More than a Century of Caring

Our Proud Legacy

In the late 1890s, Canada faced a dangerous shortage of nurses, doctors and hospitals, especially in remote areas. Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, wife of Canada’s Governor General, learned just how badly this affected people when she participated in the annual meeting of the National Council of Women held in Halifax in 1896. She later wrote about the “pathetic stories” she heard, “where young mothers and children had died, whilst husbands and fathers were traveling many weary miles for the medical and nursing aid which might have saved them.”

The National Council passed a resolution asking Lady Aberdeen to found an order of visiting nurses in Canada in honour of the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ascent to the throne. Lady Aberdeen accepted the challenge with determination, becoming the inaugural president of the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). The Order’s first challenges were to provide visiting nursing services to areas without medical facilities and to establish small “cottage” hospitals in isolated areas.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s Prime Minister, motioned for the inauguration of the new Order in 1897. But when parliamentary support faltered because of criticism from Canada’s medical establishment, Lady Aberdeen enlisted the help of Dr. Alfred Worcester, a Harvard professor and founder of the Waltham Training School for Nurses in Massachusettes.

Dr. Worcester spoke to large audiences of doctors in Ottawa, Toronto and other Canadian cities about the urgent need for nursing and the critical role nurses could play in remote and under-served areas. He also recruited Charlotte Macleod, a Canadian who had studied with the legendary Florence Nightingale, to help set up the VON Canada. She became VON Canada’s first chief superintendent, welcoming the first 12 nurses into the Order in November 1897 — just a month before Queen Victoria granted a royal charter to the VON Canada.

Ready when Canadians needed us most

In 1898, a team of four VON Canada nurses accompanied a Canadian Field Force of military and government officials to the Yukon where more than 100,000 prospectors sought their fortunes during the Klondike Gold Rush. They reached Dawson one month after the Sisters of St. Ann and cared for the many victims of the typhoid epidemic that was raging throughout the Klondike.

That same year, VON Canada sites opened in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver and Kingston. A VON Canada “cottage” hospital was also set up in Regina to provide care to early settlers on the prairies. In addition, VON Canada established its first nurse training program in Ottawa.

Through the successful fundraising efforts of Lady Minto, the VON Canada’s second honorary president, 43 more hospitals were soon established in local communities and within isolated areas throughout Canada. Responsibility for running these institutions was gradually assumed by community groups, with the last VON Canada-run hospital placed in the hands of local citizens in 1924.

Throughout the 20th Century, VON Canada helped communities across Canada during some of the most devastating periods in our country’s history — World War I, the horrific explosion of munitions ship in Halifax harbour in 1917, the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, and World War II.

In good times and bad, however, VON Canada served as a catalyst for building a sense of community — creating opportunities for people to work together to meet their needs and those of their friends and neighbours. Prenatal education, well baby clinics, school health services, visiting nurses and coordinated home care programs all had their earliest origins with VON Canada.

Touching the lives of Canadians every day

Today at VON Canada, we deliver more than 75 different programs and services through 52 local sites staffed by 5,000 health care workers and a dedicated team of more than 9,000 community volunteers. Local volunteer boards and professional staff work together at each site to ensure their VON Canada services meet the unique needs of their community.

At the local, provincial and national levels, we also come together with families, other organizations, governments and communities to influence the health and social policies that affect Canadians. As always, our goal is to ensure superior health care is available, affordable and accessible to everyone in Canada — no matter where they live.