A Brief History of Black Nurses in Canada

Understanding the historical context of Black nurses’ experience in Canada is a way of meaningfully recognizing their countless and often undocumented contributions to our health-care system. Black nurse researchers’ and activists’ thorough examination of historical records and literature has uncovered many early stories of Black people providing nursing care in Canada. This work surfaces a forgotten history that provides a glimpse into the lived realities of Black immigrants in Canada throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, and their unparalleled dedication to the nursing profession.

Even though the first nursing school in Canada opened in 1874 and the first baccalaureate program in 1919, Black people were not permitted to attend these schools until the late 1940s. In her book Moving Beyond Borders, Karen Flynn notes that American schools began allowing Black people into nursing in the 1870s while Canada continued to restrict admissions to Black people, granting them only after pressure from community groups and organizations. Instead, Black Canadians were instructed to travel to the United States to obtain their nursing degree.

The first Black Canadian nurse to do this was Bernice Redmon, who travelled from Toronto to Virginia to complete her nursing education at St. Phillip Hospital Medical College. Bernice obtained her nursing diploma in 1945, returned to Canada, and went on to become the country’s first Black public health nurse and the first Black woman to join the Victorian Order of Nurses. Other Black activists like Gwennyth Barton and Ruth Bailey broke through barriers by becoming the first Black women to graduate from a Canadian nursing school in 1948. Pearline Oliver, though not a nurse, fought hard for the rights of Black Canadians to access education – including nursing education. The work of these and several other Black activists paved the way for many more Black nurses to become professionally certified.

Despite Black people’s exclusion of from Canadian nursing schools and the barriers they faced obtaining work in Canadian health-care facilities, their commitment to care provision was inspiringly unrelenting. The Canadian chapter of Black Cross Nurses (BCN), an organization originally founded in Philadelphia in 1920, was a network of Black women who ensured health-related services were provided to their communities, especially Black communities, which often had trouble accessing care through formal channels. BCN held a wealth of skills and knowledge and provided many health-care services to their communities, including midwifery care, veterans’ care, visits to the sick, wound bandaging and education focused on nutrition, hygiene, public and reproductive health – as healers in their communities had done for generations. The BCN period of Canadian history highlights the injustice of the time and uncovers Black nurses’ inspiring perseverance, dedication and commitment to the nursing profession.

BCNU encourages members to learn about the work of these organizations focused on combatting anti-Black racism in Canadian health-care settings: 

Coalition of African, Caribbean and Black Nurses in British Columbia
Pan-Canadian Association of Nurses of African Descent
Canadian Black Nurses Alliance





UPDATED: February 07, 2024

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