Precursors: 1885-1896

Portrait of Dr. George Sterling Ryerson

Canadians first put the symbol and humanitarian ideals of the Red Cross to work in 1885, during the North West Rebellion in present-day Saskatchewan. Although there was no official Red Cross organization in Canada at the time, certain individuals were familiar with the Red Cross movement that had taken root in Europe during the 1860s and 1870s. The symbol of the red cross appeared on at least three homemade red cross flags which were flown to claim neutrality for the humanitarian work of battlefield medics. Toronto citizens also raised money to equip a “Red Cross Corps” of medical students who travelled west to provide medical care to the sick and wounded of the Canadian militia. 

After the North West Rebellion ended, Red Cross activity in Canada temporarily disappeared. But in 1896, Toronto surgeon and militia member Dr. George Sterling Ryerson – one of the three men to fly a flag bearing a red cross, in 1885 – sought and gained permission to start a branch of the British Red Cross in Canada. (This was necessary because Canada was still a British colony.) Ryerson was part of a group of doctors and militia members who were concerned about the poor quality of medical care available to Canadian soldiers. They believed the Red Cross would be a good way to provide better care to sick and wounded soldiers in wartime.  Officially known as the “British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War – Canadian Branch,” this 1896 organization was the first official Canadian Red Cross.



Glassford, Sarah Carlene. “Marching As to War:  The Canadian Red Cross Society, 1885-1939.”  PhD dissertation, York University, 2007.