Most of the buildings on the 346 acres of land in Scarboro have disappeared. But from 1941 to 1945 the area running south from Eglinton Avenue to Hymus Road and west from Warden Avenue to Birchmount Road in the modern-day Toronto suburb of Scarborough, Canada’s largest munitions factory employed more than 21,000 people (most of them women) who produced more than 256 million pieces of munitions.
After stumbling onto this little-known episode of Canadian history in her own back yard, Scarborough, Ontario author Barbara Dickson spent a decade researching and writing Bomb Girls: Trading Aprons for Ammo which was released last year.
Once Dickson found out about some mysterious tunnels under some of Scarborough’s businesses, her writer’s curiosity led her down a path where she discovered the General Engineering Company (GECO, pronounced gee-ko) munitions plant. It took a decade to uncover the story because much of the historically-vital information has been lost. As a government-sponsored munitions factory, most of GECO’s paperwork was destroyed or deem classified when the factory was decommissioned in 1945.
Dickson’s patience and efforts make Bomb Girls a fascinating read.
Through painstaking research, Dickson was able to track down what remained of memos, letters and photos that are part of private collections. She was also able to connect with former employees, some of whom refused to share their story, feeling the oath of secrecy they took while working at GECO was just as valid today as it was during World War II.
Dickson’s patience and efforts have resulted in a fascinating read. I’ve been a Canadian history buff as long as I can remember, but I’d never heard of the GECO plant before seeing some of the promotional material for the book. Dickson’s experience as a writer (she’s also a novelist and journalist – which is where I connected with her) shines through. She deftly weaves the factual aspects of a military munitions factory with the personal stories of those whose daily lives revolved around making, what they thought, was a small contribution to the war effort.
Two aspects of the book disappointed me. The first was some repetition of facts, figures and quotes. While this was done to maintain the narrative and remind the reader of the importance of GECO’s work, I found it somewhat irritating
The other, which most people wouldn’t miss, was the lack of footnotes in the hard copy of the book. Dickson explains, in the book, that including the copious notes (the sign of a well-researched book) would have increased the book’s size and cost. Both she and the publisher (Dundurn) decided to post the notes online for those who wanted to reference them.
But those are minor points that shouldn’t detract from this wonderful look at a little-known episode in Canadian history. It’s well worth picking up and reading.
For more information on Bomb Girls: Trading Aprons for Ammo check http://www.barbaradickson.ca/
To listen to an interview with author Barb Dickson, tune in to Arts Connection Monday, January 11 at 9:30 p.m. ET on 94.3 Faith FM or listen to the simultaneous webcast at http://faithfm.org