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VON and VAD

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Several factors made the need for nurses very high in the early 20th century. Firstly, there was a great demand for nurses in rural areas. Many of these areas had not yet developed hospitals or attracted local doctors, so having a nurse was the first step towards attaining health care. Women also experienced major obstacles to safe birthing due to the lack of trained doctors, nurses and midwives. There was also the problem of travelling long distances, poor living conditions and women's own limited knowledge of the birth process.  With no access or knowledge to birth control, many women had large families in a short time period and spent most of their taking care of their infants. Homesteading women were at the greatest risk to die from complications from repeated childbirths, due to their enormous workloads and poor living and working conditions. 

 

Many women's organization lobbied government to send nurses to these areas. In fact, this was the main goal and purpose of one such organization called the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). The VON was founded in 1897 by the National Council of Women of Canada. It called on mature and "practical" women from the West to join its ranks, train for one year in midwifery, housewifery and simple nursing (they actually did not learn as much nursing as those who attended the nursing schools) and then move to remote rural areas in Western Canada where they would help local women. The VON wished to reduce the high rates of infant and mother mortality during childbirth, but it also wished to introduce middle-class standards of hygiene and respectability to the poorer areas of Canada. VON nurses were also to act as role models to lower class women.

Secondly, WWI increased the demand for nurses. After Canada entered the war on August 14, 1914, Canadians were encouraged to "do their bit" for the war effort. Women could not take up arms, but they could join the army as nurses in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and serve their country in hospitals overseas. The majority of women who joined the VAD were young, single, middle to upper class, Anglo-Protestant and financially secure so that they could volunteer their services without the promise of pay. Most were not trained nurses before the war, but many continued on to be afterwards. Along with the desire to contribute to the war effort, many found the opportunity to travel and work for an international cause exciting. Of course, for many, the realities of trench warfare soon changed their perspective. Another impact of WWI was the influenza epidemic, a virus that many soldiers brought back with them from the trenches when they returned home. Many communities in Alberta, as well as in the rest of Canada, suffered and died from the illnesses. The epidemic thus increased the demand on nursing schools to produce more graduates and on government to send these nurses throughout the province.

 
Sources:

  • Boutilier, Beverly.  "Nursing Nation Builders: The Council Idea," Western Women, and the Founding of the Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada, 1896-1900."  Telling Tales.  Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.
     

  • Byfield, Ted.  Ed.  Alberta in the 20th Century.  Vol. 2.  Edmonton: United Western Communications, 1992.
     

  • McPherson, Kathryn.  " 'The Country is a Stern Nurse': Rural Women, Urban Hospitals and the Creation of a Western Canadian Nursing Work Force, 1920-1940." ?
     

  • Quiney, Linda J.  " 'Hardly Feminine Work!' Violet Wilson and the Canadian Voluntary Detachment Nurses of the First World War."  Framing Our Past.  Eds. Sharon Cook, et al.  Montreal: McGill University Press, 2001.

 

  
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