A century ago, as nursing graduates proudly posed in their white dresses and perfectly starched caps, there was a uniformity to the image. With little exception, everyone was white.
In 1931, 99.8 per cent of Canadian graduate nurses identified as having British, French or European ancestry, Kathryn McPherson notes in Bedside Matters: The Transformation of Canadian Nursing, 1900-1990. The history professor at York University writes that the historical lack of diversity in the profession can be traced to immigration restrictions as well as racial discrimination from nursing schools — unwritten “colour bars” that came to light only when challenged. (In the 1931 census, Canadians with British, European and French ancestry accounted for 98.2 per cent of the population.)
Administrators would say that patients won’t be comfortable being treated by a Black nurse, or Indigenous nurses wouldn’t be able to manage the science, says McPherson, listing examples she has come across in her research. “There are all these racist things, and underlying it to some degree is a concern around the reputation of the profession being undercut,” she says. Since the days of Florence Nightingale, nursing was intertwined with notions of feminine respectability, and “there all these swirls of character and reputation always bubbling up,” she says.
While Chinese and Japanese Canadians were admitted in small numbers to Canadian nursing schools in the 1930s, the “formal exclusion” of Black and Indigenous nurses ended during and after the Second World War, she notes. Women’s College Hospital archivist Heather Gardiner has never seen any admission policies about race in the collection, but if there were any, they were likely unwritten: “You were encouraged to apply in person with your mother,” she says.
This Monday, the Women’s College Hospital school of nursing is having its final alumnae dinner. The first nurse graduated from Women’s College in 1917, and the last class affiliated with the hospital graduated in 1975. The first Chinese-Canadian nurse graduated from the college in 1923. The first Indigenous graduate followed in 1928, and the first Black woman graduated in 1951. These are their stories.
Agnes Chan: Sold in China by her parents
Ah Fung Chan was born in China around 1904. She was one of six sisters, and her parents, hoping that she would have a better life, sold her to a “more prominent” family when she was a girl. They knew the family — it was her father’s friend, and he promised to raise her as “kindly as one of his own,” according to Early Chinese Canadian Christian History, by Rev. Dr. Joyce Chan.
As she grew up, Chan was sold several times, including to a family in Victoria. She ran away to a missionary school called the Chinese Rescue Home after “unjust treatment.” She began to go by Agnes Chan.
Still in touch with her family in China, she learned that she now had a baby brother, but another sister had been sold. She wanted to help her family by sending money home, but a missionary charity in Toronto stepped in, and the sister was placed in the Wesleyan Methodist School for Girls in Fatshan, China.
The charity also helped Agnes enrol in nursing school at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, “as there were no hospitals in the West willing to receive a Chinese student,” Rev. Chan wrote.
“An appeal was then made to ours and she was allowed to register,” an undated note in the Women’s College Hospital archives reads.
Chan was an exceptional student, top in her class for obstetrics. She did postgraduate pediatric nursing in Detroit, and then returned to China to work at a missionary hospital.
Chan occasionally returned to Canada for nursing conventions. She was promoted to superintendent of nurses at the missionary hospital and during a time of political upheaval, she was “operating the hospital unaided for a year,” a note in the archives reads. She continued to stay in touch with Women’s College, informing her friends about her experiences during the Japanese occupation. The alumnae sent money to help out.
“I wish I had 10 pairs of hands and 24 hours to my days instead of 12,” Agnes wrote in one letter to an old Women’s College friend. “Much love to you and thank you for getting people interested in us.” Agnes Chan died in 1962.
Mabel Jones: Graduation threatened Indian status
Mabel Jones grew up in Cape Croker reserve on the shores of Georgian Bay. Her father, Chief Charles Kegedonce Jones, “petitioned the Indian agent” so his daughters could go to nursing school, says her granddaughter Shelley Charles, an elder of Chippewas of Georgina Island. Charles remembers the way her grandmother used to talk about that journey to nursing school by horse and then a steam train from Owen Sound.
When Mabel graduated in 1928, the achievement threatened her status.
“At that time the legislation said once you become a professional you were no longer an Aboriginal person in the eyes of the Indian Act,” Charles says. But she added that her grandmother kept her status because of her marriage to George Douglas Charles, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island.
By the 1930s, the couple had settled in Georgina Island, where Jones worked for the Victorian Order of Nurses for 40 years, and as a midwife to “a whole generation” of people.
“It was a very important role in the island community to have a nurse living there,” Shelley Charles says. She noted that her grandmother once held the record for being the person who didn’t leave the island for the longest stretch of time — she had a four-year stint without trips to shore.
When her husband got sick they moved to the Sutton area, where she volunteered at a hospital. When he died, she moved back to Cape Croker, where she looked after the community with a blend of western and Indigenous practices. In Cape Croker, her granddaughter Shelley Charles grew up watching her reset broken bones and scour the bush for plants to use in traditional healing.
“Professors from the University of Toronto would come up, and she’d take them into the bush to introduce them to the use of native plants,” she says, noting that the work was published in the Canadian Journal of Botany in 1979.
Mabel taught her granddaughter about harvesting medicine. She was very strict, but looking back, Charles understands that she was trying to impart foundational knowledge.
She was a proud nurse, meticulous with her uniform, and a “proud Indigenous woman.”
“She taught by the Indigenous way of working. You teach by doing, you learn by doing — preparing fish, pneumonia medicine, that’s how you learned. Those times were very quiet, that quiet learning space, we spent a lot of time like that together.”
Mabel died in 1983.
Agnes Clinton: ‘They said I was too tall’
When Agnes Clinton applied to nursing schools after the Second World War, she heard a lot of excuses.
“They said I was too tall, too big, would do better somewhere else, or some other excuse,” Clinton told the Toronto Telegram.
In an article in the Nursing History Review, Karen Flynn, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, details a similar story of another would-be nurse who requested an application to Toronto General Hospital in 1940, telling them she was “coloured.” According to the young woman’s father, she was told there were no vacancies. She wrote again using a variation of her name in Spanish, and left out the colour of her skin. This time, she was told to come in for an interview.
It was unlikely she went in for that interview, Flynn writes, seeing as her father wrote a letter to the Toronto Coloured Liberal Association, who took the case to the Ontario health ministry. Eventually, the registrar of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario became involved, saying it was necessary to consider the reaction of patients to student nurses. “ … there would no doubt be many protests from patients and doctors if colored nurses were introduced into the wards,” the registrar wrote, suggesting that training schools for “colored nurses” were “established in the U.S. for this reason.”
Flynn, who has done extensive research on Black Canadian and Caribbean nurses in her book Moving Beyond Borders: A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora, sees irony in the situation. This young woman, likely a descendant of people who found freedom in Canada, was told, decades later, “to go back to the U.S. for nursing school.”
In the 1940s, more women were entering the workforce during the war, and Canadian nursing schools were beginning to accept Black women “as a result of tremendous pressure from trade unions and church groups,” Joan Lesmond, past president of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, wrote in a 2006 issue of the Registered Nurse Journal. In 1944, the Canadian Nursing Association reaffirmed “its policy that there be no discrimination in selection of students for enrollment,” Kathryn McPherson writes, noting that change came slowly. “It was just a continuous challenge,” Flynn says.
Agnes Clinton was admitted to the Women’s College school of nursing in 1948. The Telegram said she was a favourite in a “close-knit” group of student nurses, a woman with a “ready smile” that brightened the ward and added “gaiety to the student get-togethers.”
The journalist remarked that “while a darker shade of skin seems a minor point it can be a formidable barrier requiring courage and tact and a sense of humour to scale.” Clinton said she had to work hard and “stick it out” even when discouraged. “I enjoy working with the patients, though sometimes a new (patient) will look at me rather oddly the first time or two.”
“Not wanting black hands on white bodies, that’s a constant,” says Flynn, “and having to deal with being rebuffed, that’s part of the reality.”
Clinton graduated in 1951, and she worked at Women’s College Hospital for a few years, before she became a public health nurse in East York. In 2001, the class of 1951 sent updates for the alumnae newsletter, summaries of nursing careers, travel, children and retirements. Clinton — by now Agnes Smith — had a particularly impressive resumé.
After 13 years in public health in Toronto, she went to Yale to study alcohol addiction, then to Detroit where she worked in public health, setting up a mobile medical team for homeless people. She worked at nursing homes, and a community mental health program that served people who were HIV-positive.
While most of her classmates had retired — 50 years after graduation — Agnes was working in a substance-abuse treatment facility, doing nursing assessments at intake.
“I know she loved it,” says Lena White, 89, who adds that her classmate was always very modest. “She did a lot more than I think we know … she was an advocate. That was Aggie.”
While it was common enough for nurses of the era to leave the profession to start families, many Black nurses continued to work, Flynn says. “Leaving nursing was not an option,” she says. “It’s almost this idea of once a nurse always a nurse.”
Clinton lived in Detroit and came for class reunions when she could. She was a private person, but a lot of fun — and always told a good story, White says. She died around 10 years ago.
“We all loved her,” White says. “She was part of us.”
Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs