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Effecting change

The First World War and the evolution of social work in N.L.

special feature: Commemoration

Part of a special feature marking the centenary of the First World War and highlighting Memorial’s status as a living memorial that in freedom of learning their cause and sacrifice might not be forgotten.” This feature supports WW100, Memorial’s Commemoration Program.    


By Laura Woodford

Imagine a soldier returning home to Newfoundland from the battlefields in Europe during the First World War, likely physically and/or mentally wounded, and needing help to pay for medical bills, coal for the fire and food to eat.

Where would he turn?

Suffered in silence

In the early days during the war, there were no options for veterans to seek assistance, universal social programs did not exist in the Dominion and there were no pensions. Many soldiers and families were shattered by The Great War and suffered in silence with no help or support.

The needs that arose on the home front during and after the war, and the response to them, help demonstrate where the First World War and the social changes it helped effect belong within the history of the social work profession in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Even though social work was not a named profession at the time, the work that was being done along the lines of social welfare and public relief and policy, is very much a part of social work as we know it today.” –Dr. Donna Hardy Cox

Memorial’s School of Social Work undertook a project with the assistance of the university’s Living Memorial Commemoration Fund to highlight the First World War’s role in exposing the need for change in social policies in this province and to commemorate the pioneering individuals and groups who sought to effect those changes.

The dean of the school, Dr. Donna Hardy Cox, partnered with master of philosophy in humanities candidate John R. Matchim, arts graduate student David Stephens and Dr. Michelle Sullivan, retired School of Social Work faculty member and graduate of the first bachelor of arts in social welfare class for the project.

The group completed extensive research, using primary sources such as the Telegram newspaper and the Fishermen’s Protective Union Bulletin to construct the context of the public welfare system at the time and identify the relief efforts of individuals and groups.

Women’s Patriotic Association

The Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA) was a women’s auxiliary group that met five days a week to sew and knit for the soldiers and participated in fundraising activities to support the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Near the end of the war, and in the immediate years afterwards, the WPA shifted its focus to the health and welfare of vulnerable children and provided affordable supplies and training to new mothers.

The ballroom, Government House, St. John's, NL, which is used by members of the Women's Patriotic Assoc. who meet five days a week to sew and knit for the men at the front, ca. 1915
The ballroom at Government House in St. John’s, which was used by members of the Women’s Patriotic Association to sew and knit for the men at the front, ca. 1915.
Photo: Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library

Great War Veterans’ Association

The Great War Veterans’ Association (GWVA) was established to lobby for the needs of returning military personnel, such as pensions, employment opportunities and education.

Emergency relief was provided to vulnerable veterans in the form of concrete care, including rent, heat, food and transportation. The women who were members of the WPA supported the GWVA by organizing socials and selling forget-me-not flowers for Memorial Day on July 1. In return, in 1925 the GWVA passed a resolution urging the government to award women of the Dominion the right to vote.

Sample list of items provided to veterans in need by the GWVA's "Relief Fund" ca. 1920
Sample list of items provided to veterans in need by the GWVA’s Relief Fund, ca. 1920.
Photo: The Rooms Provincial Archives

Evolution of a profession

“Even though social work was not a named profession at the time, the work that was being done along the lines of social welfare and public relief and policy, is very much a part of social work as we know it today,” said Dr. Hardy Cox. “It is important for people to see the valuable roles played by these women and men during this very difficult time in our province’s history—in the world’s history—and to acknowledge and remember their great contributions.”

The final product of the project is an educational storyboard banner, which will be part of a sequence that will help tell the story of the history of social work in this province. Additional funding has been obtained for other panels in the sequence.

From left are David Stephens, Dr. Donna Hardy Cox and John R. Matchim. Missing: Dr. Michelle Sullivan
From left are David Stephens, Dr. Donna Hardy Cox and John R. Matchim. Missing: Dr. Michelle Sullivan
Photo: Chris Hammond

Students attending Memorial’s School of Social Work today, and in future years, can gain a new perspective of the struggles Newfoundland and Labrador faced on the home front during the First World War, a new outlook on how The Great War shaped this province and learn about the early public relief efforts brought about by the dedicated people who came together to help their fellow citizens in times of great need.

The banner can presently be seen at the Queen Elizabeth II Library and will subsequently be showcased in other Memorial libraries.


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