Women's History Month 2001

Women Working for Healthy Communities - Part 3

Nurses, Health Care Advocates and Community Leaders

While doctors have historically been men, women have shown leadership and dedication in providing health care services. Women have traditionally assisted each other in birthing and the nursing of family members. Reliance on women as midwives and caregivers has been especially important in rural areas. In the words of Dakota Sioux elder, Eva McKay, “there were midwives, women who helped other women at birthing time. Women had the responsibility – if I can help you at that time, I will do it. We were not chosen, we were supposed to be there for everyone. We learned by watching. It is the responsibility of the mothers to teach their daughters.” Note 22 And so, women were relied upon to care for each other and their families.

Women have contributed to creating healthy communities in many ways. The stories of the following women attest to the diverse ways in which women can contribute to their communities, through leadership, innovation, and collaboration.

The Grey Nuns

  • Mother Superior Marie Louise Valade, age 35
  • Sister Marie Margaret Eulalie Lagrave, age 36
  • Sister Marie Hedwidge Lafrance, age 26
  • Sister Gertrude Coutlée (Sister St. Joseph), age 24

The first group of Grey Nuns (Sisters Valade, Lagrave, Coutlée and Lafrance) travelled from Montreal to St. Boniface by canoe, arriving on June 21, 1844. At the request of Bishop Joseph Norbert Provencher, the four sisters had volunteered to leave the Mother House of the Sisters of Charity to travel to the Red River Settlement where they were to provide education and religious guidance to the people.

The Sisters of Charity Order, affectionately known as the Grey Nuns, had been founded in Montreal by Mme. Marie-Marguerite d 'Youville in the 1700s. The sisters had a long history of charitable work for the poor and had established L 'Hôpital Général de Montréal, a place where they could care for the sick, the poor, and the outcast. True to the charitable mission of the Order, the four sisters who volunteered to make the long, dangerous trip to St. Boniface were devoted to bringing education and medical service to the inhabitants of the area. Sister Lagrave was a trained nurse and was responsible for providing medical care and coordinating any expansion of health services required. Sister Lagrave began to minister to the needs of the sick by making home visits in a Red River cart or horse-drawn sleigh.

“If one hears that anyone has a cold, even though he lives at the far end of the parish, the sisters must send you mustard for the feet, brew strong bouillon for the kidneys in such quantities that the hundred odd hens of Monseigneur cannot suffice to produce the eggs employed in making this delicious beverage. The pleasure of doctoring for the good sisters is such that it is to give them happiness as much as to provide them with the opportunity of curing us.” Note 23

The original four nuns provided home nursing services and care for many years. Their first decade of service saw 6,000 visits made to assist the sick wherever they were to be found. They also provided compassionate care and refuge to those in need who visited them at their convent in St. Boniface (which now serves as the St. Boniface Museum). Joined by other women from the Order in later years, the Grey Nuns at St. Boniface established the first hospital in the area in 1871, building a larger facility in 1877, and again in 1907. In 1931, the Order founded the St. Boniface Sanatorium, which was later renamed the St. Amant Centre. The Grey Nuns today remain true to their commitment to help others through compassionate service in the areas of health, education, social services, and pastoral ministry.

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Margaret Scott (1855-1931),
The Angel of Poverty Row: St. Margaret of Winnipeg

Margaret Scott was the founder of the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission, an organization established in 1904 to provide nursing care for the poor living in Winnipeg. Born Margaret Ruttan Boucher July 28, 1855 in Colborne, Ontario, she was guided by a strong Christian faith which led her to devote many years of her life to assisting the most indigent people. In her early twenties, she married William Scott, but was left a widow, and without an income, by the time she was twenty-five. Margaret Scott supported herself for many years, and often suffered from recurring bouts of illness. After one particularly debilitating illness, she “was advised to try to recuperate in the bracing climate of the West and came to Winnipeg, where fate decreed she should spend the rest of her life.” Note 24 Arriving in 1886, she worked for some time in the Dominion Land Office, eventually giving up paid employment to devote herself wholeheartedly to the poor. She resolved to leave her fate to God, and rely entirely on faith. She visited women incarcerated in the city jail, providing friendship, advocacy, and assistance. Many of her contemporaries, following the trends towards the development of a social gospel movement, established the Winnipeg Lodging and Coffee House on Lombard Street, to provide a place where transients could get a cheap meal, a place to stay, assistance finding a job, or help when they were sick. Margaret Scott was given a room in the Coffee House and chose to live there for several years, in order to be close to the people most in need.

On a daily basis, Margaret Scott walked throughout Winnipeg, calling in at the homes of the poor and helping however she could. She became very well-known for her longstanding devotion to serving others, and was assisted in her work by private patrons, who furnished food, clothes, money for medicine, a pony and cart for Margaret 's home visitations, and later, a nurse 's salary. Poverty and illness were evident everywhere she visited, so she endeavoured to learn as many nursing skills as possible through self-study. In the rapidly growing city of Winnipeg in the early 1900s, Margaret Scott provided individual assistance and advocated for public health care services to address the needs of immigrant families and newcomers to the city, who often lived in overcrowded houses in the poorer sections of the city.

The Margaret Scott Nursing Mission, established in 1904, would provide a central home for the training and support of district nurses, in essence to ensure the continued deliverance of compassionate care to the sick that Margaret Scott had begun in 1886. In 1904, she secured funds to pay for one nurse 's services for three months. In the following year, two nurses were engaged to provide services and were averaging about 1,000 home visits per month. By 1906, the Mission employed four nurses and two student nurses and funding was provided by the city. The reputation of the Mission 's work grew and the following years would see requests from those in other cities desiring to set up district nursing training programs.

In addition to the thousands of visits made by the district nurses, Margaret Scott continued her daily rounds, whenever possible, despite a serious bout of typhoid. An auxiliary group was also established to support the Mission. The auxiliary volunteers made linens, clothing, and bandages for the patients. They also assisted Margaret Scott with home visitations, reading to and comforting the sick, elderly, or blind and providing Christmas hampers to the needy.

Margaret Scott served as a catalyst, uniting the resources of Winnipeggers who could help with their fellow citizens most in need. During her merciful mission to the poor, she relied solely on faith in God and the goodness of others for almost half a century.

After Margaret Scott 's death in 1931, the work of the Mission was carried on for many years. In 1942, with the arrival of the Victorian Order of Nurses, the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission withdrew from district nursing in order to avoid duplication of services with the national organization.

Margaret Scott was an inspiration to others and was fondly remembered by thousands of Winnipeggers long after she had died. A monument was erected to her memory in St. John 's Cemetery, and she was posthumously awarded the International Cosmopolitan Service Medal in 1932. A school was named after her, as was a ward in the Winnipeg General Hospital. The Margaret Scott Nursing Mission Scholarship is still awarded annually to one or more students in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Manitoba.

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Mary Speechly (1873-1968)

Mary Speechly advocated for women's rights in Manitoba for over sixty years and founded the Winnipeg Birth Control Society, which provided poverty-stricken women with access to contraceptive information.

Born Mary Barrett in 1873 in London, England, she was a classics scholar and professional photographer. Emigrating to Canada in 1902, she settled in Pilot Mound where her husband was the local physician. Accompanying her husband out on calls to deliver babies, Mary often noticed overcrowded houses and observed the physical and socioeconomic impact of successive pregnancies on women and their families. In 1912, she became president of the local Home Economics Society, a group that sought to advance the causes of better education, improved health care, and suffrage for women. These societies were the forerunners of the Women's Institutes and provided a forum for women to share information and experiences and one in which they could advocate for change on issues affecting women.

In 1916, Mary Speechly moved to Winnipeg with her three children while her husband was stationed overseas as a medical officer during the First World War. For many years she was an active volunteer for the Red Cross, the Women's Institutes, the Council of Social Agencies, the Women's Canadian Club, the Community Chest, and the Central Volunteer Bureau. Her most challenging and influential work, however, came when she founded the Winnipeg Birth Control Society in 1934 – a full thirty-five years before it was legal in Canada for anyone to provide contraceptive information or devices.

The Birth Control Society, which later became known as the Family Planning Association of Winnipeg, provided poorer women who sought contraceptive information with financial support, encouragement, education, and physician referrals. Typically, a poverty-stricken woman with several children would contact the Society for assistance. Nurses engaged by the Society would provide the necessary supplies and would refer the woman to her own maternity doctor or another physician who was skilled and sympathetic in meeting a woman 's reproductive health needs. Any fees assessed were also covered by the Society.

Reporting on the Society's early years, Mary Speechly wrote, “in the first sixteen months, our patients numbered 70, very needy mothers in poor health, with large families and young babies. At the end of the first year the improvement in the health of the mothers and in the home conditions was amazing.” Note 25 The first annual meeting of the Birth Control Society was, in fact, held in the Manitoba Legislative Building. An early meeting, however, was disrupted by a group of people opposing the Society 's mission and, thereafter, meetings were held surreptitiously in private homes. Knowing full well that they could be arrested for the activities they carried out in the name of the Society, Mary Speechly and the other volunteers worked quietly to provide services to the neediest women and to build support for change.

Mary Speechly clearly saw that the health and well-being of many mothers and their children relied heavily on a woman's ability to limit the size of her family. She had met far too many women whose health was further compromised by pregnancy and child bearing. Support for the family planning associations in this period was also provided by many followers of the eugenics movement, whose aim was to encourage women's use of contraception to reduce the birth rate of “mentally deficient” children. Supporters of the Winnipeg Birth Control Society were no exception.

While supporters of the Society's work were many over the years, there was also serious opposition combined with the threat of prosecution and imprisonment and the unbelievably inadequate funding. Requests for support sent to community foundations were inevitably turned down and no government or organization could support the illegal practices of the Society. The indomitable Mary Speechly kept going, year after year, stretching the resources to meet the need.

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Anne G. Ross (1911-1998)

In 1948, Anne Ross was hired to be the head nurse of the Mount Carmel Clinic in Winnipeg, building on and expanding the clinic's services to a changing community. Established in 1926, the clinic had served Jewish immigrants from eastern European countries who had settled in Winnipeg 's North End. By 1948, there was an opportunity for the clinic to adopt a new role, by fitting its programs to meet the needs of those living in the surrounding neighbourhood. Anne Ross' compassionate regard for the people living in the North End, combined with her innovative ideas and sheer determination, lay at the heart of the clinic's successful expansion.

Anne Ross was challenged and inspired by some of the people she saw in the neighbourhood - those that lacked food or a steady income, people who lacked parenting skills, those living in situations of domestic abuse or neglect. Not only did she realize that the health needs of the children were aggravated by the socioeconomic needs of the families, she was able to earn the confidence and trust of the poverty-stricken parents.

Home visits became a way for Mrs. Ross and other staff to assess a family 's overall well-being, to identify needs, and to find ways to address those gaps, with the ultimate goal of supporting the family as a whole. The day hospital program was established to provide care for children in a healthy, nurturing environment. This and other programs addressed the emotional and physical needs of children and their parents. In all cases, comprehensive integrated care was the basis for the services provided.

Every program at the Mount Carmel Clinic was developed as a response to a need identified in the community. Primary care was provided along with preventative medicine. Appointed as Executive Director in 1964, Anne Ross was able to implement many of her ideas to expand programs and effectively lobby for private and public funds. Her holistic approach to care was beginning to take shape in the integration of services tailored to the needs of the patient, and delivered by the team of specialists engaged by the clinic. The day hospital and the day nursery provided caring environments for children, helping parents and children to learn life skills. Nutrition and maternal care programs were developed, along with parenting programs, dental care, teen programs, counselling, and social work services.

Providing a compassionate, comprehensive response to people 's needs was essential to providing the holistic care envisioned by Mrs. Ross. There was no exception to this when it came to addressing women 's needs for information about birth control methods. Anne Ross saw no choice but to provide accurate health information to women at a time when it was illegal in Canada to disseminate contraceptive information or devices.

In 1969, the federal government finally passed a bill which legalized contraception and reformed the law on abortion, making therapeutic abortions legal if the medical procedure was deemed necessary in order to preserve a woman 's health. Under the new law, access to abortion was decided on a case by case basis, with each case reliant on the recommendation of a hospital review committee. As a response to the new law, Mount Carmel Clinic developed the Pregnancy Counselling Service. This service was provided to the many women who began requesting abortions, ensuring that each would receive accurate information concerning all her options, along with contraceptive information and follow-up, regardless of the patient 's decision to continue with or terminate the pregnancy.

If a woman chose to terminate her pregnancy, the clinic referred her to the Winnipeg General Hospital, so that her case could be reviewed by the committee charged to do so. Due to a backlog of requests for therapeutic abortions, patients were also referred to clinics in the United States.

While many women relied on the clinic 's Pregnancy Counselling Service, and many community organizations and health care professionals supported it, the clinic 's role in assisting women was not without controversy. Personal threats were made against Mrs. Ross and other staff at the clinic and a campaign to withdraw public funding was launched without success.

Overall, many of the programs developed at the Mount Carmel Clinic were innovative and gained wide appeal, but there was a constant need to continue lobbying for public and private funds. Services were provided free of charge to anyone who required them at a time when there was no medicare system and people were expected to pay directly for all medical services. Anne Ross ' determined efforts paid off, as she secured funds to continue to develop clinic programs and expand the facilities. True to her philosophy, she also advocated for socioeconomic change in support of necessities, such as affordable housing and lower milk prices.

Officially retiring in 1985, she continued to lobby for social change and causes she believed in, writing Clinic with a Heart: The Story of Mount Carmel Clinic and establishing AGR Health Services for seniors. Her long-standing commitment to serving her community ended with her death in 1998, but her legacy continues in the lives of those served by the clinic or who otherwise benefited from Anne Ross' sustained advocacy over a forty-year period.

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Dr. Helen Glass (1917- )

Dr. Helen Glass is a nurse with an international reputation for leadership in nursing education and research. Her academic career began when she earned her diploma in nursing from Montreal 's Royal Victoria Hospital School of Nursing in 1939. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Science (Columbia University, Department of Nursing Education, 1960), and her Master of Arts Degree (1961), and both her Masters and Doctorate Degrees in nursing education (Columbia University).

In 1962, she became an instructor at the University of Manitoba 's School of Nursing and was named the School 's Director a decade later. She was instrumental in establishing a graduate program in nursing at the university and also in creating the Manitoba Nursing Research Institute.

Dr. Helen Glass later became President of the Canadian Nurses Association, and had a great influence on the wording and scope of the Canada Health Act (1984) to include nursing and allied health professionals, alongside physicians in the delivery of primary care services. She has been invited to sit on many committees and advisory councils to lend her expertise to the development of new policies as the concept of health care shifts from institutional care to community-based health promotion strategies. Her commitment and experience in health care policy development and nursing education and research is recognized internationally.

Dr. Helen Glass has received many honours and distinctions over the course of her career including the Queen 's Silver Jubilee Medal (1977), YWCA Woman of the Year Award for Education (1979), Member of the Order of the Buffalo Hunt (1987), City of Winnipeg Community Service Award for outstanding contribution to the City, and Officer of the Order of Canada (1989). She has also received five honourary doctorates and the Jeanne Mance Award, the Canadian Nurses Association 's most prestigious award for contributions to nursing (1992).

The University of Manitoba recognized Helen Glass' “remarkable leadership in the field of nursing” Note 26 in 1999, by naming the new Faculty of Nursing facility after her.

Her extensive experience and scholarship in health care has helped guide her to understand and apply the holistic approach to health. “It 's not just that one gets a disease that must be taken into consideration; it's all the things in one's environment. The social, economic, and ecological factors, as well as the culture they live in and the religion they practice are all health determinants.” Note 27 She has tirelessly advocated for recognition and support for nurses in their roles at the forefront of the movement towards greater community-based care.

As a teacher, scholar, and advocate, Dr. Glass has served as an inspiration to many Manitoba nurses. Her passionate commitment to her profession and to creating healthy communities has led her to achieve much success and recognition throughout the course of her career.

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Grace Easter, Ka Okemowi-Nepawit-Equa (1955-1986)

Grace Easter was born into the Chemawawin Cree First Nation community located at Cedar Lake in 1955. When Grace was eight years old, her family was relocated with the entire community to another area near Easterville, 400 miles northwest of Winnipeg. The community was relocated because their traditional lands were to be flooded with the construction of the Grand Rapids Hydro Station.

Although Grace was raised in a remote community, far from post-secondary schools, she worked hard to become a nurse. She focused on initiatives to address the health care needs of First Nations peoples, becoming an advisor to the Four Nations Confederacy, and serving on the Health Commission of the Assembly of First Nations. She also actively worked to develop nursing associations for native nurses in Canada, serving as President of both the Manitoba Indian Nurses Association and the Registered Nurses of Canadian Indian Ancestry.

Grace was dedicated to the ideals of the associations and the emphasis they placed on Aboriginal control over Aboriginal health needs. The Registered Nurses of Canadian Indian Ancestry association had been formed in 1975 to develop a supportive organization for Aboriginal care givers of Aboriginal people. Grace Easter, Jean Goodwill, and other nurses were instrumental in developing what was to become the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada (ANAC). The early years of the organization brought challenges to the founders and members in terms of securing funds, initiating lobbying efforts, developing alliances, and building a profile for the professional organization.

“At a time when the organization seemed most vulnerable to collapse, it was rescued by Manitoba 's Indian Nurses, under the auspices of their provincial association. In 1978 Grace Easter of the Manitoba Indian Nurses Association assumed the presidency of the national organization and the first national office was established in Winnipeg. Then in 1982 with its vitality restored the association 's head office was moved to Ottawa where it could have ready access to government departments and other national organizations.” Note 28

Grace Easter also played an important role in the development of KeKiNan (Our Home). “Started by the Manitoba Indian Nurses Association and the Indian and Metis Senior Citizens Group of Winnipeg, it is the first senior citizens home for Aboriginal people in urban Canada.” Note 29 The KeKiNan Centre has been described as “an example of leadership by Aboriginal women in developing holistic approaches to improving the quality of life for Aboriginal people.” Note 30 Grace Easter, in her role as President of the Manitoba Indian Nurses Association, brought shape to the vision of a centre to address the supportive housing needs of elders. As an experienced health care provider and community organizer, she added to the core of dedicated community members and professionals who studied the needs of elders and the feasibility of establishing a geriatric centre for native elderly in Winnipeg.

Unfortunately, Grace Easter died before KeKiNan was completed and the first tenants had arrived on December 1, 1991. It took many years to bring KeKiNan to that point, and Grace was one of the early visionaries who laid the necessary foundation long before elders would realize the benefits. In the preface to the feasibility study submitted in November 1985, Grace wrote on behalf of the Manitoba Indian Nurses Association, “This report as well as our continuing participation within KeKiNan are dedicated to the native elderly of Winnipeg and of Manitoba with a gratitude beyond any expression other than the dedication of our work and the determination of our commitment to the highest ideals of the healing tradition of our peoples and our profession.”Note 31 Grace 's work in the professional nurses associations and in the development of KeKiNan were important for all that was accomplished and serve as examples of the kinds of unique resources which arise out of the community-based initiatives of concerned, dedicated, caring individuals.

Her story serves as one component of the greater story, but is by no means the only story. Rather, it illustrates how each person can play a significant role in developing something new, when working with others towards a common purpose. While it is very sad that Grace Easter was not there on the date that the first tenants arrived at KeKiNan, her work was not lost, as others in the community were able to carry the dream forward.

Grace Easter earned her Cree name, Ka Okemowi-Nepawit-Equa, by working in her profession. This name can be interpreted in English as “Woman Standing Amongst the Chiefs.” Many people knew her as “Standing Princess.” Prior to her death at the age of 30, she received the Jean Goodwill Award for outstanding contributions to native health.

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  1. McKay, Eva. “If they read what you are writing, this is the teachings, this is some of the teachings that we want them to read about.” In Peter Kulchyski, Don McCaskill, and David Newhouse (Eds.) In the Words of Elders Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, p. 290. back to content (22)
  2. King, Dennis. The Grey Nuns and the Red River Settlement. Agincourt, Ont., Book Society of Canada, 1980, pp. 38-39. back to content (23)
  3. Macvicar, Helena. Margaret Scott: A Tribute. The Margaret Scott Nursing Mission. Winnipeg: The Mission, ca 1948, p. 7. back to content (24)
  4. The Mary Speechly collection, 1938-1968, MSS Sc 35, #5a, Department of Archives and Special Collections, University of Manitoba Libraries. back to content (25)
  5. "New nursing education facility to be named after Dr. Helen Glass." In Nurscene, vol. 24, no. 3, May 1999, p. 19. back to content (26)
  6. Ibid, p. 19. back to content (27)
  7. Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada. Working together for quality nursing care and healing 1975-1995. Ottawa: Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada, 1995, p. 7. back to content (28)
  8. Canada. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1996, p. 90. back to content (29)
  9. Ibid, p. 90. back to content (30)
  10. KeKiNan (Our Home) Report: Study to Determine the Feasibility of a Geriatric Care Centre for the Native Elderly in Winnipeg. Winnipeg: Manitoba Indian Nurses Association, Inc. in cooperation with Indian and Metis Senior Citizens Group of Winnipeg, Inc., 1985. back to content (31)

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