Women have cared for wounded soldiers throughout Canada's wartime history. "Nursing sisters" carried out official duties with the military during the North West Rebellion, the South African War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War. Dozens died from enemy action and disease during their service.
Until the North West Rebellion of 1885, women who cared for soldiers wounded in war received no official military recognition. That changed when armed rebellion broke out in western Canada in 1885. Hannah Grier Coome, mother founder of the Sisterhood of St John the Divine in Toronto and Kate Miller, head nurse at the Winnipeg General Hospital, were asked by the surgeon general of the Canadian Militia to arrange for the care of the wounded in Saskatchewan.
During the South African War (1899–1902), women volunteering for nursing service were sent overseas under Georgina Pope, to serve with the British Medical Staff Corps as nursing sisters. A total of 12 women went to South Africa for three periods of time. The third group sent in 1902 were granted the relative rank of lieutenant in the British military forces in South Africa.
Although called nursing sisters, not all the nurses were members of religious nursing orders.
In the First World War (1914–1918) 2,845 nursing sisters with officer rank – members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) — served in Canada, England, France, Belgium, Russia, and around the Mediterranean. Nicknamed the "bluebirds" by soldiers grateful for a glimpse of their blue dresses and white veils, they received many honours and gained a high reputation for their courage and compassion. Fifty-three lost their lives while on active duty, victims of either enemy attack or disease contracted from patients.
During the Second World War (1939–1945) thousands of nurses rushed to enlist. By the war's end, 4,480 nursing sisters had served — 3,656 with the re-named Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, 481 with the Royal Canadian Air Force Medical Branch and 343 with the Royal Canadian Naval Medical Service. On duty overseas and in Canada, they staffed more than 100 major hospital units and cared for hundreds of thousands of wounded Canadians and soldiers from other countries.
The nursing sisters during the world wars received lectures on military law, map reading and security, instruction in gas warfare and casualty evacuation, and training in large-scale military manoeuvres. They worked in conditions ranging from canvas tents with wooden floors to established hospitals and buildings converted for hospital use. One group was torpedoed while on a ship in transit to Italy, two nurses (May Waters and Kay Christie) were interned for 21 months as prisoners of war in Hong Kong, and others were casualties of accidents and disease.