When the world found itself again at war, June Menzies marched into the army at 16 and told them she wanted to be a spy.
Two years later, despite them trying to convince her to pursue nursing or teaching, she was recruited by the British Intelligence Service to decode Japanese letters and unravel the plots of war criminals.
“I just thought, this was the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me… I think it was because I was what they called a quick study, I learned very quickly,” says Menzies. “I always knew enough to put that learning into practical use.”
She attended a Japanese Language School in Vancouver with other recruits, being one of three women in the classroom. Before she even graduated, she was needed at the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section (PACMIRS) in Washington DC., to begin her work as an intelligence officer in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, alongside the Americans.
In a room with hundreds of letters and documents in a foreign language she had just learned to read, she worked with a team at the barracks in Fort Ritchie, Maryland to translate and log information that may identify a potential enemy.
Although she enjoyed her work identifying war criminals and serving as a translator, her spy work wasn’t entirely what she expected it to be.
“[The Americans] think they could rule the world with their strength and their determination but if you had any common sense, you had to know that wasn’t right. When I was looking for criminal activity that needed further investigation, what I was reading, understanding and knew never did match with what the demands were,” she says. “You couldn’t read the letters without knowing that we were all in the same boat.”
As she delved into the lives of a foreign world through personal letters, she says she was taken aback by the humanity they all expressed. These letters, despite the unfortunate actions of some of its authors, included conversations to their families that showed another side to them.
“When we were looking for war criminals, I thought that these people are just like me and my family… they loved their parents like I loved my own, there was nothing that was different,” says Menzies. “It didn’t matter what religion or background we were, so why all this hatred? That’s when I started looking at life in a more profound way.”
They wrote about missing their children, their fears, their hunger, their hopes for the future and reminisced on old memories. For Menzies, it was difficult not to feel empathy as she recognized these people were just like her and that it was the war that had put them in the wrong.
She continued to translate until the end of the war, while also learning how to fly planes in the military.
But she realized the world wasn’t as black and white as it was made out to be. As the Americans tried to reconcile with the Japanese after, a lot of the files she had flagged were put on a shelf as they chose not to prosecute the identified war criminals.
When she returned to Canada, she attended the University of Saskatchewan to earn a masters in economics. Here she met her husband and they then moved to Winnipeg.
Carrying that humanitarian perspective she discovered in the army, she recognized there was a lot of gender inequality and soon became an activist. She founded the Manitoba Action Committee on the Status of Women, which is still operating today, and became the first vice president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
“I thought we had all these rights in Canada to discover that we had none of them. We had to dig in to get ourselves into a position where we could make changes,” Menzies says. “We simply challenged the law, there was a lot of political lobbying but it was the revelation of Canada’s shortcomings.”
Her committee’s political play Balloon Lady became a well-recognized piece at rallies, featuring a woman holding balloons with rights written on them. Anecdotes were read aloud that countered these rights for women, popping the balloons until none were left.
“This made a tremendous impression because so many people didn’t have any idea of what the United Nations’ requirements for human rights were,” she says. “Doing the Balloon Lady numerous times all over Manitoba, Saskatchewan and then nationally — people began to understand that we were far below the world’s standards.”
Menzies succeeded in changing women’s rights in Manitoba, such as having dowry laws repealed. Her enthusiasm for politics did not go unseen and was eventually given the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case, in recognition of her work toward gender equality in 1991.
She was appointed as the first chair of the Anti-Inflation Board (AIB) for several years in Ottawa by Pierre Trudeau.
In 1976, Menzies was invited to the Dinner of High Commission at the British Embassy which she knew would be a problematic event.
“I had prepared myself because I knew exactly what was going to happen because this is the British Embassy and they didn’t permit women to go up the front steps. Women were expected to go to the back and use the servant’s entrance,” she says. “I had myself made… there was no man in my delegation… I said I had one of the most important contributions to make to this conference.”
The embassy had to come up with eight escorts to lead her up the front steps of the building. Laughing, she says it was a historical first for a woman at the time.
She was honoured as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1980 and then became chair of the National Farm Products Marketing Council to run the country’s supply management system.
Upon retirement, Menzies returned to Winnipeg and ran the food bank for the West Broadway Community Ministry until she was convinced to move to Terrace to be with her son, Dave.
At age 92, Menzies has plenty of stories to share from the intelligence services to becoming a notable woman in politics and much more. She travelled to Japan later on in life and could still understand the language, which she says brought her back to her days in the army and reminded her of how it all began.
“We didn’t have a television or other ways of communicating but for some reason, I always knew I wanted to be a spy,” she says. “It has been a very unsettling but a very satisfactory experience because of everything that has arisen from that desire.”