During the First World War over 2,500 women served overseas in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, 46 of whom would give their lives in the line of duty for Canada. Over 200 Nova Scotia female nurses crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia, 25 from Pictou County.
These “Angels of Mercy” or “Bluebirds,” as the soldiers commonly called the nurses, because of their blue dresses and white aprons, became a significant, integral part of everyday life during the war. “No account of the humanitarian service of the medical organization should fail to give prominence to the noble work of the nursing sisters.”
Nursing Sister Elizabeth Isabel MacLean of Big Island more than likely learned very early to be a caring, compassionate and understanding person – qualities that Elizabeth would carry throughout her entire life. She was the oldest child of 10, born in 1885 to Lauchie and Elizabeth MacLean.
Nurse Elizabeth would also learn and apply independent leadership skills that would involve her life in early Canadian movements that would help bring equality and justice for women. She was one of many ahead of their time in the late 19th century who brought about social change in our Canadian society.
The nursing profession in Canada was becoming very popular and an accepted occupation for females in Canada during the late 1880s. Our Elizabeth would leave the Big Island farm in the early 1900s and attend the Victoria General’s nursing program in Halifax graduating in 1910. Her qualities and ability were recognized early and she became the head operating nurse at the VG just before the First World War broke out in 1914.
The MacLean family of Big Island contributed greatly to this cause. Elizabeth’s three younger brothers, Neil, James and Hector, all signed up and all three gave the supreme sacrifice. Heartbroken and determined to help Canada over the loss of her three siblings, Nurse Elizabeth MacLean enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corp on May 4, 1917. She at first worked at the military hospital in Halifax, then joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was sent overseas to England. She eventually went to the front lines and saw action in France and Belgium as an “Angel of Mercy.”
The terrible carnage of First World War officially ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Nursing Sister Elizabeth MacLean was honourably discharged and returned to Nova Scotia to resume her duties as a nurse. Three years later in 1921 she was on the move again seeking challenges and a pioneer adventure.
In 1917, the Canadian government established the Soldier Settlement Board with the directive to “help serviceman acquire agriculture land for income farming.” Unfortunately women who served in First World War at first were excluded from the grant provisions with the following definition “settler: to mean male member only of certain military forces.” However, legislation in Canada changed that year: if women were able to sign up and die for their country, they should be able to vote and hold property. Albeit gradually, women’s rights began to take shape. In the year 1917, the province of Alberta was the first in Canada and in the British Commonwealth to elect women to their legislature.
By 1916 some provinces in Canada gave women the right to vote and, in 1917, women could vote federally under the Military Voters Act where “nurses and women in the armed services” were able to vote. On Jan. 1, 1919, all women by age of 21 were able to cast their ballot throughout Canada. Provisions were made to the Soldier Settlement Act and by the early 1920s women who served could obtain land for agriculture purposes.
Alberta nursing sister Mary Alice Blackwell was the first female to receive a Soldiers Land Grant. She immediately wrote several nursing comrades including our Elizabeth MacLean in Nova Scotia. In 1921, Pictou County’s Elizabeth MacLean, along with three other Nova Scotia nurses moved to Alberta to begin a life of pioneering. They took up their land grant in the Peace River District in Northern Alberta.
These pioneering nurses continued their profession “staying on their grants in the summer and worked in the Edmonton hospital in the winter.” In the early days in the Peace River District, there were no doctors and Elizabeth was reported to have helped deliver most of the babies in the area and administer nursing care to whoever needed it, much of the travel was on horseback.
Some of the nurses stayed on their land grants, most left after a few years. One who did stay was Elizabeth Maclean who eventually moved to Rycroft, Alta., where she continued her nursing as a neighbour to those who needed her. She would eventually marry Louis Young, a fellow homesteader. The couple would live out their lives in the Rycroft area.
In 1965, for her many years of dedicated and caring service to the people in the Peace River District, the Municipality of Grand River named a civic park in her honour, The Elizabeth Young Municipal Park. Our Big Island Angel of Mercy would pass away on Sept. 28, 1973, at the age of 88 years. She is buried in the Community Cemetery at Spirit River, Alta.
Thank you to Elizabeth’s niece, Mrs. Shelia (MacLean) Clarke of Big Island for her kind help and historical information.
John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.