneers in aviation.
   Pierre Vachon is a free-lance writer with a special interest in aviation history. He lives in Saint John.

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