Mabel Jones: The first Indigenous nurse to graduate from the WCH School of Nursing

June 24, 2019

By Denisa Popa

In Collaboration with Cathy Fournier and Selena Mills

June marks the beginning of National Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21), which is on the day of the summer solstice. This federally recognized celebration was first introduced in 1996 to provide an opportunity to “celebrate the heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding achievements of First Nation, Inuit and Métis” Peoples. However, many Indigenous groups have honoured their collective first mother (earth) during the summer solstice since time immemorial. As many Indigenous sacred teachings and knowledge are passed down orally, it is Women’s College Hospital’s (WCH) pleasure to honour the great legacy of Mabel Jones, who in 1928 became the first Indigenous nurse to graduate from the WCH School of Nursing.

Through the conscientious efforts of the WCH Archives and the Indigenous Health Education Group, Mabel’s revolutionary work (then and now) has been documented in various visual ways to greet everyone through a front entrance display. This representation has been a wonderful example of adhering to Indigenous cultural protocols and governance practices of consulting with elders and traditional practitioners. In addition to western modules of research, these two WCH groups worked with Mabel’s granddaughter Shelley Charles to ensure accuracy of historical information and oral knowledge, which helps pave the way to highlighting the importance of trust-building amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous peers. Some of the knowledge, photographs and artifacts treasured by Mabel’s community and family have been generously shared to accompany this display.

Mabel Jones was born in 1907 in the Cape Croker reserve in Georgian Bay, which is home to the Chippewas of Nawash. Her father was Chief Charles Kegedonce Jones. He supported Mabel and her sister Iola’s decision to attend the WCH School of Nursing. The sisters were part of the first generation of Indigenous women to graduate from a hospital-based nursing school in Canada. To get to WCH, Mabel travelled by horse and buggy to Owen Sound and then had to take a train to Toronto. Mabel began the three-year training program at the age of 17 and graduated with the Nursing Class of 1928. While Mabel’s accomplishments flourished, her graduation from the nursing program influenced her Indigenous status. The law at the time stated that once an Indigenous person attended university or received professional status they could lose their Indigenous status, meaning their identity was stripped from them under the pretence that the government had control over Indigenous identity. However, Mabel succeeded in keeping her status when she got married to her husband, George Douglas Charles. He was a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island. After her graduation, she and her husband moved to Georgina Island and she joined the Victorian Order of Nurses.

Mabel was an important member of the Indigenous community and worked as a Public Health Nurse on the island. She was well-known for combining western nursing practices with traditional Indigenous healing practices through the use of traditional plants. Mabel also acted as the midwife and nutritionist of the island. According to historian John Steckley, “she used the inner bark of the balsam to cut the umbilical cord, because of the medicinal qualities of that bark, she did not have to disinfect it.” During her career, she also worked for the Red Cross on St. Joseph Island and a Night Supervisor in Markham. She is remembered as “a proud nurse, meticulous with her uniform and a proud Indigenous woman.” Mabel died in 1983 at the age of 76.

Mabel attended the WCH School of Nursing at a time when First Nations, Inuit and Métis women were not allowed entry into other nursing programs. According to historian Kathryn McPherson, until the Second World War First Nations women were formally excluded from most nursing training programs. It was not until 1944 that the Canadian Nurses’ Association declared that, “there be no discrimination in the selection of students for enrollment into schools of nursing.” By 1951 there were 15 Indigenous nursing students in Canada and by 1961 there were 38. Mabel Jones was a trailblazer who had to overcome many systemic barriers constructed to erase Indigenous peoples to become a nurse. WCH continues to be committed to being an ally to Indigenous Peoples and is working to ensure safe and equitable healthcare.