Moose Jaw Girl Off to College

It was 1942 when our mom, Catherine Elizabeth Johnston, packed her suitcases and headed for the University of Toronto to begin a two-year diploma program in occupational therapy.  She was just shy of 18 years old, and had spent her whole life in Moose Jaw, whose population was 20,000 that year. Toronto, by contrast, had a population just over one million, and was booming with industry and commerce generated by World War II.

Canada had declared war on Germany three years earlier, and the conflict must have felt close to home. Nazi German submarines (U-Boats) had entered Canada’s inland waters via the Gulf of St. Lawrence and sunk several ships, including a passenger ferry. Food and other essentials were being rationed. Of a population of just over 11 million people, more than one million would serve in the country’s armed forces in combat or support services. Virtually every home and community was affected by the war.

About a dozen snapshots taken during Mom’s two years in the OT program were saved in family albums for the nearly 80 years since then. When I look at them, I like to think that she found it challenging, rewarding, and fun to live and study with other young women from various places in Canada. Like many middle-class women of her generation, those would be the only years she lived and worked on her own, independent of parents or spouse.

She lived in Annesley Hall, which was the first women’s dormitory built in Canada. Completed in 1903, it’s a national historic site because of its Queen Anne architecture, and was still housing women students in 2020.

The large, flat dome behind Catherine and Pennington in this dormitory rooftop photo is, I believe, Convocation Hall, an architecturally amazing “ceremonial auditorium” on the U of T campus, completed in 1907.
Catherine with her two roommates: Meta McLaughlin (left) and Pennington de Leopard (center).
Annesley Hall

Catherine entered the OT program at a time when big changes were being made in the curriculum. Based on lessons of World War I a generation earlier, the University of Toronto had been steadily developing its OT curriculum. Young women who served during that war completed a six-month program to become a “reconstructive aide” or “ward aide”. These early OTs worked mostly at the bedside of individual patients, encouraging injured soldiers to learn and practice manual skills useful for daily life and work. Then as now, the goal was to promote healing of both physical and psychological injuries through productive activity.

Catherine (third from left in “civilian” clothes) poses on campus for a group portrait with three classmates in uniform. They’ve written their names below their photos: (L to R) Evelyn, Barbara, and Marylou (or maybe Marilyn). I love the uniforms and oxfords – so elegantly 1940s.

A group of these World War I OT graduates realized that their services were going to be needed even after the war. Luckily for Catherine and all the OT students that followed, these women formed the Ontario Society for Occupational Therapy and began to upgrade professional standards and improve the training program. In the university’s 1926 Extension Program pamphlet, the program was described as “a new course for young ladies who are anxious to be of service in the healing of the sick and maimed and convalescent”.

By the time Catherine entered the program 16 years later, it took two years to earn an OT diploma. Students were required to master basic material in science subjects, including Anatomy, Physiology, Psychology, Psychiatry, Physical Training, Recreation, and Theory of Occupational Therapy. Second-year requirements included study of surgery, neurology, and other medical topics, reinforced with clinical demonstrations.

1939 OT and PT Extension manual for OT and PT two-year programs.
University of Toronto Archives :

Free Texts : Free Download, Borrow and Streaming : Internet Archives
Wearing her uniform, with her veil in place, and carrying a basket, Catherine looks like she might be waiting for transportation – maybe to an internship site.

For hands-on practice of their OT skills, students worked under supervision at nearby healthcare facilities, ranging from preschool programs to military hospitals. They were also required to learn 10 types of arts and crafts and complete a project for each. Among these were weaving, wood working, leather and metal crafts, and painting.

I’d guess that the demands of Catherine’s coursework were roughly comparable to today’s intensive two-year certification programs at community colleges, designed to prepare students for specific vocations.

Catherine likely graduated in May of 1944. Her only graduation snapshot has no date penciled on the back. I’m quite sure she didn’t work as an occupational therapist after graduation. She married our dad a year later in Toronto, and soon after they moved to Vancouver where he attended law school. I was born about 16 months after they were married, and four of my six brothers and sisters were born over the next five years.

Catherine and friends on graduation day, diplomas and flowers in hand. I’m not sure why Catherine isn’t wearing a graduation gown.

Whether Catherine independently chose to study occupational therapy or was encouraged by a family member or school counselor, it seems like a good fit for her. Growing up, we kids watched her construct everything from teeny-tiny doll clothes to sleeping bags and tents. She even caned the seat and back of an old rocking chair and refinished furniture. Into her 70s, she continued to knit sweaters and sew clothing for herself and family members.

When we visit her now at the nearby nursing home where she lives, Mom watches intently as my sister Marnie works on a knitting project or even just winds skeins of yarn into balls. She hasn’t had the fine motor skills to do handwork for many years. Maybe at 96 she gets some pleasure just from observing. I hope so.

2 responses to “”

  1. Linda (and Valerie), this is absolutely awesome!!! I even learned interesting things about my dad —population of Moose Jaw and the fact that the Germans were in the St Lawrence (close to where my folks were —Fort Erie). Great job and thank you soooo much for sharing it.

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