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Canada’s Nursing Sisters

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Caregiving on the Front

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The Canadian Army Nurses:

Who Were They

At the dawn of World War I, the nursing profession was a sector of female professional employment that was expanding and becoming structured. Nurses represented only 2 percent of the female workforce as a whole — a negligible proportion. 7 But the profession was burgeoning, and training schools were being opened at a brisk pace. By 1921, the number of nurses had quadrupled. World War I seems to have played some role in the expansion of the profession through, among other things, the creation of the CANC.

Few official statistics exist on the subject. However, although the analysis of the various sources available on the careers of Canadian army nurses does not allow us to make hasty generalizations on the military nurses who served in World War I, it is possible to draw out some interesting information and discern trends characteristic of the group.8

Most Canadian military nurses were born in Canada or the British Isles; the majority had been brought up in cities, and they therefore had easier access to training than did their rural counterparts, as nursing schools were concentrated in urban centres. Most of them grew up in middle class milieus; their fathers were clergymen, physicians, accountants, or businessmen. They were generally better educated than the average among women at the time. Most had gone to high school, and some had even gone to university. A number had had paid work as governesses, teachers, or clerks before going to nursing school, which accepted applicants only aged 21 and over.

Some of the nurses in the CEF were trained in Canadian nursing schools; others, in Great Britain; a few had gone to the United States to study. Most joined the CANC soon after completing their training. In 1914, they were on average 24 years old.

At the beginning of the conflict, most nurses were sent to Europe, where convoys of nurses were posted until 1917. Many stayed until the hostilities ended. All were demobilized at the end of the war, and many got married and had children. However, a good number stayed single, not a common occurrence among women in general at the time. Among the single women, most returned to the labour market and worked in the health care sector, if not always as nurses.

Before the war, nurses recruited to serve in the Nurses Corps were chosen from among civilian nurses. They had to be single and in good health, and have a diploma in nursing from a recognized school. Once selected, the applicants went for four to six weeks of training at the Halifax military hospital to learn the rudiments of military nursing. They then took an oral and written examination, after which they were officially admitted to the CANC and received the rank of lieutenant, along with all the advantages of the rank: salary, leaves, retirement plan. However, their authority as officers was limited to the functions that they executed in the hospitals. They had no decisionmaking power at the military level, unlike medical officers. In addition, although they were lieutenants, they were known simply as "nursing sisters," a title reminiscent of the religious vocation with which caregiving tasks were often associated.

Of all the nurses on active duty during World War I, only the Canadian nurses were under the direct control of the army and held a military rank. In comparison, the British nursing services were affiliated with the army, but not integrated into it. The higher status accorded to the nursing profession in Canada than in Great Britain may explain, at least in part, this breach of tradition by the Canadian military authorities. Most Canadian nurses with diplomas had gone to high school, and in Canada, training in a nursing school was seen as a sign of prestige.9

Margaret MacDonald, who succeeded Fane Pope as matron-in-chief of the CANC, was quite critical of how members were recruited. The selection process, she felt, was an impediment to the rapid establishment of a large corps of nurses. To solve this problem, she suggested that the military nursing courses be given in various hospitals across Canada and that nurses be allowed to go to the soldiers' training camps to put into practice the military training that they had acquired, which differed, in her opinion, from training for civilian nursing. In addition, after applying pressure on the minister of defence, MacDonald went to Great Britain in 1911 to study the administration and organization of the British military nurses' corps, on which the Canadian corps was based. The goal of the trip was to learn the methods of British military nurses, who were more numerous and better organized, and import these methods to the Canadian corps so that it would operate more smoothly during armed conflicts.10 In spite of these efforts, in 1914, the CANC, like the rest of the CEF, was ill prepared for the challenges that awaited it. Nevertheless, the lack of organization did not mean a lack of human resources. Throughout the war, enlistment applications by nurses always surpassed the number of places available in the corps.


7 Statistics compiled from figures drawn from Department of Trade and Commerce (Census and Statistics Office) Fifth Census of Canada, 1911 (Ottawa: L Taché Printer, 1912).
8 This information was extracted from 25 interviews conducted with military nurses of the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1977 to 1979 by Margaret Allemang, as part of the Canadian Nursing Sisters of World War I Oral History Program (Toronto: University of Toronto, Faculty of Nursing, 1977 - 79).
9 Nicholson, Canada's Nursing Sisters, 52.
10 Ibid., 46.

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