1930

Depression and Military

The 1930s: Facing the Depression

The Depression hit in the 1930s and like many Albertans, registered nurses lost their jobs. AARN stepped up with a number of measures to help: registration fees were lowered, scholarships provided and a mutual benefit and loan fund was established. In the absence of enough full-time positions, the association encouraged the public to hire nurses on an hourly or part-time basis. In 1932, the government released the “Survey of Nursing Education in Canada”, also known as the Weir Report, which triggered significant changes in the profession. Among other things, it led to the closing of small hospital schools, the raising of entrance requirements for nursing schools and the start of a central registry for nurses.

WWII: A Time of Courage and Growth

When Canada declared war on Germany in 1939, many nurses stepped up to serve their country. While nurses during this period are often referred to as “nursing sisters”, they were not associated with a religious order. Women eligible to serve had to graduate from nursing school, register in their home-province’s nurses’ association and be unmarried or widowed without children. All of them were commissioned officers, a position of authority in the military.

Women surrounding table making dressings in Normandy, France in 1944

Frances Sutherland Ferguson

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The long trip overseas was rough and we weathered many storms and travelled in convoy.”

Frances Sutherland Ferguson

Many of the nursing sisters treated casualties in Canadian military hospitals set up in England. This work exposed them to progressive new techniques like burn therapy, intravenous therapy, musculoskeletal reconstruction, and blood transfusions. The skills and stamina of the nurses were constantly put to the test. One of the most rigorous and intense days occurred in 1942 when the Battle of Dieppe resulted in over 600 casualties, with as many as 95 operations performed in a single day.

Irene Greenwood Henderson

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We filled rapidly with casualties of many kinds.”

Irene Greenwood Henderson

Nursing sisters also served in the Battle of the Atlantic, helping to staff the Lady Nelson and the Letitia hospital ships. Once the Allies landed in Italy, five Canadian hospitals were set up. The 1st Canadian Corps also had two casualty clearing stations that followed assault troops to provide medical services. Nursing sisters at the No. 4 Station received over 2,000 casualties and assisted in 760 surgeries in December of 1943. After the fall of Rome, the Canadian military transferred to France. In 1944, after D-Day, many nursing sisters were stationed near the front lines. Wounded soldiers would usually arrive after dark and be treated throughout the night. After a few days, those who were well enough would be transferred to England.

Frances Sutherland Ferguson

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Work – work – work – lots of it as long as there was daylight, and we were on a one-way route for night admissions in emergencies.”

Frances Sutherland Ferguson

Irene Greenwood Henderson

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We had three wards of very severely wounded men; one was mostly head injuries, another chest, both had amputees, too.”

Irene Greenwood Henderson

Nurses on railing of a hospital ship

Nursing Shortage

While the AARN supported the work of the nursing sisters overseas by waiving the registration fees for those on active service, they faced a shortage of nurses at home. This was partially due to the number of nurses serving in the war, but also because the war opened up many new employment opportunities for women. The AARN addressed the shortage through a nursing recruitment campaign in 1943. Members gave presentations to high schools and arranged financial assistance for nursing education for students who required it. They also set up a committee to examine the new position of ward aid to assist with the shortage of registered nurses. The creation of the position was one of the first instances of adding a nursing assistant with a different set of qualifications, to the health-care delivery team.

In 1941, the AARN formed the eight-hour day committee to address salaries and working conditions for nurses and students. It was designed not only to improve working conditions, but also to encourage more people to take up nursing by changing the public perception of nursing as hard work with little reward. Since its beginnings, the AARN had lobbied to improve working conditions and continued to do so until the early 1970s when a Supreme Court decision prohibited professional associations to engage in collective bargaining.

AARN Nursing Education cmte 1947

Military Nursing Today

Now called nursing officers, military nurses continue to work alongside and care for members of the Canadian Forces today. More recently, nursing officers have served with troops in the Gulf War, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Somalia and Afghanistan, as well as here at home.