A life celebrated – Brigadier-General (retd) Sheila Hellstrom

News Article / November 22, 2021

By 12 Wing Public Affairs 

On October 16, 2021 family, friends, members of the community, retired and current military members gathered on a misty afternoon at Hillcrest Cemetery in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, to pay tribute to Bridgadier-General (retired) Sheila Hellstrom, a remarkable trailblazer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

BGen Hellstrom died in December 2020 at the age of 85. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her interments took place at both the National Military Cemetery at Beechwood in Ottawa in September and in her hometown of Lunenburg in October.

During the Ottawa interment, Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff Lieutenant-General Frances Allen gave the eulogy. “I lament that I never had the privilege of meeting Sheila in person … but I’m profoundly moved by her clear commitment to the military and its timeless tradition of service before self. She was compelled to push the institution and its people to continually grow and evolve. She did not demand perfection, but supported and inspired our organization to do better. To be better.” 

In Lunenburg, with the gold, red, and orange trees of the surrounding countryside as the backdrop, a flag party from the Legion, and Pastor Rick Pryce of the Zion Lutheran Church officiating, the service recognized BGen Hellstrom’s many achievements. Of those, she was the first woman posted to 2 Canadian Forces Technical Services Agency Montreal in 1969 and the first woman to attend the Canadian Forces Staff College in 1973. She was also remembered as a great leader and the first Canadian woman, in 1987, to achieve the rank of Brigadier-General. 

During the service, Pastor Pryce read a note from Beth Swarbrigg, the senior advancement officer for Mount Allison University—BGen Hellstrom’s alma mater—at the gravesite. 

“Following a long history of extraordinary female graduates, Sheila broke so many barriers and successfully challenged out-dated ways of thinking,” she said. “We hope in some way influenced by her time at Mount A. Awarding Sheila with an Honorary Degree as part of our sesquicentennial celebrations seemed a fitting tribute, and will ensure her legacy is not forgotten on campus.” 

The service ended with attendees laying flowers on the grave, followed by a 14 Wing Greenwood CP-140 Aurora flyby. Aurora pilot Captain Mary Cameron-Kelly was on hand to coordinate timings from the event and Captain Vicki Connors was the aircraft commander in the cockpit. With the graveside tribute complete, Colonel (retired) Cheryl Lamerson invited people up the hill to the Lunenburg Academy—BGen Hellstrom’s childhood school.

During the reception, Col Lamerson—sporting a Royal Canadian Air Force tartan scarf—thanked everyone for coming and invited attendees to tell a story about the Sheila they knew. To get the ball rolling, she went first.

“After I moved to Lunenburg, I ended up in the newspaper for something and she called me. ‘I just wanted to say hi and say I saw your name in the newspaper,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you moved to my hometown.’ Col Lamerson said she was surprised, before finding out BGen Hellstrom had maintained her subscription to the Lunenburg newspaper for 65 years.

“I was doing research on women,” said Col Lamerson about working with BGen Hellstrom in Ottawa in the 1980s. The study was the coined the SWINTER Trials, looking at Servicewomen in Non-Traditional Environments and Roles. It was during that time, and based on that research, the Canadian Forces implemented women in all non-traditional roles in the military. She has great memories of the work. “BGen Hellstrom would offer her experience. She would offer her knowledge.”

This work enabled Lieutenant-Colonel (retd) Karen McCrimmon to enrol as an air navigator and become the first woman to earn the official aircrew qualification. She then went on to be Canada’s first woman to command a Canadian Forces flying squadron at 429 Transport Squadron in 1998.

“Leadership is about service,” said LCol McCrimmon. “She saw herself as a servant for others. She helped others to be the best version of themselves. That’s what leaders do. They inspire. They build people up.”

Major (retd) Karen Breeck spoke to the efforts of preserving BGen Hellstrom’s legacy. Maj Breeck was a neighbour and a friend who would often check in on her. “She was fiercely independent.” After her death, Maj Breeck put a call out for volunteers. “There is a group helping secure Sheila’s estate, we are mostly retired RCAF women veterans. We just came together and shared in the work to make it all happen.”

Together they’ve made arrangements with the air force museums and other museums across the country to benefit from Sheila’s forethought to keep so many of her uniforms and other military related materials. She says all the museums have given her feedback that they are actively interested for military women artifacts, something that BGen Hellstrom’s estate is full of after a 36-year career of successfully breaking barriers.

The Canadian Aviation and Space Museum will someday soon feature BGen Hellstrom as part of a Cold War exhibit and a gender integration exhibit. But it’s a learning curve for the group: archiving is specific process that can take a lot of time and energy to organize. Especially for Library Archives Canada, and organization that takes only paper—or 2D--artifacts, which must ideally be digitized ahead of donations to allow for future researchers’ ease of access.

“Part of my time has been spent looking at over 4000 slides and 17 photo albums,” said Maj Breeck. “I know without question from doing that, that BGen Hellstrom loved Nova Scotia in general but Lunenburg in specific. She kept all the Academy school reunion photos. She cared deeply and encouraged people to excel, especially women.”

This resonated with everyone in attendance, even those who had never met the trailblazer.

“We need to know where we came from in order to know where we are going,” said Captain Heather Constantine, the 12 Wing Shearwater deputy administrative officer. “We are so grateful for BGen Hellstrom leading the way so many years ago.”

Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, Commander Royal Canadian Air Force, also recognized the need to preserve BGen Hellstrom’s legacy. In his address at the Ottawa funeral, he said, “the courage and dedication she poured into our military institution should be studied, as her efforts demonstrate profoundly that in order to create a better future, leaders need to forge ahead and break down barriers no matter how hard it may be to do so.”

Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Alex Morrison spoke during the Lunenburg reception, introducing himself as a fellow graduate of Mount Allison University. He lauded not only her achievements but her commitment to the people and places that helped her along the way.

“That is why Mount Allison is so proud of her,” he said. “We will continue to dine out on stories of her accomplishments for years to come.” He asked those in attendance to continue to use the title she earned: Brigadier-General Sheila Hellstrom.

“Don’t forget what this woman achieved. Don’t forget the foundation she built,” he said. “She deserves to be remembered that way. We are very proud.”

Proud of her achievements and proud to have known her. Those two very distinctive sentiments were evident throughout the afternoon on October 16.

“That type of service, that type of commitment is what we need more of today,” said LCol McCrimmon. “I met her a few times. Yes, I am one of the lucky ones. BGen Hellstrom provided leadership her entire life. She led the country to a better and more equitable place. Her legacy will not stop today.”

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