L’art-thérapie pour les vétérans

Art Therapy for Veterans

Montreal, October 31, 2021

For this article of Did you know... dedicated to education, we considered the different topics available to us. After searching our archives, we discovered the impact of La Guilde on the development of occupational therapy for veterans during the First and Second World Wars. We were so astonished and charmed by this discovery that we couldn't imagine tackling any other subject. Throughout the two world wars, La Guilde was very proactive in collaborating with several organizations that taught various crafts to veterans returning from the war, as well as those involved with the Canadian Armed Forces.

In this article, we used the term occupational therapy rather than art therapy, as this was more in line with the language used at the time. Occupational therapy is a treatment that aims to help people with a disability (physical or mental; temporary or permanent) to rehabilitate themselves so that they can perform their daily activities with ease. The aim of this treatment is the well-being and independence of the person (Le Petit Robert, 2013). However, as we shall see, the practices described are closely related to that of art therapy. In fact, art therapy was practiced long before it was theorized. Did you know that La Guilde has made a significant contribution to the field of art therapy in Canada?

Art Therapy for Veterans

The Beginning of a Practice

In 1910, a few weeks before WWI (1914-1918), one of La Guilde's founders, Mrs. Alice J. Peck, contacted Mr. Hobbs—the superintendent of the Homewood Sanitarium in Guelph, ON, now known as the Homewood Health Centre—inquiring about the resources the hospital had available to offer crafts classes to its patients. Hobbs explained that he did not have a facility for this purpose at the time, but he seemed interested in the idea (Letter Mr. Hobbs 1910). In another letter from 1911, he stated that an arts and crafts building was under construction and would be completed in April 1912. He indicated that following this, he would be able to receive the speaker proposed by Mrs. Peck for a craft demonstration (Letter Mr. Hobbs 1911). From these exchanges, we understand that the women of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild were already concerned, even before the war, with making crafts available to patients in Canadian hospitals.

In 1916, Mrs. Peck prepared a document outlining the various crafts that could be practiced by soldiers returning from war: weaving, tapestry, rug making, vegetable dyeing—an art that Mrs. Peck was well versed in—basketry, bookbinding, woodcarving, metalwork, pottery, and toy making. She also mentioned the growing demand among veterans for handiwork and the beneficial effects it had on their mental and physical health (Peck, 1916). Mrs. Peck was well aware of the needs of her time and was able to take steps to meet them.

The growth of a promising practice

The work in the field of occupational therapy, which had already begun during WWI, continued and gained momentum at the beginning of WWII (1939-1945). In 1939, Dr. W. J. Patterson—president of the Occupational Therapy Centre in Montreal—was pleased to accept a proposal from the president of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Mr. Durnford, to collaborate to provide veterans with the opportunity to practice crafts and receive training (Letter Dr. Patterson 1939). We read that La Guilde's committee is “[...] especially anxious to assist towards some war effort and it seems that our work [that of La Guilde and the Centre] lies along somewhat similar lines” (Letter Mr. Durnford 1939). The unified effort of these two organizations is also mentioned in an article in the Family Herald and Weekly Star on the Occupational Therapy Centre. The article stated that the only place in Canada where there was training for occupational therapy education was at the University of Toronto and that the University had a long waiting list. There was, therefore, a real need for a new training centre for occupational therapists! The article confirmed that “a plan is being considered in Montréal in Conjunction with the Canadian Handicrafts Association [La Guilde] for the establishment of a training centre here [at the Occupational Therapy Centre] for providing occupational therapy for returned men in the present war” (Family Herald and Weekly Star, 1940). The Canadian Handicrafts Guild was thus closely involved in ensuring that veterans had access to crafts, while also being concerned with the training of teachers or therapists who could pass on their knowledge.

A Striking Testimony: One Veteran and the Art of Woodcarving

A testimony from 1942 bears witness to the effect of woodcarving on a veteran’s rehabilitation:

I found him most wonderfully improved, and full of spirits. [...] the doctor was much pleased with his progress and the fact that he was taking up this work. He walked into the room with quite a spring in his step. I feel that he is well on the way to making a full recovery of his hope and his ability to occupy himself with useful work (Letter Mrs. Coleman 1942).

Mrs. Coleman also describes all the benefits in terms of the veteran's health and morale associated with his new occupation: woodcarving. When the doctor went to change the cast on his right arm, the patient asked him to put on a lighter one so he could handle a saw. While making a wooden aeroplane, he asked his wife to find out where he could get small springs to fit the plane. His new passion led him to meet a woodcarver in his workshop, who encouraged him by recognizing his natural talent. Furthermore, when the veteran met Mrs. Coleman, he asked her if she knew of any places where he could get wood for the creation of three additional planes.

This anecdote clearly illustrates that the veteran's enthusiasm for woodcarving helped to restore his physical strength (by using his injured arm), morale, and self-esteem. Mrs. Coleman also confided in her letter that the veteran and his wife were suffering from depression before he undertook this handiwork. She noted the impact that carving had on the couple, who had regained their vitality and sense of well-being. It is said that no force is more powerful than that of passion!

That same year, Mrs. Coleman wrote another letter to Mrs. Drummond reporting on her visit to Macdonald College—one of the campuses of McGill University, now devoted to Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (Letter Mrs. Coleman, 1942). She felt that the college had great potential for occupational therapy for veterans and that this vocation could easily be implemented there. She had previously visited Ste. Anne's Hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue with a similar purpose. The women of La Guilde continued their efforts to develop educational programs in crafts for veterans. These efforts would bear fruit in the years ahead.

An occupational therapy’s photography exhibition

In 1943, The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) held the exhibition The Arts in Therapy, a theme on which the women of La Guilde were also planning an exhibition. In 1944, La Guilde presented an exhibition of photographs of occupational therapists teaching crafts to veterans in the Canadian military and civilian hospitals [fig.4]. As mentioned in the exhibition's press release, this event was a collaboration between the Canadian Pacific Railway Photography Department and the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. Many of the photographs were taken by George A. Hunter (1921-2013) [fig.1-3, 5-7]. The press release noted that “this exhibition is timely as the increasing need for trained therapists is felt due to the recent call put in by the Canadian Army for 70 therapists to serve in Military Hospitals” (Press release, 1944). Without having to pursue a full university education, they could complete a several-month course and assist the nursing staff by sharing their knowledge of crafts. They became a valuable aid to the nurses and therapists. These photographs, therefore, helped raise visitors' awareness on this matter and enabled them to participate in this joint effort.

An exhibition of crafts made by the veterans

A second exhibition was held in 1944 with a similar aim and featured crafts made by the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces. Visitors of 2025 Peel Street could encourage the veterans by purchasing a Christmas gift for a loved one. A short text accompanied each piece so that the public could learn more about the maker and their story. Some of the craftspeople were in hospitals and convalescent homes when they created their objects. Among them were students from the Handicrafts Division of the Macdonald College—the same college that Mrs. Coleman had visited two years prior—who were engaged in weaving, metalwork, leatherwork, woodwork, and shellwork, among other things [fig. 8-11]. Significant steps were taken at this college and The Canadian Handicrafts Guild continued to work closely with the staff. Many of the students were from the Canadian Women's Army Corps and the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division. These women took craft courses at the college and then returned to their units to share their knowledge. They also acted as craft ambassadors for the Canadian Red Cross.

Besides these students, some of the craftspeople were soldiers who wanted to relax and have fun while crafting, but also veterans who were undergoing treatment to improve their health. Ste. Anne's Hospital, the Occupational Therapy Centre (Welfare Federation), the Jewish Junior Welfare League and the Verdun Protestant Hospital—now known as the Douglas Mental Health University Institute—were among the many organizations that collaborated on the exhibition. An article in the Montreal Star outlined the different organizations that contributed to the exhibition and explained that “weaving is done on small looms by bed cases, while walking cases can make use of stationary equipment in the workroom, as well as games exercising the affected muscles” (Montreal Star, 1944). As such, different types of crafts were offered to the veterans and were tailored to their needs. In addition to allowing them to regain the use of an arm or a leg, they could also foster concentration and help be in the present moment and now to calm mental restlessness. Some veterans even decided to become professional craftspeople.

After WWII, organizations contacted The Canadian Handicrafts Guild for recommendations on where to learn crafts or where to sell crafts. La Guilde was one such place, as well as a reference that veterans could turn to for advice on these matters.

Art Therapy Nowadays

To this day, La Guilde recognizes the beneficial effect of Fine Crafts and visual arts on our health. Throughout the pandemic, which began in March 2020, many visitors expressed their sense of well-being after visiting an exhibition or seeing a work that particularly affected them.

Art therapy is the subject of numerous studies nowadays and is a field in full bloom. On the website of the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT), we read the following definition of art therapy: "an approach to psychological support for a person or group in difficulty, centred on the expression of oneself, one's thoughts, emotions, and conflicts in a process of creating imageries" (C'est quoi l'art thérapie, UQAT). The aim of art therapy is to contribute to a person's physical, mental, and emotional health while developing their self-esteem. The website also points out that in Quebec, art therapy is mainly related to visual arts, but that in Europe, it is also related to theatre, dance, music, etc. The testimony of the veteran who developed a passion for wood carving fits perfectly with this definition. Art therapy can also nourish an artist's approach and motivate impressive creative projects, such as the installations of Sonia Robertson, who recently presented an exhibition at La Guilde. The resources of art therapy, which are very similar to those of occupational therapy, should not be underestimated. La Guilde is pleased to note that over the course of its history, it has greatly contributed to this fascinating field.

Marie-Hélène Naud
Cultural Activities Coordinator / Gallery & Exhibition Assistant
With the collaboration of Audrée Brin, Genevieve Duval, and Amel Goussem Mesrati


  • “C’est quoi l’art-thérapie?.” UQAT: Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue. Accessed October 14, 2021. https://www.uqat.ca/etudes/developpement-humain-et- social/cest-quoi-art-therapie.
  • “Ergothérapie”. Le Petit Robert. Paris : Le Petit Robert, 2013.
  • Letter by Dr. W. J. Patterson, Occupational Therapy Centre, 1939. Occupational Therapy 1939-1940. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Letter by Mr. A.T. Galt Durnford, The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, October 14, 1939. Occupational Therapy 1939-1940. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Letter by Mr. A.T. Hobbs, The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, July 12, 1910. Occupational Therapy 1910-1916. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Letter by Mr. A.T. Hobbs, The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, May 10, 1911. Occupational Therapy 1910-1916. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Letter by Mrs. Coleman, July 13, 1942. Education 1942. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Letter by Mrs. Coleman, July 1, 1942. Education 1942. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • "Montreal to Figure In Therapy Parley." Family Herald and Weekly Star, Wednesday, December 4 (1940).
  • Peck, Alice. "Party Occupational Therapy: Handicrafts (or Cottage Industries) for Soldiers", 1916. Occupational Therapy 1910-1916. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • “Press Release: Exhibition of Occupational Therapy Photographs,” January 6, 1944. Occupational Therapy 1944. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Ms. Botting, "Servicemen’s Skill Shown In Exhibition. Occupational Therapy Work Great Success." The Montreal Star, Wednesday, December 13 (1944).


(1) George A. Hunter, Veteran Robert Starr Using a screwdriver, Deer Lodge Military Hospital, 1944. Occupational Therapy, 1944.
(2) George A. Hunter, Veteran working Wood, Sanatorium Ste-Agathe, 1944. Occupational Therapy, 1944.
(3) George A. Hunter, Veteran Douglas Chapman Working on Wood with a Bicycle Saw, Deer Lodge Military Hospital, 1944. Occupational Therapy, 1944.
(4) Invitation Cards for Exhibition of Photographs Showing Occupational Therapists, 1944. Occupational Therapy, 1944.
(5) Bedridden Veteran Weaving with a Nurse, Sanatorium Ste-Agathe, 1944. Occupational Therapy, 1944.
(6) George A. Hunter, Veteran Jerry Vickers Bedridden and Weaving, Deer Lodge Military Hospital, 1944. Occupational Therapy, 1944.
(7) George A. Hunter, AC. R.H. Downie, R.A.F., et Bdr. B.F. Charette, Greenway, Man., Presenting Items Made by the Craft Department to Assistant Nurse Dorothy Prentice, Deer Lodge Military Hospital, 1944. Occupational Therapy, 1944.
(8) Canadian Pacific Railway, Woven Display, Macdonald College, 1943. Macdonald College Handicrafts Division, 1943.
(9) Canadian Pacific Railway, Wooden Display Made by Canadian Women's Army Corps Personnel, Macdonald College, Handicrafts Division, 1943. Macdonald College Handicrafts Division, 1943.
(10) Canadian Pacific Railway, Leather Display, Macdonald College, Handicrafts Division, 1943. Macdonald College Handicrafts Division, 1943.
(11) Canadian Pacific Railway, Metal Display, Macdonald College, Handicrafts Division, 1943. Macdonald College Handicrafts Division, 1943.
© La Guilde, La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.

1 comment

  • bob kussy -goota ashoona

    it seems that you drafted a great document-just my kind of read, full of facts and history care and compassion . the photos are magic, and the overall message reinforces we we do what we do , cause working with some folks is the right thing to do, finding the time to do it and do it well can and does change lives-good reads on topics i like and understand thru personal experience are rare so well done and thanks