Forgotten veterans

Canada's Nursing Sisters finally tell their war stories

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:20:36 PM

During the Second World War, 4,000 women served as nurses in the Canadian army overseas. Their courage and dedication was fundamental to the war effort, yet, their stories remain mostly untold.

“Not many Canadians realize these women were enlisted officers,” says nursing professor Cynthia Toman of the University of Ottawa. “The majority worked overseas, in casualty clearing stations and in surgical units that were often under enemy fire. Only about 25 per cent cared for new recruits and soldiers returning to Canada.”

Toman’s research into war-time nursing is shedding new light on the contributions of the women known as Canada’s Nursing Sisters, and will help us understand the impact they had on both the war effort and the evolution of their profession.

“At that point in history, only unmarried women were allowed to be nurses,” explains Toman. “And after the war almost 70 per cent stopped nursing because they got married, had experienced too much trauma, or simply did not want to return to hospitals where they would have less authority than they did on the battlefield.”

This mass, and often forced, retirement had a vital impact on nursing in Canada.

“The shortage of nurses after the war,” she explains, “led to important changes within the profession, such as permitting married nurses to practise, allowing more flexible work hours, and reducing the number of hours worked in a day.”

Yet, during interviews with veteran nurses, Toman found that many had never talked about their war-time experiences, not even with their own families.

“Their stories have been untold for far too long,” she says. “At one point during the war, more than 8,000 women were on a waiting list because so many wanted to serve.”

Toman says she hopes her work will help shed light on the lives of these little-known veterans, and encourage Canadians to honour their bravery and contribution to both the war and equality within the profession.

Cynthia Toman’s research on wartime nursing was supported through SSHRC’s doctoral fellowships program. She is currently working on an exhibit on the history of nursing which is to open at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in June 2005.