The History of Health Care in Canada

The history of health care in Canada is varied and has been filled with many interesting developments, people, and organizations. From the founding of organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance to the first Canadian women doctors, the history of Canada’s health care over more than two centuries is full of facts to know about and learn. Also covered is how people took care of health in the past outside of organized systems.   

Key People

Key people in the history and development of healthcare in Canada include

  • Tommy Douglas: introduced government-funded health insurance
  • Emily Stowe: first Canadian woman with a medical degree to practice medicine in Canada
  • Ann Augusta Stowe-Gullen: first woman to graduate in medicine in Canada
  • Maude Abbott: laid the groundwork for modern heart surgery (Source: Maude Abbott | The Canadian Encyclopedia)      


Before the 20th century, medicine in Canada included a greater reliance on natural treatments and remedies in addition to the occurrence of many medical science advancements and developments. In general, women provided a lot of medical care to their families at home especially if they lived in rural or remote areas. Women at home would gain knowledge of health, medicine, and plants and herbs to use from midwives, nuns, other women, and others with an understanding of the use of natural medicines. Medical schools and organizations were started and developed. However, there were also tensions between English and French speaking doctors as well as doctors trained in Canada and doctors trained elsewhere.

The Canadian Medical Association was formed in 1867. Two years later, in 1869, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario was incorporated by the Ontario Medical Act. This Act gave the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario the authority to examine future practitioners and university graduates. (Source: History of Medicine to 1950 | The Canadian Encyclopedia)

The second half of the 19th century introduced the use of microscopes in medical schools, thus increasing knowledge and learning opportunities of students.

In the 1840s, anesthetic was discovered which began to be used during surgeries. Later, W.E. Brown (1923) and Dr. Harold Griffith (1942) both made more advancements in the area and use of anesthesia. (Source: History of Medicine to 1950 | The Canadian Encyclopedia)

In Ontario, settlers from Britain would often bring both army and civilian surgeons with them. In the Maritimes, Halifax had a large medical population, which included military surgeons, and a number of hospitals. In the Prairie provinces and British Columbia, Hudson’s Bay Company would employ its own doctors. (Source: History of Medicine to 1950 | The Canadian Encyclopedia)

How Doctors Were Paid

Because work as a doctor was not very stable, the population was small, and the fees low, many doctors had other occupations such as working as farmers, operating a store, or being a geologist or botanist.

Doctors were paid directly from their patients which would sometimes be based on a barter system, since many services and goods were traded in the past. 


Canadian Red Cross
Established in 1896, the Canadian Red Cross began as an affiliation of the British Red Cross Society. The Canadian Red Cross’s founder was George Ryerson who also founded Canada’s St. John Ambulance Association. In 1909, the Canadian Red Cross Society Act established the Red Cross as a corporate body in Canada. (Source: Canadian Red Cross - Wikipedia)

Today, the Red Cross provides programs such as home care services, Health Equipment Loan Program (HELP), first aid and CPR training, and more. Each province in Canada has a branch of or access to the Canadian Red Cross.

St. John Ambulance
The first Canadian branch of St. John Ambulance was established in 1883 in Quebec City to teach first aid courses, and in the next ten years, twelve branches were established across Canada to teach first aid. The organization generates income through first aid and CPR classes, and that income is then directed to St John Ambulance’s charitable work. (Source: About St. John Ambulance | St. John Ambulance Canada (

First Canadian Hospitals

The history of hospitals in Canada began in the 17th century. They were usually non-profit and run by religious organizations of Catholic or Protestant denominations, charitable organizations, or municipal governments. (Source: Hospital | The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Development of Hospitals

The history of hospitals in Canada goes back to the 17th century when the first hospital, Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, opened in Quebec City. In the late 1860s, when the Toronto General Hospital closed due to lack of funding, the Ontario government stepped in by passing legislation to give monetary support to hospitals. This was a first step towards provincial governments providing funding for hospitals. (Source: Hospital | The Canadian Encyclopedia)

In the 21st century, Canada has public hospitals as well as private facilities and clinics which provide access to medical services and procedures.

First Canadian Medical Schools

Canada’s first medical school began in 1823 in Montreal as the Montreal Medical Institution and later was incorporated into McGill College. This was followed In 1829 by the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences becoming the College’s first faculty. (Source: History of Medicine to 1950 | The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Female Doctors

The history of Canada’s first female physicians takes us back to the 19th century. Emily Stowe, after graduating in 1867 from the New York Medical College for Women, was the first woman doctor to begin practicing medicine in Canada by opening a practice in Toronto. However, it was Jennie Trout who was the first woman doctor to legally practice medicine in Canada. She received a license to practice medicine from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario after graduating in 1875 from the Woman’s Medical College in Pennsylvania. (Source: 5 Noteworthy Historical Canadian Female Doctors and Leaders | The Rounds

In 1883, Ann Augusta Stowe-Gullen graduated from the medical program at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, becoming the first female physician trained in Canada. (Source: Ann Augusta Stowe-Gullen | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Throughout the 20th century, many changes occurred in Canadian health care. Some of those changes included the creation of public health care, community health centres, and more.

Healthcare - Federal and Provincial Responsibilities and Obligations

In Canada, Saskatchewan was the first province to implement government-funded health insurance in 1947 through the Saskatchewan Hospital Services Plan during Tommy Douglas’s time as Premier of Saskatchewan. 

Later, in 1961, the Saskatchewan government passed the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act, providing the first comprehensive health insurance plan in Canada. The federal government followed Saskatchewan’s example, and in 1966, Canada implemented the Medical Care Act. (Source: Tommy Douglas | The Canadian Encyclopedia)

The Canada Health Act, passed in 1984, is the federal legislation for publicly-funded health insurance, or medicare, in Canada. Healthcare is under the management of each province and territory although there is still a division of the responsibilities and obligations between the provincial and federal governments. The government of Canada explains, “The provincial and territorial governments are responsible for the management, organization and delivery of health care services for their residents.

The federal government is responsible for

  • setting and administering national standards for the health care system through the Canada Health Act.
  • providing funding support for provincial and territorial health care services.
  • supporting the delivery for health care services to specific groups.
  • providing other health-related functions.

Canada Health Act - Provincial and territorial health care insurance plans must meet the standards described in the Canada Health Act. This is necessary to get their full payment under the Canada Health Transfer.

These standards [or principles] include:

The Canada Health Act also includes areas such as nursing home care, home care service, and adult residential care service.

Community Health Centres 

Canada’s first Community Health Centre was opened in 1926 in Winnipeg. Community Health Centres provide primary care and services to patients such as nurse practitioners, social workers, dietitians, family physicians, and other clinicians and health care providers. In addition, Community Health Centre health care providers work to address the root cause of illnesses and find solutions by addressing areas such as access to housing, poverty, and education. (Source: About Community Health Centres - CACHC | ACCSC

New Health Careers 

Daniel David Palmer, who was born in Ontario in 1845, discovered chiropractic care in 1895 when he was working in Iowa. (Source: Chiropractic | The Canadian Encyclopedia) In Canada, the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College opened in September 1945 and the word memorial in its name is in honor of Daniel David Palmer.

How Technology and Advancements Have Changed Health Care 

There have been a number of advancements in technology used in healthcare. For example, in 1956, the first open heart surgery was performed in Alberta, Canada, (Source: Canada's 1st open heart surgery | The Channel ( and in 1968, the first successful heart transplant was performed in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Source: Canada's first successful heart transplant was 50 years ago this week. Here's how it happened | CBC News). While there have been advancements and developments in performing surgeries safely, each surgery is accompanied by risks.

What leads to advancements and developments in technology and equipment in healthcare? Innovation and research are two important requirements together with time and financial support to test new research and make improvements where and as needed.

Health Insurance
The intent of health insurance and coverage across Canada is to ensure that when a person needs immediate or urgent medical attention or care, such as at a hospital, they are not turned away due to lack of financial means. 

Canada's national health-insurance program (also called medicare) is designed to ensure that every resident of Canada receives medical care and hospital treatment, the cost of which is paid through general taxes or through compulsory health-insurance premiums. 

Medicare developed in two stages. The first was the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Act of 1957, which gave the Canadian government authority to enter into an agreement with the provinces to establish a comprehensive, universal plan covering acute hospital care and laboratory and radiology diagnostic services. Nine years later, the Medical Care Act of 1966 extended health insurance to cover doctors' services. (Source: Health Policy | The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Dental Care
In Canada, most people have a health insurance plan to help cover the cost for dental care. The amount covered for dental care depends on the procedure or service required and also varies based on the health insurance plan. In 2022, the Canadian government began rolling out its dental care plan.

Mental Health
Up until the 1950s to 1960s, those with mental health issues would either be cared for at home or in an institution called an asylum. Later in the 20th century, as discoveries were being made and new things learned, new treatments in the form of drugs were beginning to be available to support those with mental health issues.

The History of Health Care Continues

The history of health care in Canada is filled with interesting facts, progress, and discoveries as well as people and organizations which helped to bring important healthcare developments to this country. As you read through this article, make note of things that you and your children would like to learn more about. Studying Canada’s history of healthcare will cover subjects including history, science, geography, and more.

This article has been written by homeschooling staff writers of The Canadian Schoolhouse (TCS).

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