Alma Finnie

Born on July 24th, 1891 Alma grew up in the Peterborough area alongside her six siblings and parents, Walter and Elizabeth Finnie (née Truscott), on their family homestead. Like many in the area, Finnie would enlist for the Great War later in her life. Finnie was one of many women to join the war effort through the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC). Previous to her nursing career, Finnie graduated from Lindsay Collegiate, and initially started her work as a school teacher. Finnie taught for only one school year in 1911, before returning to school to pursue an education in nursing. By 1915, Finnie had graduated from Grace Hospital in Toronto and based on her reportedly adventurous nature, she unsurprisingly enlisted for the CAMC. Finnie could then pursue her passion of helping those in need, while also providing relief to the men fighting. Shortly after her enlistment in December of 1916, Finnie joined other nursing sisters in providing essential medical attention to soldiers on the front lines of France. As was common for military records, there is little information available about Finnie’s exact movements during her time spent with the CAMC overseas. However, her papers do provide a vague outline of the travelling Finnie did; where she was stationed, and a total of how long she stayed in one country.

Photo of Finnie in her full ‘Bluebird’ nursing uniform. Roy Studio: Balsillie Collection, Archive reference 2000-012-013593-3. Used with Permission from Peterborough Museum and Archives.

According to her attestation papers, Finnie enlisted for the CAMC on the 21st of December 1916, but was not sent overseas until the 13th of February of the following year. Admittedly, Finnie’s military career was short, spanning only from 1916-1919 but still meaningful, both to the war effort and for female history in Canada. After arriving in France, Finnie along with her fellow nursing sisters would evacuate wounded soldiers from the front lines through the use of the French railways. Finnie would spend thirteen of her total twenty-nine months within the borders of France. Due to the lack of documentation, it is unclear whether she spent that time in field hospitals close to the front lines, or tending to wounded men in hospitals away from the dangerous environment of the battlefield. According to her military documents, she would spend time in both Canada (six months) and England (ten months), but besides her participation in France and the 1917 Canadian Federal election, nothing more is publicly known about her wartime movements. However, due to the amount of time she spent in France and the time frame of the election, it can be suggested that Finnie often moved between both England and France, interchangeably during the war. In the fourth quarter of 1917, Finnie would be moved to Kent, England to work at the Orpington Military Hospital, where many soldiers she had previously helped would be receiving medical care. It is here that Finnie became the first female to cast a ballot in a Canadian federal election. Finnie was not the only woman chosen for the event, having two other nursing sisters join her in the historical moment; incidentally, one was also a woman from Ontario. Finnie would discuss the event decades after the war and would express that she had never intended to get the vote nor be the first woman to do so. Nevertheless, her most documented moment is surrounding this event in Canadian female history. Finnie was able to make this history in part due to the Military Voters Act, which allowed women in the military to participate in federal elections alongside the soldiers and later, all women over the age of 21. Her role in voting demonstrated a change for women in Canada, and a proud moment for those that would discover her connection to the Peterborough area.

Photo of Finnie (Left) casting the first female vote in Orpington, Dec 1917. Official WWI Collection, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1964-114, item M-381C

Following the end of the First World War, Finnie would remain in England for another year until being discharged on November 6th of 1919. It would not be until February that Finnie would finally return home to Canada and her family. Finnie would be awarded the British War medal and the Allied Victory medal for her service, and later these would be donated to the Canadian Museum of History for display in their exhibit for wartime nursing. In 1919, Finnie travelled from Ottawa and returned to Toronto, beginning her work at the Christie Street Military Hospital. While working, Finnie would meet her future husband, Norman Lucas, an injured veteran from the Battle of Passchendaele (1917), and later a CBC broadcaster in Winnipeg. She worked within the military hospital until around 1925-6 before joining the Red Cross where she is later documented to have been one of three nurses to help miners in Red Lake during the gold rush of 1926. She did not remain in the remote area for long, travelling to America, specifically New York, sometime before returning to Toronto to marry Lucas; all in the same year.  Finnie and her husband left Ontario, not returning to Peterborough until the 1970s when she reired at Anson House with one of her brothers. Finnie lived until she was 102, and after her death on December 7th, 1992, she was interred into Little Lake Cemetery, where her husband had been previously buried on October 16th 1977. Interestingly, Finnie and Lucas were buried along with her sister Jean and brother-in-law Ralph. According to a few sources, Finnie and Lucas did have a child together and many more grandchildren/great-grandchildren; however it is unknown whether they remain in the Peterborough area or in Ontario at all due to birth records not being publicly available at this time. It is also unknown whether Finnie’s childhood home still exists as at the time of her enlistment, Finnie was still in Toronto, her address reflecting this information. Unfortunately, no other documents exist publically that states the address of the home, making it difficult to find an exact location, if one still remains.

Based on available information on her life before, during and after the war, Alma Finnie was clearly a passionate woman who cared for those she did not know, and had a unique experience with her career that makes her important to local and national history. She never intended for the vote to be her legacy, admitting herself that she found the process time-consuming due to the formalities; wanting only to get back to work. Her passion for nursing and helping others is clear in the few sources that speak of her personality, and despite her intentions, Finnie has left a legacy in local history that should not be forgotten.

Research by Abagail Cottrell and Emily Loveless

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