Nov 09, 2020
By Laura Eggertson

Discrimination in Canada led First Nations nurse to train in New York to serve with U.S.

Courtesy of Don MontureCharlotte Edith Anderson — whose married name became Monture — was the only First Nations nurse known to have served during the First World War.

The morning after the American soldier who regarded her as his “big sister” died when he hemorrhaged from a neck wound, Charlotte Edith Anderson let the grief and the exhaustion overwhelm her.

It was June 16, 1918. Anderson — known as “Andy” to her friends and colleagues — was inconsolable.

The Mohawk nurse from Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont., had been sure Earl King would recover. She’d nursed him for three days after he was brought to Base Hospital 23 in Vittel, France, from the front.

She’d already stopped the 19-year-old from hemorrhaging twice, once with the help of a boy who brought bread for the soldiers at the 1,800-bed field hospital.

“My heart was broken. Cried most of the day and could not sleep,” Anderson wrote in her diary.

Two days later, she ordered flowers for “her boy” and attended his funeral.

Only First Nations nurse

“It rained through the whole funeral and my feet were wet, but I didn’t mind. I paid my last respects to Earl.”

Anderson — whose married name became Monture — was the only First Nations nurse known to have served during the First World War.

Although she enlisted with the U.S. Army Nursing Corps, she was from Canada.

The glimpse into her life during the First World War comes courtesy of the journal she kept — strictly against orders — during the year she served overseas. Her family discovered the diary only when they were packing up her things after her death. They later published Diary of a War Nurse privately.

None of the Canadian nursing schools she wrote to would accept her application.

Anderson volunteered in 1917, at the age of 27. She arrived in France on March 6, 1918.

She joined in the United States because that’s where she was working as a nurse at a private school, after taking her training at the New Rochelle School of Nursing in New York.

Nothing to lose

None of the Canadian nursing schools she wrote to would accept her application. They never even responded to her letters, “presumably since they saw her home address as a resident of Six Nations,” says John Moses, her grandson and a historian at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa.

Despite the discrimination, Anderson took a chance when she saw an ad for the New York nursing school in the Brantford, Ont., newspaper.

Her granddaughter, Terri Monture, once asked her grandmother why she applied in the United States.

“I had nothing to lose,” she said.

Not only was she accepted; she graduated at the top of her class.

“The lowest mark she had was 96,” says her son, Don Monture.

Now 85, Don Monture once asked his mother what it was like during the war.

Deaths left lasting impact

She described a 17-year-old boy the nurses had to care for like a baby. He’d lost both his arms when a shell exploded as he was driving a horse-drawn wagon to the front to deliver supplies.

“When you’re in your 20s and you see the stuff I saw — you shouldn’t have to see that stuff,” his mother told Don Monture.

The death of Earl King left a lasting impact on Anderson. She later wrote to King’s mother in Waterloo, Iowa, telling her she was with King when he died. It was the start of a long friendship with the grateful family.

After the war, Anderson returned to Six Nations. It was the first time she’d seen her family in two years. She married Claybran Monture, the man she’d been “keeping company” with before she went overseas.

Monture, whose family called her by her middle name, Edith, continued to work part-time as a nurse at Six Nations. She also served as a midwife for many children born at home.

The Montures, who were farmers, had five children. They lost one son at 5 when his appendix burst.

Two of her children — Don Monture and Helen Moses — say their mother never spoke about encountering racism while she was serving. She didn’t talk about the hardships of the war at all.

But every Remembrance Day, Monture would pin on her medals and join the local ceremonies, taking salutes from the younger veterans.

Earned voting rights

“She was so low-key about it. She didn’t think anything of it, really,” says Helen Moses, who also became a nurse and is a founding member of the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association.

Given the systemic racism Monture had to overcome just to train as a nurse, her service was exceptional.

“She didn’t get much recognition while she was living, and now she’s getting more than ever. She would be almost embarrassed to get all this attention.”

Given the systemic racism Monture had to overcome just to train as a nurse, her service was exceptional. But it was only one of many reasons she deserves a more prominent place in Canadian history.

Monture was also the first First Nations woman to have the right to vote in a federal election, says John Moses.

It wasn’t until 1960 that “Status Indians” — members of First Nations who were registered under the Indian Act — were given the right to vote in federal elections without losing their status. Prior to that, if they wanted to vote, they were considered enfranchised and they lost their status and band membership.

The Military Voters Act of 1917, however, gave all Canadian soldiers the right to vote — including nurses serving during the war.

“To the extent that Grandma was the only Canadian Indian woman serving in uniform during the First World War, she gained the right to vote,” says John Moses.

House a polling station

“She was proud to exercise the right to vote, and she worked on a couple of different levels to try to get the voting rights extended more broadly across the Canadian Indigenous population.”

In fact, the Monture house served as a polling station on Six Nations during that first federal election following the 1960 amendments to the Indian Act.

“Some native people did not want to vote,” says Helen Moses.

But not her mother.

“She always felt it was her civic duty to vote as long as she had the opportunity, and she did.”

Edith Monture died just shy of her 106th birthday at the Iroquois Lodge in Oshweken, Ont.

Decades after her mother’s service, her daughter Helen was travelling in France and had the opportunity to take a side trip to Vittel. She wanted to see where her mother’s wartime experiences took place.

“Some of the same buildings were still standing,” Helen Moses says. “It was quite moving to realize that she’d been there.”

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Wolfville, N.S.

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