Canadian Nursing History Collection Online Medal - 2000.111.102 - CD2004-0369 / D2004-6127
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A Brief History of Nursing in Canada from the Establishment of New France to the Present

For over 350 years, nurses have had a profound effect on the quality of Canadian life. Nurses were fundamental to the development of New France. The Augustine nuns, who arrived in Quebec in 1639 to establish a medical mission that was expanded to become the Hôtel-Dieu [e.g. graduation pin 2000.111.123], cared for both the spiritual and physical needs of their patients and introduced the first nursing apprenticeship training in North America.

School Pin - 2000.111.123 - CD2001-62-021 School Pin - 2000.111.186 - CD2001-64-046 Cape - 2000.111.381 - CD2001-379-021
CMC 2000.111.123 CMC 2000.111.186 CMC 2000.111.381

During the nineteenth century, Catholic orders, such as the Grey Nuns [e.g. graduation pin 2000.111.186; uniform cape 2000.111.381], and those from other denominations, such as Anglican and Mennonite, recognized the need for health care for frontier settlers and carried their medical missions across Canada.

In early English Canada, the task of nursing, including midwifery, often fell to female family members, with the occasional consultation by a physician. The few hospitals that existed employed working-class women who provided the mostly indigent patients with rudimentary bedside care.

By the late nineteenth century, hospital care and medical services had been expanded and improved for a growing population. At the same time, Florence Nightingale [photograph 2000.111.424] was developing a system to train middle-class women in nursing, which served as a model, particularly in English Canada.

Florence Nightingale - 2000.111.424 - CD2001-380-012 Cap - 2000.111.403 - CD2001-379-039 Pin - 2000.111.240 - CD2001-65-054
CMC 2000.111.424 CMC 2000.111.403 CMC 2000.111.240

The first formal nurse training programme based on the hospital apprenticeship model was established in 1874 at the General and Marine Hospital in St. Catharines, Ontario [e.g. nurse's cap 2000.111.403; graduation pin 2000.111.240], spawning a proliferation of schools in every major hospital across Canada.

The graduates and teachers of these schools turned their attention to the professionalization of nursing by lobbying for licensing legislation and establishing professional organizations (notably the CNA [e.g. commemorative pin 2000.111.18] ), professional journals (notably the Canadian Nurse) and university training for nurses [e.g. graduation pins 2000.111.267; 2000.111.13] (starting with the University of British Columbia in 1918 [e.g. graduation pin 2000.111.175] ). With higher education, nurses' responsibilities expanded. By the 1960s, hospital nursing had become increasingly scientific [e.g. syringe case 2000.111.117.1; syringe 2000.111.117.2 a-g] and specialized.

Pin - 2000.111.18 - CD2001-063-008 School Pin - 2000.111.175 - CD2001-64-024 School Pin - 2000.111.267 - CD2001-69-008
CMC 2000.111.18 CMC 2000.111.175 CMC 2000.111.267

School Pin - 2000.111.13 - CD2001-60-098 Syringe Kit - 2000.111.117.1 and .2 a-g - CD2001-62-009
CMC 2000.111.13 CMC 2000.111.117.1
CMC 2000.111.117.2 a-g

The first nursing sisters to serve officially with the Canadian military were the volunteers who helped the wounded in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. In 1899, 1900 and 1902, small contingents of Canadian nurses were sent to South Africa to care for the sick and wounded in the South African War (Boer War).

In 1901, nurses officially became a component of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, with nursing sisters Georgina Fane Pope and Margaret Clothilde Macdonald being appointed as the first full-time Canadian military nurses [e.g. medal sets 20020108-001; 20000105-049] in 1906. Over 3,000 nursing sisters served in the First World War, and twice that number served during the Second World War. Military nurses continue to serve during peacetime and in peacekeeping activities.

Medals - 20020108-001
CWM 20020108-001

Medals - 20000105-049 - CD2001-311-003
CWM 20000105-049

In the early twentieth century, nursing programmes were established for the prevention of disease and for public health education [e.g. graduation pin 2000.111.214]. Initially involved in the control of epidemics and maternal care, public health nursing [e.g. nurse's kit 2000.111.494.1] expanded into the community and schools with programmes in sanitation, vaccinations, mental health and well-baby clinics.

School Pin - 2000.111.214 - CD2001-65-002 Nurse's Kit - 2000.111.494.1 - CD2001-381-007 Pin - 2000.111.54 - CD2001-63-074
CMC 2000.111.214 CMC 2000.111.494.1 CMC 2000.111.54

Home and maternity care were provided for by many organizations, most notably the Victorian Order of Nurses [e.g. pin 2000.111.54]. This unique Canadian organization was established in 1897 by Lady Aberdeen, who was the wife of the Governor General of Canada and President of the National Council of Women.

In the 1920s, the public health movement turned its attention to the needs of Aboriginal communities and new settlers in remote parts of Canada. The Canadian Red Cross, for example, established a series of outpost nursing stations in the North and other remote parts of Canada.

In the 1930s, the Quebec government established an outpost project to supply nursing services to new districts colonized during the Depression. The infirmières de colonie dispensed medicines and attended to the needs of the settlers, as portrayed in the popular television series, Blanche. Outpost nurses worked under harsh frontier conditions, dealing with childbirth, emergencies and accidents, at times without the help of a physician (Lillian Stevenson Nursing Archives and Museum).

After the Second World War, the nature of nursing changed considerably with the expansion of the health-care system and, in 1968, with the introduction of medicare. In an effort to meet the nursing shortage, nursing schools expanded and programmes for nursing assistants [e.g. nurse's cap 1999.267.166] were introduced. Nursing became yet more scientific and specialized, particularly in areas such as critical care and neonatal care. For the first time, visible minorities and men were encouraged to enter the profession. In the 1970s, nurses turned to organized labour [e.g. commemorative pins 2000.111.74; 2000.111.73] to improve their working conditions and salaries.

Cap - 1999.267.166 - CD2001-158-071 Pin - 2000.111.74 - CD2001-61-015 Pin - 2000.111.73 - CD2001-61-013
CMC 1999.267.166 CMC 2000.111.74 CMC 2000.111.73

Today, there are 265,000 nurses in Canada providing health care in a variety of hospital, community and home settings, from major cities to isolated areas. Important elements in the current crisis in health care are the scarcity and working conditions of nurses in an environment where the population is ageing and requiring greater nursing care.


Medal - 2000.111.102 - CD2004-0369 / D2004-6127