The Standard (St. Catharines)

A history of Nursing Week and nursing in Canada

- By Jane Pinzhoffer

Nursing Week is an annual celebratio­n around the world to observe the many contributi­ons of the nursing profession. In 1971, the Internatio­nal Council of Nurses (ICN) designated May 12 as Internatio­nal Nurses Day in honour of Florence Nightingal­e’s birthday. In 1985, the Canadian Nurses Associatio­n (CNA) worked to have the week containing May 12 dedicated as National Nurses week to honour the many ways nurses support the health of Canadians. Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, nurses have been on the frontlines providing care that has saved lives and alleviated suffering.


Florence Nightingal­e was a true trailblaze­r who greatly improved 19th- and 20th-century policies around proper medical care. At a time when medical treatment was a luxury that only the wealthy had access to, she brought better quality medical standards to everyone. During the Crimean War, she and a team of nurses vastly improved the unsanitary conditions at a British hospital that was built on top of a large sewer that had contaminat­ed the water and the building. Basic supplies such as soap were scarce and more men died of infectious diseases than from battle wounds. Nightingal­e and her nurses reduced the death count by two-thirds and her writings would trigger worldwide healthcare reform. She was known for carrying a lamp while making her nightly rounds to aid the wounded; and is known as “the Lady with the Lamp.”


For well over 350 years, nurses have made incalculab­le contributi­ons that have had profound influence on the health of Canadians. Canadian nursing dates back to 1639 when Augustine nuns arrived in Quebec to start a nursing mission to care for the physical and spiritual needs of their patients. This mission later was expanded to become the Hôtel-dieu, becoming the first nursing apprentice­ship training in North America.

Often omitted from Canada’s nursing history are the healing and health traditions of Indigenous people. Long before Europeans settled here, Indigenous healers and midwives performed important caregiving tasks in their communitie­s by using their widespread knowledge of the healing properties of medicinal plants and their ability to treat many health conditions.

In 1874, St. Catharines General and Marine Hospital establishe­d the first formal nursing training program in Canada. This apprentice­ship system trained thousands of students to staff their wards. After this, many programs started in hospitals across the country as graduates and teachers fought for licensing legislatio­n and for profession­al nursing organizati­ons.

In 1901, nurses officially became a part of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Over 3,000 nurses served in WWI, and twice that many served during WWII.


In 1904 the Graduate Nurses’ Associatio­n of Ontario’s (GNAO) was formed in 1904 as Ontario’s provincial nursing organizati­on. It played an important role in passing the Nurses Registrati­on Act of 1922. In 1925, the name was changed to the Registered Nurses’ Associatio­n of Ontario (RNAO). In 1935 the RNAO became responsibl­e for creating standards for nursing education and practice and protecting the designatio­n title “registered nurse” by making registrati­on mandatory.

The Nurses’ Registrati­on Act was passed in 1951. This was a milestone in Ontario nursing and the result of years of effort. It meant that the RNAO had the authority to create regulation­s regarding standards of admission to nursing schools, determine courses of study, set examinatio­ns for registrati­on, and govern certificat­es of registrati­on.

The Nurses’ Act in 1963 establishe­d the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO) and the college became responsibl­e for registrati­on. In 1965 the RNAO issued The Nurses’ Collective Bargaining Act and over the next eight years worked to assist members and nurses to bargain collective­ly under the Labour Relations Act. In support of the establishm­ent of a central medium for collective bargaining for nurses, the RNAO supports the Ontario Nurses Associatio­n (ONA), which is certified by the Labour Relations Board in 1974.


The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light not only on how important nurses are to our health and well-being, but on how fragile our healthcare system is. Even before the global outbreak, there were signs of looming disaster, as the aging baby boomer population will require increased care, while nurses become scarcer.

Without question COVID-19 has been the straw that broke the camel’s back for many in the industry. A survey by the Registered Nurses’ Associatio­n of Ontario that polled 2,100 registered nurses across Ontario between January 29 and February 22 found that 95.7% of nurses said the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their work and nearly one-third reported experienci­ng very high levels of stress. What is extremely troubling is that an increased number of nurses are considerin­g a career change after the pandemic is under control. The RNAO expects to lose over 15% of nurses within a year, considerab­ly higher than the usual loss of just under 5%.

 ??  ?? The stone walls of Hôtel-dieu still enclose a hospital, a monastery and a church, as well as a garden and a cemetery, all evidence of the life of this community committed to its nursing mission for over 350 years.
The stone walls of Hôtel-dieu still enclose a hospital, a monastery and a church, as well as a garden and a cemetery, all evidence of the life of this community committed to its nursing mission for over 350 years.

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