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Nursing Sisters

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Nursing Sisters

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Canada’s wartime history is filled with stories of bravery, and the nursing sisters who served with the military during the North West Rebellion, the South African War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War were certainly among the most courageous. While carrying out official duties, dozens died from enemy action and disease during their service. 

In the First World War (1914–1918), nursing sisters served in Canada, England, France, Belgium, Russia, and around the Mediterranean. Nicknamed "bluebirds" by soldiers grateful for a glimpse of their blue dresses and white veils, they received many honours and gained a good reputation for their courage and compassion. Fifty-three sisters lost their lives while on active duty, victims of either enemy attack or disease contracted from patients.

The nursing sisters received lectures on military law, map reading and security, instruction in gas warfare and casualty evacuation, and training in large-scale military manoeuvres during the world wars. They worked in conditions ranging from canvas tents with wooden floors to established hospitals and buildings converted for hospital use.

This Heritage Minute tells the story of Eden Pringle and Eleanor Thompson, two of the nearly 3,000 nursing sisters who served during the First World War. Pringle and Thompson were on duty at Number Three Canadian Stationary Hospital (No. 3 CSH) at Doullens (near Amiens in France), when it was attacked at 12:15 a.m. on May 30, 1918. A single German aircraft first dropped a flare to light its target, following up with several bombs. One hit the main building, just over the sergeant’s quarters on the third floor. The central structure collapsed and burst into flames, incinerating the officers’ ward on the second floor and the operating theatre on the ground floor, where Pringle was on duty. Pringle, 24, was a graduate of the Vancouver General Hospital, and enlisted on May 12, 1917. She was initially posted to the Canadian Red Cross Hospital in Buxton, England in June 1917, and then at Doullens in July of that year. The operating theatre was completely wiped out in the bombing, and it was reported that the people working in the theatre “were not recognisable.” Pringle was reportedly the youngest nursing sister to die during the First World War.

Eleanor Jean Thompson, 30, from Valleyfield, Québec, was one of two nurses in the resuscitation ward immediately adjoining the operating theatre. She had enlisted in Montreal on February 1, 1916 and had reported to the No. 3 CSH a mere three weeks before the bombing. During the attack, she was knocked over by a heavy beam and struck across her legs, but she eventually managed to remove herself from the debris. With the help of another nurse, Meta Hodge, Thompson put out fires lit by overturned coal oil heaters and organized the evacuation of patients from the room, some having to slide down the mounds of debris as the stairway had gone. Thompson and Hodge remained in the ward until all the patients had been removed.

In all, 32 staff and patients were killed, and 17 were wounded.

Though Thompson had no any visible injuries, she began to suffer from persistent severe headaches and insomnia almost immediately. She remained in active service for several months before she was finally admitted to a hospital in March of 1919, where she was diagnosed with ‘nervous disability,’ or what would be called post-traumatic stress disorder today. Following a recommendation by the army’s Medical Board that she be “discharge(d) to civil life” given her fragile condition, Eleanor returned to Canada in 1919. She died in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec in 1964, at the age of 75.

Canadian Military officials, impressed by the nursing sisters’ courageous action under enemy fire, submitted recommendations for awarding the nursing sisters the Military Cross, a reward traditionally reserved for junior officers. It was felt that the nursing sisters’ achievements were on par with those of their male colleagues and Canada insisted that they be recognized accordingly. However, the British authorities disagreed. They concluded that, given a nursing sister’s relative rank on the field, she should only be eligible for the Military Medal, the equivalent of the Royal Red Cross, awarded to a nurse for services to her profession. In a stubborn refusal to move beyond established gender norms despite an increased female presence so near to the front line, the British authorities’ decision prevailed.

In 1919, Eleanor Thompson was one of eight Canadian nursing sisters awarded the Military Medal for “gallantry and devotion to duty during an enemy air raid.” Although this was not the distinction the Canadian officials had hoped for, this was still an exceptional recognition that underscored the changing role of women on the battlefield.

CAST
  • Eden Lyal Pringle – Siobhan Williams
  • Eleanor Jean Thompson – Myla Southward
  • Narrator – Molly Parker

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Queenston Heights

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Queenston Heights

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13 October 1812 was a fateful day for the Six Nations of the Grand River. British forces, including about 160 Six Nations warriors, were assembled at Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River in anticipation of an American invasion, which came upriver near the small Upper Canadian village of Queenston. John Norton and John Brant, along with several other leaders and warriors, hurried to the scene, only to learn that General Brock had been killed and that the Americans had taken the Heights overlooking the village.

As they approached the battlefield, the warriors heard from retreating soldiers that there were thousands of Americans. In response, about half the warriors left the group, returning to Fort George to protect their families (who had accompanied them from their homes on the Grand River). The Queenston Heights Heritage Minute shows Norton making a speech to inspire the 80 remaining warriors. The same speech is recorded in his journal.

Rather than advance up the northern edge of the Heights, where Brock had been killed and where American soldiers were waiting, Norton and Brant led their men to the west, scaled the Heights under cover, and approached from the side, taking the Americans by surprise.

Using the cover of gun smoke to move quickly through the woods, the 80 sharp-shooting warriors launched hit-and-run attacks, pinning down over a thousand Americans until British reinforcements, including Richard Pierpoint and the Coloured Corps, arrived for a final assault against the invaders, forcing the Americans to surrender. The efforts of the Six Nations warriors were essential in taking back the heights and preventing American invasion.

CAST
  • John Norton – Billy Merasty
  • John Brandt – Meegwun Fairbrother
  • Narrator – Alanis Obomsawin

Richard Pierpoint

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Richard Pierpoint

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Richard Pierpoint was born in Bondu (now Senegal) in 1744. In 1760, he was captured and brought to America where he was sold to a British officer. After more than 20 years in America, he won his emancipation by fighting as a member of Butler’s Rangers in the American Revolution.

His support for the British in the conflict meant he was rewarded with a land grant in the Niagara region. After 1783, Pierpoint settled in Niagara, where he served as a griot (storyteller) for the local Black community. In the Senegalese tradition a griot listens to stories and associates them with a particular stone. The griot retells the stories by pulling a stone out of his bag and recounting the associated story. Before and after the War of 1812, Pierpoint travelled around Upper Canada listening to and retelling the stories of the Black community.

In 1794, Pierpoint and a number of formerly enslaved men petitioned the government of Upper Canada to grant them land adjacent to each other rather than dispersed among white settlers. The Petition of Free Negroes, as it was known, aimed to create a Black community where members would help and support each other. The petition was rejected for unknown reasons.

In the War of 1812, at age 68, Pierpoint petitioned the military for the creation of an all-black unit, by producing a list of black men in the region who had sworn to fight. The petition was initially rejected, but leadership of the unit was eventually given to Captain Robert Runchey, and the unit was named Captain Runchey’s Corps of Coloured Men. The Corps fought at Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812, (they were among the first reinforcements to arrive on the Heights in support of Mohawk Chief John Norton’s Grand River warriors) and were instrumental to the war effort throughout the Niagara region. In 1813, they were reassigned to the Provincial Corps of Artificers, and served throughout the war building and rebuilding important strategic posts.

After the war, Pierpoint stayed in Niagara, but found life difficult. In 1821, Pierpoint petitioned the government again, this time to be sent on a ship back to his homeland in Senegal. Pierpoint’s petition was again rejected, but he was given a land grant in Garafraxa, near modern-day Fergus. He took up his land and became a leader in the black community, helping formerly enslaved men and women move through the Underground Railroad. In addition, Scottish settlers, in particular James Webster, relied on Pierpoint for help when they first arrived in the Fergus area. Pierpoint died around 1837, aged about 93. Pierpoint was one of thousands of black Loyalists who came to Canada after the American Revolution, and while many faced significant hardships, they nonetheless formed an important part of early Canada. Pierpoint lived an incredible life, and his tireless work in promoting the health and livelihood of the Black community in Upper Canada is remembered in this Minute.

CAST
  • Officer Howard – Ray Kahnert
  • Deaf Moses – Roney Lewis
  • Younger Richard Pierpoint – Oke Nnawuchi
  • Officer Charles – Jordan Van Dyck
  • Richard Pierpoint age 68 – Rudy Webb
  • Narrator – Charles Officer

Winnie

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Winnie

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When Prime Minister Lester Pearson vowed to create a distinctive Canadian flag in 1964, some of his advisors warned him that it would be ‘political suicide' to tamper with the country's most important national symbol. But Pearson wanted a flag that “would not be mistaken for the emblem of any other country.”

 

Whether it's our national flag, our national anthem, our famous Bluenose schooner, or a mascot named Winnie, we understand ourselves through our symbols.

 

These Minutes look at some of the people and events that helped emblemize Canada.

 

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Vimy Ridge

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Vimy Ridge

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Canada is internationally recognized for its role as a peacekeeping nation. But Canadian soldiers have seen their share of battle and their heroism is not forgotten.

 

Around the world, the tragedy of war is often remembered through a beautiful and haunting poem, written to commemorate those who died in World War I. John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” following his experiences in the trench warfare around Ypres, Belgium.

 

It was Canada that proposed a UN Peacekeeping Force in 1956. When he was a Brigadier-General, Jacques Dextraze, one of Canada's most distinguished peacekeeping commanders, led missions to rescue NGO personnel in the Congo.

 

Sergeant-Major John Osborn and Andrew Mynarski both died while valiantly trying to help others. Sergeant-Major Osborn protected his company by throwing himself on a live grenade. And Andrew Mynarski attempted to save his comrade after their Lancaster Bomber was hit by enemy fire. They were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic acts.

 

Mona Parsons from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was the only Canadian female civilian to be imprisoned by the Germans during World War II. She and her Dutch husband were convicted for attempting to repatriate downed Allied airmen.

 

These Minutes pay homage to Canada's military history.

 

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Valour Road

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Valour Road

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Canada is internationally recognized for its role as a peacekeeping nation. But Canadian soldiers have seen their share of battle and their heroism is not forgotten.

 

Around the world, the tragedy of war is often remembered through a beautiful and haunting poem, written to commemorate those who died in World War I. John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” following his experiences in the trench warfare around Ypres, Belgium.

 

It was Canada that proposed a UN Peacekeeping Force in 1956. When he was a Brigadier-General, Jacques Dextraze, one of Canada's most distinguished peacekeeping commanders, led missions to rescue NGO personnel in the Congo.

 

Sergeant-Major John Osborn and Andrew Mynarski both died while valiantly trying to help others. Sergeant-Major Osborn protected his company by throwing himself on a live grenade. And Andrew Mynarski attempted to save his comrade after their Lancaster Bomber was hit by enemy fire. They were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic acts.

 

Mona Parsons from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was the only Canadian female civilian to be imprisoned by the Germans during World War II. She and her Dutch husband were convicted for attempting to repatriate downed Allied airmen.

 

These Minutes pay homage to Canada's military history.

 

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Tommy Prince

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Tommy Prince

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Canada is internationally recognized for its role as a peacekeeping nation. But Canadian soldiers have seen their share of battle and their heroism is not forgotten.

 

Around the world, the tragedy of war is often remembered through a beautiful and haunting poem, written to commemorate those who died in World War I. John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” following his experiences in the trench warfare around Ypres, Belgium.

 

It was Canada that proposed a UN Peacekeeping Force in 1956. When he was a Brigadier-General, Jacques Dextraze, one of Canada's most distinguished peacekeeping commanders, led missions to rescue NGO personnel in the Congo.

 

Sergeant-Major John Osborn and Andrew Mynarski both died while valiantly trying to help others. Sergeant-Major Osborn protected his company by throwing himself on a live grenade. And Andrew Mynarski attempted to save his comrade after their Lancaster Bomber was hit by enemy fire. They were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic acts.

 

Mona Parsons from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was the only Canadian female civilian to be imprisoned by the Germans during World War II. She and her Dutch husband were convicted for attempting to repatriate downed Allied airmen.

 

These Minutes pay homage to Canada's military history.

 

Mona Parsons

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Mona Parsons

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Canada is internationally recognized for its role as a peacekeeping nation. But Canadian soldiers have seen their share of battle and their heroism is not forgotten.

 

Around the world, the tragedy of war is often remembered through a beautiful and haunting poem, written to commemorate those who died in World War I. John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” following his experiences in the trench warfare around Ypres, Belgium.

 

It was Canada that proposed a UN Peacekeeping Force in 1956. When he was a Brigadier-General, Jacques Dextraze, one of Canada's most distinguished peacekeeping commanders, led missions to rescue NGO personnel in the Congo.

 

Sergeant-Major John Osborn and Andrew Mynarski both died while valiantly trying to help others. Sergeant-Major Osborn protected his company by throwing himself on a live grenade. And Andrew Mynarski attempted to save his comrade after their Lancaster Bomber was hit by enemy fire. They were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic acts.

 

Mona Parsons from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was the only Canadian female civilian to be imprisoned by the Germans during World War II. She and her Dutch husband were convicted for attempting to repatriate downed Allied airmen.

 

These Minutes pay homage to Canada's military history.

 

Major Gustave Bieler

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Major Gustave Bieler

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Canada is internationally recognized for its role as a peacekeeping nation. But Canadian soldiers have seen their share of battle and their heroism is not forgotten.

 

Around the world, the tragedy of war is often remembered through a beautiful and haunting poem, written to commemorate those who died in World War I. John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” following his experiences in the trench warfare around Ypres, Belgium.

 

It was Canada that proposed a UN Peacekeeping Force in 1956. When he was a Brigadier-General, Jacques Dextraze, one of Canada's most distinguished peacekeeping commanders, led missions to rescue NGO personnel in the Congo.

 

Sergeant-Major John Osborn and Andrew Mynarski both died while valiantly trying to help others. Sergeant-Major Osborn protected his company by throwing himself on a live grenade. And Andrew Mynarski attempted to save his comrade after their Lancaster Bomber was hit by enemy fire. They were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic acts.

 

Mona Parsons from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was the only Canadian female civilian to be imprisoned by the Germans during World War II. She and her Dutch husband were convicted for attempting to repatriate downed Allied airmen.

 

These Minutes pay homage to Canada's military history.

 

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Laura Secord

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Laura Secord

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Whether it was the midwives of the early 19th Century, or the young rural teachers who taught in one-room schools in isolated communities across Canada, or the outspoken leaders who led the fight to gain the vote for women; strong women have helped shape our history.

 

“Never was a country better adapted to produce a great race of women than this Canada of ours, nor a race of women better adapted to make a great country,” stated Emily Murphy, Canada's first female magistrate. Murphy ensured that women won their legal rights in the famous Persons Case.

 

Most Canadians recognize the name Laura Secord, but do they know the story of her heroic trek that saved the British and Canadian forces during the War of 1812?

 

In the 1870s women were not allowed to practice medicine. Jennie Trout struggled for inclusion and her success opened the door for the many Canadian women doctors who followed.

 

These Minutes celebrate some of the women who helped build Canada.

 

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