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Allisonian Firsts: Sheila Hellstrom

A virtual exhibition celebrating the bold Allisonians who became the "firsts" in their field.

Sheila Hellstrom

First female regular force member to achieve the rank of brigadier-general, 1987

Graduation portrait of Sheila Hellstrom.

Sheila Hellstrom, 1956

Taken from the 1956 Allisonian yearbook. May only be reproduced with permission of the Mount Allison University Archives.

Sheila Hellstrom was born on 15 January 1935 in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. She was the daughter of Albinus Hellstrom and Dorothy (Zinck). Her interest in the military began during the Second World War after hearing stories from Norwegian sailors who visited the family home from Camp Norway, a military training base in Lunenburg. She graduated from Lunenburg County Academy in 1953 and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) University Reserve Training Plan at Mount Allison University the following year. She earned a Bachelor of Science in biology and chemistry in 1956.

She was promoted to the rank of flying officer and began her military career as a station services officer in Gimli, Manitoba. She became a flight lieutenant in 1962, and completed numerous postings and assignments, serving as a personnel administrations officer in Toronto, Montreal, St. Hubert, North Bay, and Ottawa. 

In 1973 she became the first military woman to attend the Canadian Forces Staff College in Toronto, Ontario. Hellstrom was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1976 and colonel in 1983. She became the Deputy Director Women Personnel and supported and monitored the Service Women in Non-Traditional Employment and Roles (SWINTER) trials. When the Department of National Defence's Charter Task Force attempted to challenge the equity provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Hellstrom was appointed as the acting director-general conditions of service in 1985. In 1986, Hellstrom served as the advisor for the Administration Branch until posted to National Defence College Kingston.

On January 27, 1987, Hellstorm became the first woman in the regular force to achieve the rank of Brigadier-General and assumed the role of Director General for personnel. From 1987 to 1989 BG Hellstrom was Chair of the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces. In 1989, Mount Allison University granted her an Honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD).

After her military retirement in 1990, Hellstrom continued to champion the recruitment and full integration of women in the military by serving on the Minister of National Defence's Monitoring Committee on Change until 1994. She also worked and volunteered for many government and local agencies, including the Ottawa Division, Canadian Corps of Commissionaires and the Ottawa Police Services Board for women in police services, race relations and employment equity issues. She was an active and proud member of the Canadian Nordic Society and an avid traveller. Throughout her career and life, Hellstrom demonstrated an unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion. She died on 7 December 2020 in Ottawa, Ontario.