The first European nurses: the Grey Nuns Come to Alberta

The only concession they made to the climate and the terrain was that they wore moccasins under their habits. They walked beside the oxen for fifty-two days, from St. Boniface to Lac Ste. Anne, fifty miles beyond Edmonton--a journey that today takes twelve hours by train.

It was 1859 and a call had gone out from the mission at Lac Ste. Anne for Grey Nuns to come and begin missionary and hospital work among the Indians. Indian medicine still held sway in Rupert's Land. Midwifery, "summer complaints" and war wounds were all treated with herbs and plants, methods handed down from generation to generation. However, 1859 was also the year that Florence Nightingale published her Notes on Nursing, designed mostly to help mothers of sick children.  It was a departure from what was usually understood of the term “nursing.”  Change was on the way.

More Grey Nuns arrived in Rupert's Land in 1862, this time in St. Albert, and had soon built a hospital, an orphanage and a school. Less than ten years later they were dealing with a smallpox epidemic that decimated the community and the surrounding aboriginal communities - two thirds of the population caught the disease and half of those who were infected died. The following year a Board of Health was set up for the new North West Territories (no longer Rupert's Land) and, with the arrival in Fort Macleod of the North West Mounted Police the first lay hospital was established in 1874.

These early nurses didn't just nurse--they ran orphanages, they taught school, they kept a very important garden, and, in between all the other jobs, they cleaned all of the buildings. In Fort Chipewyan where they arrived in 1874, three sisters lived on the second floor of the shed that also housed the school, where they and the volunteer worker took turns sleeping on one pallet. They still did all the work of nursing, teaching and providing food for their charges. The Grey Nuns continued to serve the community of Fort Chipewyan until 1993.
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