The Canadian Red Cross

The Canadian Red Cross is a well-known organization that has long helped those in need. Its history is intertwined with our country's military efforts and many Canadians volunteered with the Red Cross during the war years. Canadian servicemen and servicewomen greatly appreciated the support offered by the Red Cross, whether at home, on the front lines, in prisoner-of-war camps or in rest areas away from the fighting.

The Red Cross' roots in Canada date back to the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Dr. George Sterling Ryerson was the regimental surgeon of the battalion that later became known as the Royal Grenadiers. To try to protect the wagons carrying his medical supplies from attack, he needed a way to distinguish them from wagons carrying army equipment. He took two red pieces of fabric and sewed them into the shape of a cross on a white cotton cloth, creating one of the very first Red Cross flags seen in our country.

Dr. Ryerson would go on to found the first overseas branch of the British Red Cross here in Canada in 1896. The new organization would soon be offering aid during a military conflict when the South African War erupted in 1899. Dozens of Red Cross branches quickly sprang up across the country to collect money, clothing and food supplies to take to South Africa to help the sick and injured. School children volunteered too, putting together parcels for those serving so far from home.

This overseas branch of the British Red Cross officially became the Canadian Red Cross in 1909. It would not be long before the new organization was called upon to help those affected by military conflict. The First World War raged from 1914 to 1918 and the organization undertook many relief efforts. Red Cross volunteers across Canada knitted socks and sweaters, and sewed bandages and bed linens to be sent to war-torn Europe. They also raised large sums of money for supplies to aid those affected by the fighting. The Canadian Red Cross also played a central role in establishing and supporting hospitals for those injured in the war, like the Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital in Maidenhead, England.

The Canadian Red Cross again rose to the challenge when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Indeed, almost three million Canadians were active Red Cross members by the end of the conflict.

There was a trained, uniformed Canadian Red Cross Corps, as well as ‘junior clubs' for youth. One of their major efforts was offering medical aid and some of the comforts of home – be it food, warm clothing or books – to those affected by the fighting. They held quilting parties to make blankets and sent parcels containing knitted clothing, blankets, sweets and cigarettes to soldiers overseas – especially those being held in prisoner-of-war camps.

The Canadian Red Cross raised large amounts of money to support members of the military and civilians in need by holding fundraising events like dances and concerts. They also arranged entertainment like movie nights and picnics for wounded servicemen recuperating in local hospitals.

Canadian Red Cross volunteers also used their skills to help make up for the shortage of medical workers at home by driving ambulances, assisting nurses, training individuals in first aid, running blood donor clinics and providing medical aid as needed. They also supported local hospitals by donating beds and medical supplies. The volunteers were also quick to respond to fires, floods and other emergencies in their communities.

Tens of thousands of women played a huge role in the Canadian Red Cross during the war. Hundreds even served with the organization overseas, doing many of the tasks their fellow members performed back home, as well as other things like helping civilians affected by the fighting, supporting the families of military members, and staffing hostels and canteens for military men. Canadian Red Cross personnel also served in Newfoundland (which was not yet part of Canada at that time), helping injured seamen whose ships had been torpedoed on the Atlantic Ocean.

The Second World War came to an end in 1945, but that was not the end of the work for the organization. Thousands of ‘war brides' (European women who had married Canadian servicemen) and their children sailed across the Atlantic to their new homes in Canada after the war – and Red Cross volunteers were on the ships with them to help.

The Canadian Red Cross continued its service during the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. They sent medical-social welfare teams to Korea, and they played a role in prisoner-of-war exchanges between North and South Korea.

The Canadian Red Cross continues to help Canadians and those in need beyond our borders whose lives are disrupted by war and natural disasters. Indeed, Canadians working with the Red Cross are still serving in war zones today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. For more information on the Canadian Red Cross, please visit the Canadian Red Cross Web site.

Date modified: