A Passion for History, A Place in the Present, by Jennifer M.L. Stephens, RN

The B.C. History of Nursing Society (BCHNS) is thrilled to support the Association of Registered Nurses of British Columbia (ARNBC) as a fresh voice for professional nursing in our beautiful province. Our own organization was organized in 1989 as a professional practice group under the Registered Nurses Association of B.C. (RNABC) (now the College of Registered Nurses of British Columbia).  BCHNS members are passionate about researching, preserving, and sharing B.C. nursing history. Kathleen Murphy, president of the BCHNS, expresses the support of nursing history enthusiasts for the expert nursing voice offered by the ARNBC. Murphy says, “the BC History of Nursing Society is very pleased that the ARNBC will provide a much-needed political advocacy voice for nursing in our province.”

The first nursing organizations in Canada were formed by graduates (especially the matrons / nurse administrators) of a hospital or hospital school of nursing in the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, B.C. nurses began forming groups such as the Graduate Nurses Association of Vancouver. Through the efforts of these local groups along with the Canadian Society of Superintendents of Training Schools, 16 representatives met in Ottawa in 1908 to form the Canadian National Association of Trained Nurses (CNATA), which eventually became the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA). This was a move in the right direction, but Canada’s Confederation under the British North America Act of 1867 had established both health and education as matters of provincial jurisdiction. A national organization could only recommend standards.  Thus it was essential that provincial associations be created as a first step for legislation and registration with two-fold goals of protecting public interest and improving nursing education.

In B.C., the first provincial body of nurses was organized in 1912 as the Graduate Nurses Association of B.C. (GNABC). New Westminster school nurse Scharley Wright brought together a group of graduate nurses working in Victoria and the Lower Mainland to form this professional association.  The GNABC soon began lobbying the provincial government to enact legislation allowing nurses to control of their own professional standards.  After six years of lobbying, the GNABC achieved a Registered Nurses Act.  The GNABC then became the Registered Nurses Association of British Columbia (RNABC) and began to maintain the lists of nurses qualified and safe to practice. The mandate was a simple, well-stated purpose of supporting the health and welfare of British Columbians while maintaining the highest personal and professional integrity. This also resulted in the immediate elevation of nurses to primary power players in the rapidly developing health care system. The role of nurses in policy making and the design of healthcare standards increased as the decades passed. For example, nurses were involved early in pressures for publically-funded hospital and medical insurance programs.

Of immediate concern was elevation of standards for nursing education; many tiny hospitals had opened small schools of nursing. Another concern was to ensure fair remuneration for nurses and, by the 1950s, RNABC was among leaders in Canada in ensuring province-wide negotiations for nurses’ salaries and working conditions. In the 1970s provincial governments across Canada came to see the joint relationship between union roles and the other roles as regulators and policy makers as not appropriate. Thus the RNABC was instrumental in creating the B.C. Nurses’ Union to take over its Labour Relations Division in 1981. During the second half of the 1900s, RNABC, CNA, and other provincial associations were strongly involved in health care policy development and improvements. Through the national and provincial associations, nurses were strongly represented in the federal and provincial Royal Commissions on health care and improvements for health care for all Canadians.  As well, the provincial bodies continued to improve standards for nursing education and nursing quality. Soon, however, provincial governments were expressing concern over this joint role as policy advisors and as regulators; they were equally concerned about a dual role of unions and policy makers. Because of these pressures, provincial nurses’ associations were required to separate these functions.  This occurred in various ways in different provinces.

In B.C., the directors of the RNABC chose to ensure continuation of regulatory standards under nurses’ control; provincial legislation was enacted in 2005 to create the College of Registered Nurses of B.C. from the RNABC.  This left policy-making and advisory functions in limbo; even representation of B.C. nurses in the national body, the CNA, was jeopardized. Nursing leaders from highly-respected faculties at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria played pivotal roles in pressing the mandate for a renewed association and were instrumental in creating the RN Network of B.C. in 2009. This interim group worked diligently to create a new professional association, especially as the CRNBC had announced its intent to withdraw from CNA membership.

The new Association of Registered Nurses of B.C. held its first meeting in May 2010 and has taken on the advisory roles related to policy development both at provincial and national levels.  It now serves as the jurisdictional member of CNA, ensuring that the voice of B.C. nurses is heard in federal lobbying and advisory interests, such as the recent report identifying Canada’s most pressing health care issues to be faced in the next few years: The Top 5 in 5 (CNA, September 2013).

Over the years, the BCHNS has created an impressive nursing archive highlighting stories of remarkable B.C. nurses, and promoted history of nursing education through scholarships, nursing displays, guest lectures, and our own award-winning website. We welcome ARNBC as it contributes to the continuing saga of BC nursing history.


Jennifer M.L. Stephens, BSN, MA, RN, OCN is a nursing historian and a doctoral student in nursing at the University of British Columbia. She is the social media coordinator and member of the Website Committee for the BC History of Nursing Society. A special thanks and warm appreciation to nursing historians Ethel Warbinek and Glennis Zilm for their comments and support for this blog article.  For more information on the BC History of Nursing Society, visit http://www.bcnursinghistory.ca/

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So nice to see a voice of nursing history published here. Looking forward to checking out this website. Thanks!


This was a great article!

Margaret Wagle

I had no idea of nursing history in BC and learned so much from this article. Makes me proud to be in this profession. Many thanks!