Like boot camp, training as a nurse in the 1960s: Margaret Ethier

Margaret Ethier was the President of the United Nurses of Alberta from 1980 to 1988.

I actually thought about being a doctor. This was in the '50s. I really didn't know what nurses or doctors did anyway except from reading books. But I wouldn't have had the money to go to university. The nursing school I selected, at that time most of the nursing schools were hospital based. They had a training program. You studied a little bit and worked on the floor. In fact, they counted on the nursing students for staff. In fact I think that's what quite a bit of the change was with being short staffed, was that when the nursing students eventually started going into university and colleges, they weren't there as workers. That made quite a crunch on the health care system.

I chose the Nova Scotia hospital, which was a mental hospital. It would be like the Alberta Hospital here. I chose that because they paid you a stipend, maybe $50 a month or something. The other ones didn't pay you, but they weren't like now where you had to pay a tuition to go in. I guess they recognized the fact that they needed the students to do the work. The usual complement of a floor at that time, even at the VG which is where we affiliated in Halifax, the big general hospital, the complement would be two RNs. One would be the head nurse, the other was the assistant head. One of them worked the weekend and the other one had the weekend off. The rest of the staff was students, as well as some licensed practical nurses. Then on evenings, when you were a junior student you were in charge on nights. When you were an intermediate student, which would be the 2 nd year, you're in charge on evenings. Then in your third year you could be...So that's how they worked it. You worked as staff, and depending on what year you were in, you'd also be in charge on evenings and nights. But that was a mental hospital. That's what I went into. Because of the money. Because they paid you to go there. I didn't have any money. It wasn't that much, but they gave you free room and board plus $50 or $60 a month.

I went in to training in 1960. I'd finished my schooling, grade 11 anyway, in '57 or '58. Worked for a year and went into nursing...

They had locked wards. They would take the students on a tour of the hospital. I'm sure they liked to do that. They liked to scare us. Hi Jenny, how are you? It was, screw you, I'll kill you, and all this. It was like One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. A lot of that stuff was true. The wards were all locked. We didn't have any open wards...

They locked them all up. They were just going into psychiatric drugs at that time. It was a changeover going from the '50s to the '60s. They still had a lot of these treatments, like for schizophrenics where they'd give them a high dose of insulin and put them into insulin shock and let them sleep. The things they did. There was a lot of electrical shock. They had a whole ward for that. We had the isolation rooms, all of that. You locked them up until they smartened up.

What I remember is that the nursing model was based on a military model. ...The attitude there was we were kind of the lowest of the low. You had 3 levels. There was the probie, the probationer that had 6 months. You were nothing. They would be what is termed abusive to you now, which pretty well they are in military training too. You'd be walking along and they'd say, How are you today Ms. Woodberry? Fine. You're going to work? Ya. Do you notice anything untoward about your appearance? What do you see there? What's wrong with those shoes? You are given a stipend at this hospital, are you not? And how much is that? And how much does shoe polish cost? We were scared to death. I never learned anything till I graduated, to be truthful. I was scared to death of my instructors all the time.

Remember we were only 17 years old. We had a lot of energy, though. So anyway, you were asking about the attitudes. We lived in a dormitory. The attitude of the military, as I was saying, is that the lowest of the low was a probie. After 6 months you got your cap, then you became junior, which was a step up. Then there was the intermediate. We opened the doors. We stood for any level above us. We did not go in the door first. You opened the door for the juniors, etc.

They didn't have people to supervise what you did. They were just interested in supervising like if there was a catheterization to be done somewhere, or a dressing. Because we didn't have that many as a medical floor. But the rest of the time we just basically worked, we were the staff there. It was kind of fun. It was hard work, but it was fun. But it really was training. It was kind of like boot camp, so you got together and became a cohesive group as you moved through your years.

We weren't allowed to make mistakes. Now you can make a mistake and you get a warning. You'd be out of there. In that probation year you had to make 75% or something. They'd say, look around you, this is how many is in your class. There'll only be half left. They liked to scare the hell out of the new people.

Thank you to the Alberta Labour History Institute for use of this interview.