Health Care History in Canada

In this guide, educators share how they teach health care history in the classroom, including advice, online resources, books, and lesson plans.

Posted November 16, 2022

This educational package is inspired by Canada in Focus Episode 4: Free Health Care?

Exploring the Significance and the Road to Health Care in Canada

Written by Rob Bell, 2019 recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching

It is difficult to think of a period in the previous one hundred years — perhaps not since the last global pandemic — that the history of health care has been more relevant and imperative to students than in the past two years. Learning about the past can both inform and direct the future, for we often cannot properly appreciate the present without perceiving it in historical context. By exploring the health care tragedies and triumphs of the past, students are better able to understand the important progress made by medicine and science, while also appreciating what is still to be accomplished.

In the classroom, I frequently use the lens of health care to help students explore aspects of local and national history. Whenever possible, I try to develop partnerships between historians, scientists, curators, artists, and my students. Students’ appreciation for history is deepened when they are able to work with members of the community who hold experience and knowledge relevant to the class’s inquiry. Two organizations which we work closely with are our local museum, the Dundas Museum & Archives (DMA), and McMaster’s Children & Youth University (MCYU).

When learning about the Spanish Influenza, for instance, the students began by exploring the impact of the outbreak on our community with the help of Anna Patterson, the Education Coordinator at the DMA. The class discovered that a girl who attended our school — Hazel Layden — had died during the epidemic, and the students’ project quickly became focused on the disease’s impact on Hazel, her family and the community. Anna Patterson at the DMA helped students use birth, death and census records connected to Hazel’s life, while the MCYU team taught and ran workshops for the class on the influenza virus, vaccination, and health care accessibility. With the assistance of a local church, students located and were able to meet with Hazel’s niece, as well as locate and visit Hazel’s gravesite. This network of community partners enriched the students’ learning experiences and gave them invaluable resources with which to design an interactive website, as well as a commemorative exhibition hosted by the Museum.

A similar project began with the help of a local historian, Stan Nowak, who took the class on a tour of our town’s cemetery. He featured different sites in the graveyard like the area that is colloquially referred to as cholera alley — where many people were buried who had died of cholera — to teach students about the impact of various diseases on our community in the 19th century. Based on their learning, students developed and led an inquiry project, titled “The Fatal Five,” examining the five deadliest diseases for children living in our community in the 1800s. For this project, we partnered again with the DMA and MCYU. The museum staff provided students with ten years of death records (1869-1878) which the class used to survey the diseases that took the lives of children during this period, while university students from MCYU helped the class learn about the epidemiology and pathology of these diseases. Students presented their learning in an exhibit hosted by the DMA, which included models of each disease designed and 3-D printed by the class, as well as a virtual Minecraft tour of one disease’s impact on the human body.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the insulin discovery, the class spent the year working with MCYU and Banting House Museum, which allowed the digital team from MCYU to create a panoptic tour of the museum to allow students to research many of the artifacts connected to Banting’s life as a scientist and artist. The students also relied on many of the online resources provided by organizations like Defining Moments Canada for their research. The students’ work culminated in the writing and publication of a book for children about the insulin discovery.

For more information on Rob Bell’s projects check out these links:

Finding Hazel
The Fatal Five

More Advice From Teachers

How would you teach your students about health care history?

Teaching about health care in Canada is done by using case studies of pandemics and epidemics and by unpacking and exploring the ways in which different regions of Canada responded. For example, studying the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1918-1920, the polio epidemic in the 1950s and the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1990s as well as modern day responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students can work with primary and secondary source materials to determine the historical significance of the pandemic/epidemic. They also look at multiple historical perspectives found in personal/private correspondence, photographs, and statistical data from those impacted and those in government and medical roles. Students can engage in a compare/contrast activity to explore the causes and consequences, while also evaluating the degree of success the government, public health, and medical communities had in responding to the epidemic/pandemic and in controlling further outbreaks. Using the frameworks of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration, students will look for examples in unpacking the response and in understanding the lessons learned for future generations.

          – Katy Whitfield, Toronto, Ontario

Access to Medicare is an important part of being Canadian. Some newcomers or youth may see this as “free” health care. Opening a discussion in class about taxes (which were implemented as a temporary measure during the First World War) being used to pay for services can lead to an understanding that what some think is free, really is funded by the government. These are the social welfare programs that we have in Canada. By having this discussion, there can be a further exploration of key figures like Tommy Douglas and his significant contribution to Medicare. In addition, ask students about how they access health care. The answer should be: with a health card. This can be an interesting way to open the discussion. Get an image of an old OHIP card to make it more interesting. Creating connections for students and deepening an understanding of everyday items is a novel way of bringing out history.

          – Emilia Adorante, Thornhill, Ontario

How do you make health care history relevant and engaging for students?

As part of my historical investigation assessment for which I was a finalist for the 2021 Governor General’s Award History Award for Excellence in Teaching, students can select from a variety of contexts in which the topic of Medicare could factor. This year a student chose to analyze the Saskatchewan Doctors’ Strike of 1962. It was fascinating, particularly the presentation viva voce, where the student had to defend their thesis in support of doctors who wanted to privatize. The case for a two-tier medical system is not something that is often discussed in a social studies classroom, so I was grateful for the opportunity to do so.

          – Shannon Leggett, North Vancouver, British Columbia

Students find statistical data relating to health care to be an engaging way of starting this type of inquiry. Allowing students to also look at the impact of the pandemic/epidemic on their communities and to look at local and regional stories and firsthand accounts of those involved also helps to make learning relevant and interesting.

          – Katy Whitfield, Toronto, Ontario

More Resources From Canada’s History

The Fight For Medicare

The battle to obtain medicare in Canada was a long and hard one. By no means was the outcome certain.

From Bubonic Plague to Covid-19

We should remember past pandemics not just for their own sakes, but to ward off the complacency that can leave our communities vulnerable to, and ravaged by, future epidemics.

Peacetime Killer

The 1918 flu epidemic felled nearly as many Canadians as the preceding war.

A Pox on Our Nation

Much of Canada’s early history was shaped by the presence of smallpox, a “speckled monster” as deadly as Ebola that wiped out whole communities. Could the disease rise again?

The Crusader

Butcher, baker, restauranteur — Dr. William John McKay had your number. When it came to defending Saskatoon’s public health, no one was tougher.

The Lepers of Tracadie

When leprosy broke out in New Brunswick in the 1800s, authorities were quick to cast out the afflicted — even though they should have known better.

Manufacturing Hope

The discovery of insulin a century ago saved the lives of millions of diabetics. But the breakthrough was fraught with drama, competition, and conflict.

Radical Medicine

Book Review: Tracing the development of medicare in Canada.

Psychiatry and the Legacies of Eugenics

Book Review: Psychiatry and the Legacies of Eugenics is a bold anthology that offers a historical overview of the Western Canadian uptake of the eugenics movement.

Medicine Unbundled

Book Review: The nucleus of the book is Morris’s account of her mother’s institutionalization for seventeen years at British Columbia’s Nanaimo Indian Hospital, as well as Morris’s own experiences of racism in the Canadian health system.

Managing Madness

Book Review: Managing Madness, written by Erika Dyck and Alex Deighton, provides a fascinating and nuanced look at the transformation of psychiatric care in Canadian history. 

Separate Beds

Book Review: Separate Beds is a wide-ranging study of Indian hospitals in Canada. The thoroughly researched book traces the history of hospital staffing and operations, the experiences of patients, the development of national policies regarding Aboriginal health care, and efforts by Aboriginal communities to resist oppression and discrimination.


Lesson Plans and Activities on Health Care History

Teaching the Spanish Influenza

Defining Moments Canada brings life to history with interdisciplinary educational resources and digital crowdsourcing commemoration.


Learn More with These Resources

Canada’s History Society thanks all the teachers that were involved with this project.

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