Military Nurses of Canada


The 1885 North-West Campaign was the first time that nurses served in a military campaign in Canada. Since then, Canadian military nurses have contributed to the defence of Canada by playing a critical role in enhancing the health care provided to military troops during the South African War, two world wars, and other conflicts. Nursing Sisters, later Nursing Officers, first demonstrated their worth in a major conflict during the First World War. They showed courage and loyalty through skilled, compassionate nursing care to the sick and wounded, often working through difficult conditions, even under enemy fire. Indeed, in both world wars, hundreds of nursing sisters were decorated and dozens paid the ultimate price. Granted the relative rank of lieutenant in the Canadian forces in 1908, nursing sisters were the first women to receive military rank in Canada and indeed throughout the Commonwealth. They paved the way for the entrance of women into the armed forces in other capacities. Particularly after the First World War, their loyal service to the nation helped raise the status of nursing, allowing leaders to consolidate previous professional gains.

The earliest Canadian military nurses staffed two field hospitals in Saskatchewan during the North-West Campaign in 1885. Later, a small group of nurses served during the South African War as members of the British Expeditionary Force, and were accorded the relative rank of lieutenant in 1900 with the title, Nursing Sister. They were the first group of nurses to assume officer rank in the Commonwealth. The Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) was reorganized in 1904, establishing a formal nursing service. In 1908 Georgina Fane Pope (National Historic Person, 1983) was appointed matron. Despite unease regarding women’s inclusion in the all-male military and their exposure to wartime dangers, approximately 2,800 Nursing Sisters served during the First World War, about 75% of them overseas, often under difficult conditions. The rest served in military hospitals in Canada. These nurses helped to make this the first war in which casualties that made it to a hospital had an excellent chance of survival. In 1929, nursing sisters formed their own organization, the Overseas Nursing Sisters Association of Canada, later renamed the Nursing Sisters Association of Canada.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) provided all the nursing services. Later, separate nursing services were established for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1941 and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1942. Overall, 4,480 Nursing Sisters served, including 3,656 with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, 481 with the Royal Canadian Air Force Medical Branch, and 343 with the Royal Canadian Naval Medical Service. Continuing a trend begun in the First World War, nurses took on increasing responsibility and risk, serving close to combat zones in casualty clearing stations and on mobile surgical teams. They administered new techniques such as blood transfusions and antibiotic drugs. Some RCAF nurses learned to take part in air evacuation and para-rescue operations. Following the Second World War, the nursing service was cut back to a total of 80 nurses among the three services, with many nurses working in military hospitals in Canada, or with the Department of Veterans Affairs. A few nurses saw service in the Korean War as members of the Allied forces or serving with Canada’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. Hundreds of nursing sisters were decorated in both world wars, a few nursing sisters died while serving their country, and two were held prisoners of war by the Japanese in Hong Kong during the Second World War.

The first women to be accorded military rank in the Canadian forces, nurses paved the way for the entrance of women into the military in other capacities, having provided skilled, compassionate nursing care and demonstrated courage and loyalty under fire. As well, nursing sisters’ wartime service, particularly during the First World War, when the profession was still forming, added significantly to the status of nursing. By 1920, most provinces had passed nurse registration legislation, allowing nurses a new title, Registered Nurse (R.N.), and giving nursing leaders enhanced control over educational requirements for registered nurses. As well, the Red Cross funded five new university-based educational programs in public health, and in 1919, the first of many training programs affiliated with a university was launched at the University of British Columbia. Nurses also lobbied for and contributed to war remembrance, notably through the Canadian Nurses Association’s marble relief dedicated to military nurses and nurses in Canadian history, placed outside the Canadian Parliamentary Library in Ottawa.


Title of the Image: Canadian Nurses in May 1917
Source of the Image: Collections Canada, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3395829

Image Titled: Canadian Nurses in May 1917
Copyright: Collections Canada, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3395829  

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