May 29, 2020
by Marion Robinaud, doctoral student in anthropology (École des hautes études en sciences sociales–American Studies), Research and Teaching Assistant at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès. The Institut des Amériques just published her book Religieuses et Amérindiens. Anthropologie d’une rencontre dans l’Ouest canadien.
During the International Nurses Days (in French, the feminin word for "nurse" is used), several postings on the Canadian social media have put forward the incredible work of the healthcare personnel and how indispensable they are during the current health crisis, and this, while presenting it as being in a continuum with an old social heritage that has a tendency to be forgotten: the nursing nuns who first accompagnied the founding of New France, but then continued during the acquisition of the Western and Northern territories of the country.
In a video of the Museum of Civilization (Quebec [QC]) broadcasted live on Facebook on May 13 during their daily program #uneheureaumusée (#onehourinthemuseum), the interview with Sylvie Toupin, museum curator, invites the virtual spectators to dive into the Canadian history of nursing. So the interview provided an opportunity to talk about the role of the missionary nuns who came from France and were the first to provide healthcare in New France.
In Canada, for several centuries, health and personal care was done by the nursing nuns. The first North American hospital was built close to Quebec in 1639 by three nuns from the Augustines of the Mercy of Jesus congregation, and the second, closely linked to the person of Jeanne Mance, a nurse and missionary, was built at Ville-Marie (Montreal) in 1644. These two orders took care of the settlers as well as the allied Natives. In the second half of the 19th century, the religious missionaries followed the progression of the colonization of the West. Among them, nuns specialized in nursing settle in the Native territories and provide medical care that was non-existant until then. Until the 19th century, the nuns were the only nurses, before the congregations offered training to the secular public. This very short historical narrative unfortunately cannot begin to explain how much the hospital system was linked to the feminin religious orders. When you add the interview mentionned above, the combination of pictures and attached text circulating on social media establishes this continuity in an even more direct way.
In both posts, terminology common to nursing activities can be found: "to care for and take care of", "empathy", "humanity", "kindness", "dedicated her life to", "self-sacrifice", etc. and especially two nouns used several times and are typical features: "devotion" and "vocation". In these posts, as in common understanding, being a nurse is often considered a vocation. Yet, a vocation is also a feature of religious people. Commitment and devotion to others, to those who need care, are therefore common points. So the care language brings together the history of the nursing nuns to the contemporaneousness of healthcare personnel.
In the current situation, another kind of discourse is also surfacing, more warlike, that insists on the fact that the medical personnel is "on the front line". Sylvie Toupin talks about the courage of the religious female nurses of New France going to "develop new territories". The notion of courage, relatively common to describe a nurse's job (especially these past few weeks), is much less so when talking about the duties the nuns were in charge of. Yet, they were also missionaries who, in the second half of the 19th century, became settlers of the West and "sentinels"  of territories still isolated. The nurses who are "on the front" of the current health crisis are positionned, by the terminology used and the suggested images, in a continuum with their profession's history through the intermediary of the missionary nuns working in the West territories and dealing with the tuberculosis epidemics that hit the Northern Native populations in the 19th century. The 19th century historiography also tends to describe the Canadian missionary nuns with warlike imagery, using an expression allocated to their masculin counterparts: soldiers of God. In those barely settled Western and Northern regions, these nuns, many of whom were nurses, were sometimes the only representatives of the Catholic church, competing with the Protestants. On the outposts and keeping watch, they maintained the Church's position in these territories: they were therefore themselves "on the frontline".
To work on the historicity of the nursing profession is to showcase a global Canadian social heritage. The religious communities are a heritage that is of course material and immaterial, but it is also a social heritage  in the sense that it is characterized by skills and "customs still in operation in our culture, beyond their more or less forgotten religious references" . Education, health, social services, charity work are so many areas for public action and such large sections of life in society that rest on a heritage left by religious orders, in particular the nun congregations, whose important contribution to the historical construction of the Canadian hospital system we can now see.
For the past decade or so, this heritage is being restored and exposed to the general public. So the Augustine monastery of Quebec was renovated in 2016 and transformed into a cultural facility proposing, other than the museum, housing and a program of wellness activities. This social heritage can also be seen in public spaces by erecting, in several of the country's provinces, monuments honoring the religious congregations and their role in the construction of the country, such as the one put up in 2016 at Winnipeg (MB) called The Legacy of Care, Courage and Compassion Commemorative Monument. As can be seen, the three notions used to describe this social heritage are those that are commonly used today to describe nurses.
In Canada, the pandemic will then have at least reminded us of, other than the fact that nurses are vital, the history of the nursing profession. Between care and "front lines", this last one is intimately linked to religious congregations, and it tends to now become a social heritage made more visible by Covid-19.
 Ferland Sr. Léonie, sgm., Sentinelles du Christ, Les Sœurs Grises de Montréal à la Baie d’Hudson, Montreal, Print from Grey Nuns' Hospital in Montreal, 1944.
 Berthold E., Une société en héritage. L’œuvre des communautés religieuses pionnières à Québec, Quebec: Publications du Québec, 2015.
 Lucier P., "Le patrimoine immatériel des communautés religieuses et ses traces dans la culture", Études d’histoire religieuse, 2012, 78/1, p. 5-11.
Marion Robinaud is a doctoral student in anthropology (EHESS), associated researcher at Mondes Américains – CENA and currently Research and Teaching Assistant at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès (Lisst-Cas). Her research is on the women's evangelism missions in their relationship with Canadian indigenous populations (19-21st centuries). The Institut des Amériques recently published her book Religieuses et Amérindiens. Anthropologie d’une rencontre dans l’Ouest canadien, PUR Editions.