Miss Civil Service

12 August 1946

For many years, one of the most anticipated fixtures on Ottawa’s public service social calendar was the annual Miss Civil Service contest. It was first held in 1946, the same year that the Miss Canada pageant was founded. Like the Miss Canada pageant, the Miss Civil Service contest was explicitly sexist and objectifying. There was zero focus on contestants’ job performances—surprise! The attribute on which contestants were judged was beauty. Later other “factors” were added. These comprised grooming, posture, clothes and personality. While supremely cringeworthy today, it’s remarkable how accepted the event was during its day. There was extensive press coverage of the various departmental contests to choose departmental “queens” and “princesses” in the lead up to the big event when Miss Civil Service was selected from among the departmental beauties. This coverage was replete with juvenile double entendres, offensive sexual comments and stereotypes that would be totally unacceptable today.

Ada Redsell, Miss Civil Service Commission, is congratulated by Paul Martin, Senior, 12 August 1946, Ottawa Citizen, 13 August 1946.

The first Miss Civil Service Commission competition was held on 12 August 1946. It was the highlight of the annual Civil Service Commission picnic held at Britannia Park. The day also featured tugs of war, softball, races, a sing-a-long, a dance in one of Britannia’s pavilions and a picnic supper. More than three hundred persons attended the day’s events. There were forty-four entrants into the Miss Civil Service pageant, but only seventeen contestants showed up. The winner was Ada Redsell, a Grade 2 Clerk working at the Central Registry. While her measurements were thankfully not divulged (this often happened in later competitions), the newspapers reported that she had brown eyes and dimples, weighed 120 pounds and stood 5 feet 2 1/2 inches tall. She wore a pale blue jersey dress with a string of pearls and white pumps. Redsell, who lived at 199 Boteler Street in Ottawa, said that her boss had made here enter the contest. She won an all-expense paid airplane trip to Montreal. Second prize went to Eileen Gagne who won a free airplane ride over the capital, while third prize, a pair of nylons, went to Muriel Keogh.

The prizes were presented by Paul Martin (senior), who was Secretary of State in the federal government at that time. He gave each of the winners an “unofficial gift” of a kiss on the cheek. Judges complained that they hadn’t got kisses (from the girls, not Martin). C.H. Bland, the Civil Service Commissioner, remarked that he would have liked to have chosen them all.

Four years went by until the next Miss Civil Service contest was held. This time it was an event of the Civil Service Recreation Association’s Ice Carnival held on 23 February 1950. From then on, the Miss Civil Service pageant was an annual fixture organized by the RA. It ran into the early 1970s.

In the lead-up to the RA’s first annual event in 1950, federal departments held contests to chose their respective representatives in the pageant. These contests were covered in the press. Under a photo of the Post Office’s contestants, the Ottawa Journal had a caption “How would you like to play post office with these three?” (For those unaware, “post office” was a kissing game popular at the time where a group was divided into boys and girls, with one group going into another room which became the “post office.” Then, one by one, each person in the other room entered the “post office” and was kissed by everybody in that room.) The caption under a photo of the three winners from the Dominion Bureau of Statistics read “Statistical Figures” that proved that statistics aren’t “all cold and hard.”  

The Miss Civil Service contest, which presumed to select the ideal government girl, was the highlight of a four-hour carnival program held at the RA rink located at the foot of Bronson Avenue. Other events included broomball, speed skating and figure skating and a parade of floats featuring departmental “queens” and “princesses.” The Ottawa Journal reported that there were “38 luscious beauties.” “If you are looking for the tops in sophisticated swish, the gal with person-al-i-t-y, the blonde bombshell, brunette heartbreaker, or redhot redhead, you can find the peak of perfection among the 15,000 females who adorn the halls of the public service.” Yikes!

The winner, selected by five judges appointed by the Recreation Association, was 23-year-old Teresa Nugent, a five-year veteran at the Tax Branch of the Department of National Revenue. She was described as “the all-Canadian girl” –”a blond, dimple-cheeked, blue-eyed, five-foot, seven-inch bundle of outdoor charm.” Nugent won a wrist watch, two return fares to Montreal, a dinner out with her and her escort at the Copacabana, a permanent wave, and a complete cosmetics kit. Janie Walters, from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs placed second, while third place went to 20-year-old “brownette,” Margaret Skuce from the Department of Mining and Technical Surveys. The caption under a photo of Teresa Nugent read “fellow workers (males of the opposite sex, of course) had mentally reserved her for their own when they saw her crowned queen.”

The “crowning ceremony” was performed by George McIlraith, the Liberal MP for Ottawa West and Jean Richard, the Liberal MP for Ottawa East. Also in attendance were several city aldermen.

During subsequent pageants, the prizes became increasingly lavish, with large numbers of people in attendance. In 1953, some 5,000 whistling and “whoo-whooing” spectators witnessed the crowing of Miss Kathleen Willisher as Miss Civil Service. The 20-year-old “auburn-haired” employee of Defence Construction, won $250, or an all-expense paid trip to Bermuda, or a trip for two to New York City, in addition to a sash, crown and a silver trophy. In 1956, Miss Marie MacDonald, from the National Research Council, weighing 110 pounds and standing five feet three inches with a 34-23-34 figure, had a choice between a 10-day trip to Bermuda, a 7-day trip for two to New York, or $225. She also received a complete spring wardrobe valued at $125, a sheared muskrat stole, a silver rose bowl, an all-expense paid weekend at Adanac Lodge at Lake Le Peche, and dinner for two at a local restaurant. In 1958, first prize included an impressive trip to Europe.

The 1954 Miss Civil Service contest didn’t go as expected. After being crowned, 22-year-old Betty Burton from Defence Productions revealed she was married. This must have come as quite a shock as there were very few married women in the federal public service at this time. Restrictions on married women holding federal jobs weren’t lifted until 1955. Single female employees were forced to resign when they got married. The Ottawa Citizen commented “stand back, fellahs, she’s married.” In 1960, the contest was officially opened to married women. The title was also changed to RA Queen, though the former Miss Civil Service title continued to be widely used.

Another first occurred in 1962, when Barbados-born Betty Gitters, won the coveted title. The mother of two was working at Transport Canada to support her family as her husband attended medical school at the University of Ottawa. The former 1959 Miss Barbados was the first and only woman of colour to win the Miss Civil Service/RA Queen title. The Ottawa Citizen called her the “brown-eyed dusky queen” and erroneously said that this was the first time a married woman had won the title. Gitters won $200, a wrist watch, an all-expense paid weekend in an un-named New York State tourist resort, a free hair styling and a bouquet of tulips. That year, she opened the National Tulip Festival.

By the beginning of the 1970s, the RA Queen contest was fading rapidly in popularity. While it still attracted contestants, it was increasingly out of step with the times. The prizes were also becoming less interesting. Trips to foreign locales were long gone, and a $200 first prize just didn’t go as far as it once did. In 1970, anti-pageant protesters picketed the RA Centre, the venue of the contest.

“Miss Civil Service” also came under attack from another quarter. In an article titled Maxi Hairdos, Mini Skirts Hurting CS Productivity? the Ottawa Journal wrote in 1970: “Now take those long-lacquered fingernails. They can slow down Miss Civil Service to a leisurely 30 words-a-minute as she tippie-pinkies, oh, so very, very carefully to preserve all ten gleaming mirrors of her stylist nails. And those, long, fetching artificial eyelashes—they go with the long-tinted fingernails, the miniskirts, and maxihair – can slow her down too, when they tend to shed off every time she flutters them at her boss or that toothsome bachelor assistant-deputy at the next table in the government cafeteria.”

The last RA Queen pageant was held in May 1973. Out of twenty-two contestants, 20-year-old Lorraine Leduc took home the title. Judges were Mayor Pierre Benoit, former 67s hockey player, Brian McSheffrey (who later briefly played in the NHL), and Miss Ottawa Rough Rider, Lynn Lawson. Only 200 people were in attendance at the RA Centre.

Mercifully, Miss Civil Service then disappeared into the dustbin of history.


Gentile, Patrizia, 1996. Searching for “Miss Civil Service” and “Mr. Civil Service”: Gender Anxiety, Beauty Contests and Fruit Machines in the Canadian Civil Service, 1950-1973, MA Thesis, Carleton University.

Ottawa Citizen, 1946. “Queen Ada Gets A Crown,” 13 August.

——————, 1954. “Betty Burton Named ‘Miss Civil Service,’” 20 March.

——————, 1956. “Beauty From Saskatchewan Crowned Miss Civil Service,” 16 March.

——————, 1960. “RA Queen of Year Replaces Miss Civil Service,” 23 January.

——————, 1962. “Beauty Reigns,” 17 May.

——————, 1962. RA Queen Captured by Mother of Two,” 17 May.

——————, 1973. NRC Has a Queen,” 26 May.

Ottawa Journal, 1946. “Beauty Contest Win at Picnic by Ada Redsell, Grade 2 Clerk,” 13 August.

——————-, 1946. “Free ‘Plane Trip For Miss Civil Service Commission Of 1946,” 13 August.

——————-, 1950. “CS Beauty Queens Try On Crowns for Size,” 14 February.

——————-, 1950. “Queen Of Queens In Civil Service ‘a Dimpled Blue-Eyes Blonde,’” 24 February.

——————-, 1953. “5,000 Cheering Spectators See ‘Miss Civil Service’ Crowned,” 28 March.

——————-, 1958. “Need No Imports For This Contest,” 14 July.

——————-, 1962. “Miss Civil Service,” 17 May.

——————-, 1970. “Maxi Hairdos, Mini Skirts Hurting CS Productivity?”, 24 August.

Velocipedes and Bicycles

1 May 1869

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the bicycle or its predecessor, the velocipede, were introduced to Ottawa. But, the first reference to a velocipede in the Ottawa Daily Citizen appeared in February 1862. However, instead of referring to a two-wheeled vehicle, it was the name of a horse that competed in the winter ice races held in Aylmer, Quebec. Out of a field of four, Velocipede, a brown colt owned by a Mr. Kenny, came in last in races held on in February 1862. If punters wondered what a velocipede was, they were certain it wasn’t a runner.

The velocipede was invented in Germany in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais. In its earliest form, it consisted of two wheels attached to a saddle. As there were no pedals, riders pushed themselves along with the feet. This design remained essentially unchanged for roughly fifty years, until Pierre Michaux or his employee Pierre Lallement (accounts vary) added pedals to the front wheel in 1863. This improved velocipede became all the rage in France among both men and women, with the craze spreading around the globe. In 1868, it was reported that so many people were using velocipedes on the Champs Élysées at night that police were requiring riders to attached lanterns to their machines owing to the number of accidents.

Man riding a velocipede, c.1870, State Library of Southern Australia.

In mid-February 1869, the Citizen reported that velocipedes were about to be introduced into Toronto, and that a carriage builder had gone to New York to obtain a pattern to manufacture them. A few days later, the newspaper said that a velocipede had appeared on Toronto’s King Street and had caused much excitement… and laughter when the rider “came to grief.” Meanwhile in Montreal, velocipede “fever” had set in, with schools established to teach people how to ride them. It was also reported that France was apparently exporting the machines in huge numbers to North America. The Citizen opined that “surely, the world is suffering from velocipede on the brain.”

The newspaper was, however, dubious about how long the velocipede fad would last. In May 1869, it claimed that six months of velocipeding in the United States had “been sufficient to show that this mode of locomotion is practically worthless.” The Citizen also reported that in Harrisburg, New York the velocipede had found a new rival—stilts.

The problem appears to have been that velocipedes were very heavy and, while they performed well on prepared tracks, they were difficult to ride on ordinary roads. Riders quickly exhausted themselves. As well, with its pedals attached directly to the front wheel, a velocipede had a tendency to swerve every time one pushed down on a pedal. They were also uncomfortable to ride owing to their heavy iron frames and solid wheels. Uneven road surfaces were another problem. These were the days long before smooth, asphalted road surfaces. At best, city roads were cobbled or “macadamized,” in other words made up of layers of stones. Owing to its uncomfortable ride, the velocipede was sometimes referred to as “the boneshaker.”

While Toronto and Montreal might have led the pack when it came to velocipeding in Canada, Ottawa was not far behind. By late April 1869, velocipedes were sufficiently numerous on Ottawa’s relatively smooth wooden sidewalks, that the “new fangled equestrians” were a great nuisance to “dress trains,” baby perambulators, and pedestrians in general. So great was the problem, police were instructed to ticket offenders. However, at the police court held on 1 May 1869, the presiding magistrate dismissed charges on the grounds that there was no city by-law prohibiting velocipedes from city sidewalks. In Toronto, however, a similar case led to a $1 fine being levied.  

By the summer of 1869, velocipede races were seemingly commonplace in Ottawa. In August of that year, the St. George’s Picnic, held in McKay’s Grove near New Edinburgh, featured a velocipede race. A “handsome silver medal” was awarded to the winner.

As an interesting aside, an article that appeared in the Citizen in 1869 but attributed to the Pall Mall Gazette of London referred to a proposal to make what would likely have been the world’s first, dedicated, city bike lanes. The article said that “An enterprising individual in Berlin” had suggested that the city cover over the gutters on each side of its streets to be “the future velocipede high road of the city.” He also proposed a thousand tricycles with uniformed drivers could use these lanes to deliver parcels, letters, and passengers for a small fee—a sort of nineteenth-century cross between UPS and Uber.

A “high-wheeler” like the one made in 1877 by Mr. Back. Howard Morton/Library and Archives Canada, C-002624.

The 1870s saw the appearance in Ottawa of the “high-wheeler” bicycle, also known as the “ordinary” or the “penny-farthing,” named after the two old British coins. The huge front wheel, which could have a diameter of four to five feet, was the “penny” and the small rear wheel, the “farthing.” The big front wheel apparently offered improved shock absorption. The bicycles were so high that a two-step stool was necessary to mount them.

In 1877, a Mr. Back, then eighteen years old, read about this latest technological marvel in American magazines and yearned to own one. Unable to afford the expensive machine that cost as much as a worker might earn in six months, the enterprising young man made his own machine using carriage wheels. The frame and handlebars he crafted from flat iron and pipe, while the pedals were fashioned from blocks of wood. Not surprisingly, the vehicle was heavy. But it rode well, and became the talk of the town. Back went on to sell four copies to other Ottawa residents. Years later when interviewed by the Ottawa Journal, Back, now a piano tuner at Orme’s Music Store on Sparks Street, said that he had recently seen one of his creations for sale in a second-hand shop.

In mid-August 1880, an advertisement submitted by A.E. Wilson appeared in the Citizen asking gentlemen who were interested in forming a bicycle club to meet at No. 40½ Elgin Street, opposite the Russell House to look at price lists for machines. That evening, the men formed the Ottawa Bicycle Club. Members of the club apparently wore a distinctive uniform. Riding on Sundays got members in trouble with local churches that viewed biking on Sunday as a desecration of the Sabbath. The Club advised people to ride “as unostentatiously as possible” on Sundays.

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of velocipedes and high-wheeler bicycles led to accidents. In one possibly apocryphal story, Sir Hector Langevin, then Minister of Public Works, was run down by a high-wheeler. It was reported that because of this accident, an Order-in-Council was issued to bar high-wheelers from Parliament Hill. This ban apparently lasted for five years.

In 1884, a man on a bicycle was involved in a serious accident with a horse and buggy at the top of the hill on Albert Street. In a letter to the editor of the Citizen, an irate witness to the accident said that the horse had been spooked by the cyclist, causing the animal, vehicle and the two clergymen riders to capsize off the cliff and fall onto rocks ten feet below. While the horse was severely injured, the two men escaped with only bruises. The witness described the cyclist as being tall, with a light moustache, and wearing the uniform of the Ottawa Bicycle Club. He ended his letter by writing: “It is full time that a stop was put to allowing such machines to run on the streets and endanger the lives and limbs of the travelling public.” He was not alone in demanding such a ban. The Canadian Wheelmen’s Association, which was established in 1882 in St. Thomas, Ontario to promote biking, apparently spent considerable time and resources defending cyclists’ rights from attempts to legislate bicycles off of city streets. The Association had a branch in Ottawa and other major cities, and more than 650 members across the country in early 1885.

The Humber safety bicycle, 1892. The Humber was made under licence in Canada. Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History.

By the mid-1890s, the high-wheeler had been replaced by the more familiar “safety bicycle” or “low bicycle” that didn’t risk life or limb in case of a tumble. Like modern bicycles, safety bikes utilized a chain and had two wheels of the same size. Initially equipped with sold tires, inflatable pneumatic tires were introduced in 1892. Pneumatic tires provided a much more comfortable ride. The first bicycle so equipped in Ottawa was a “Humber” safety bicycle. Its pneumatic tires were described as “a large rubber hose,” and was quite the novelty. The bicycle cost $170 (more than $5,000 in today’s money) and was brought to the city by a syndicate made up of Messrs. W.B. Parr, D.F. Blyth, Stewart McClenaghan, and Dr. M.G. McElhinney. McElhinney was the first to ride it from downtown to the Electric Park on Bank Street, near Patterson’s Creek. Stewart McClenaghan ended up owning the bicycle. Dr. McElhinney must have been passionate about all things related to personal transportation. In 1902, he purchased the first automobile sold in Ottawa.

As bicycle cycle production ramped up and new manufacturers entered the market, the cost of safety bicycles declined. By 1896, the Humber was down in price to a much more affordable, though still expensive, $65. A biking craze ensued in North America and Europe among both men and women eager to adopt this effective, invigorating and liberating form of transportation.

Mabel Williams with Bicycle at 54 Main Street, Ottawa, residence of James Ballantyne, July 1898, Library and Archives Canada, 3191717.

Biking was quickly adopted by early feminists. In the United States, Susan B. Anthony said the bicycle had done more to emancipate women than anything else. “It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel–the picture of free, untrampled womanhood.” While female cyclists were initially hampered by the Victorian dress code that mandated long skirts, petticoats and corsets for women, the impracticality of this type of costume for cyclists led to pressure for more rational dress.

Susan B. Anthony, 1890, author unknown, Wikipedia

By May 1895, Ottawa had roughly 250 bikers who, like bicycling enthusiasts elsewhere, sought good, smooth roads on which to drive. At that time, city streets in Ottawa were mostly made of crushed stone, wooden blocks, or cobbles. Even when well maintained, which they seldom were, such roads quickly became heavily rutted. Not surprisingly, Ottawa’s city fathers came under pressure to pave the streets.

At the end of August, 1895, Sparks Street was paved with asphalt from roughly where the National Arts Centre is today to Bank Street. The newly-paved street was inaugurated by bicycle races sponsored by Mayor Borthwick and City Council. Thousands of Ottawa residents turned out in the early evening to cheer on competitors in three races. The first was from the old Russell Hotel, which stood where the War Memorial is today, to Bank Street. It was won by T. Harvey of Hull with W. Besserer, in second place. Harvey also won the second race from the Russell to Bank Street and back, three yards ahead of A. Parr. In the third and final race, in which contestants had to had to go twice around the same course dismounting at each turn, Besserer emerged victorious beating out Harvey.

The introduction of the automobile at the beginning of the twentieth century put a brake on the bicycle mania of the 1890s. However, the bicycle’s utility as an effective mode of transportation and exercise meant that the vehicle has had enduring appeal. Today, the bicycle is popular as a fun, environmentally-friendly and healthy form of transportation and recreation suitable for people of all ages.


Age of Revolution, 2020. The Velocipede, https://ageofrevolution.org/.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1862. “The Trotting Races At Aylmer, 22 February.

————————–, 1868. “No Title,” 18 December.

————————–, 1869. “Toronto 13th,” 19 February.

————————–, 1869. “Police Court,” 3 May.

————————–, 1869. “Defective,” 3 May.

————————–, 1869, “The Failure Of The Velocipede,” 10 May.

————————–, 1869. “St. George’s Pic Nic (stet),” 17 August.

————————–, 1869. “No Title.” 1 October.

————————–, 1880. “Ottawa Bicycle Club,” 18 August.

————————–, 1884. “A Complaint,” 26 July.

————————-, 1892. “Local Briefs,” 27 February.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1895. “Do You Ride A Bike?”  27 May.

—————————–, 1895. “The Town Was Out,” 27 August.

—————————–, 1896. “We have the best,” Fotheringham & Popham, 17 March.

—————————–, 1942. “Return of Bicycling Recalls Wheeling In Mauve Age,” 11 April.

Smith, Kenneth, V. 2012. “Competitive Cycling in Canada,” Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cycling.

Smithsonian, 2021. The Development of the Velocipede, https://www.si.edu/spotlight/si-bikes/si-bikes-velocipede.

World Bicycle Relief, 2021. How Women Cycled Their Way To Freedom, https://worldbicyclerelief.org/how-women-cycled-their-way-to-freedom/.

The Ottawa Alerts

20 March 1923

Women’s hockey has a long and distinguished pedigree, dating back to 1889 when Lady Isobel Stanley, the daughter of Lord Stanley of Stanley Cup fame, strapped on some skates, picked up a hockey stick and played shinny with Rideau Hall ladies on the rink at Rideau Hall. Organized women’s hockey games quickly followed.

The first decade of the twentieth century saw many women’s hockey teams in the Ottawa area, including the Rideau Club Ladies, the Union Jacks, the “Readies” and the “Semi-Readies” (for experienced and not so experienced players, respectively), the Cliffside Ladies, a.k.a. the Busy Bees, the Sandy Hill Ladies, the Westboro Pets, and the Vestas of Hull (a fitting name for the Hull team since a vesta was another word for match, and matches were produced in their millions at E.B. Eddy’s match factory). There were also teams throughout the Ottawa Valley, including in Carleton Place, Smith’s Falls, Renfrew and Pembroke, as well as farther afield in Cornwall and Montreal.

It took time, however, for many to accept the idea of women playing hockey. It was seen as unladylike and undignified. It was often hard for women to get ice time at the rinks. Men also came to games to laugh and to mock women hockey players. But they were quickly disabused of such notions. A 1903 Ottawa Citizen account reported “A ladies hocky team sounds a trifle undignified, but when it’s once seen the idea of it being undignified vanishes.” The ladies were “appropriately dressed” wearing comfortable sweaters, regulation hockey hats, and skirts of a comfortable length. The newspaper also noted that the women of Ottawa don’t play merely for fun but rather play to win. It added that they played a rough game and struck the puck vigorously.

When the First World War began in 1914, many amateur and professional male hockey players enlisted providing more space for women’s hockey. In 1915, a four-team league called the Eastern Ladies Hockey League was formed. Additional teams joined later. In Ontario, while initially there was no formal women’s hockey league, teams from different communities organized to play each other. One powerful team was the Cornwall Victorias led by their star player Albertine Lapensée who was a major draw wherever the team played including in Ottawa. Lapensée was so good that many thought she was a boy. One opponent went so far as to pull off her toque to see how long her hair was, and in doing so revealed Lapensée’s long braids.

Here in Ottawa, a new women’s hockey team emerged in 1915—the Ottawa Alerts. The date of the team’s formation is a bit fuzzy. The first newspaper reference to the team appeared in The Ottawa Journal in April 1915 when it reported that a birthday party was given to Miss M. Prince by the Alert Hockey Club and other friends. By January 1916, the start of the women’s hockey season, the team was in action on the ice.  

In late January 1916, the Alerts journeyed Cornwall to take on the Cornwall Victorias at the Victoria rink. Accompanying the team was their manager Allan Healey and their chaperon, a mother of one of the players, Mrs Frank Ault. Team members included G. Rogers (goal), C. Chambers (point), B. Rogert (cover point and captain), E. Anderson (forward), H. Brown (forward) and M.E. Aula (forward). There were also four substitutes, B. Ault, M. Binns. I. Guppy and Janet McCracken.

Reportedly, the quality of the hockey was “remarkably good,” something that came as a “revelation” to the majority of the spectators. The Ottawa girls were described as strong skaters and beautiful stick-handlers. Tied 1-1 after the first period, the game ended in a 3-1 win for the Victorias. E. Anderson scored for Ottawa while Albertine Lapensée, who came on as a substitute in the second period, scored all three Cornwall goals.

The Ottawa Alerts: Ladies Ontario Hockey Association Champions. Shirley Moulds, the teams star player is in the centre seated above the trophy, Library and Archives Canada, also McFarlane, Brian, Proud Past, Bright Future.

The following month, the Alerts beat the Montreal Champetres 6-2 at Dey’s Arena. They also played a number of local teams. In mid-March 1916, they took on the Westboro Pets with all proceeds going to the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association and the Returned Soldiers’ Home. The referees for the game were none other Frank Nighbor and Horace Merrill of the Ottawa Senators. Nighbor had just joined the Senators from the Vancouver Millionaires, the 1915 Stanley Cup champions.

In 1917, the Alerts, again chaperoned by Mrs Ault, travelled to Pittsburgh where they played three games with the Pittsburgh Polar Maids, winning all three. On the way home, they played the Aura Lee team in Toronto. The game ended in a scoreless draw. The Alerts’ success on this road trip secured them international recognition.

In mid December 1922, women’s amateur hockey in Ontario became more organized with the formation of the Ladies Ontario Hockey Association (L.O.H.A.) at a meeting held in the Temple building in Toronto. Initially eighteen teams from both large and small Ontario communities, including the Ottawa Alerts, joined the Association.

At the time, the Alerts were considered one of the best hockey teams in eastern Ontario. But how the team qualified for the L.O.H.A. playoffs is a bit unclear as the Alerts played only local exhibition games in the weeks prior to the beginning of the L.O.H.A. playoffs. The team was also given a bye in the first round. With less than a day’s warning, the league informed the Alerts that they would take on the Campbellford ladies’ team in a two-game, total goal series in the L.O.H.A. semi-finals with the first game to be played in Campbellford. The Campbellford team had earlier defeated the Lakeside and Peterboro team.

Despite the lack of warning and being hampered by the absence of two key players, one owing to illness and the other to an inability to get away, the Alerts took the first game eight goals to four. Stars of the game included the Alerts goalie, Florence Dawson, who had a “sensational” game, and forward Shirley Moulds. The Alerts also won the second game held two days later in Ottawa’s Dey’s Arena, one goal to nothing.

Having made it into the first league championship series, the Alerts were forced to wait for their western Ontario opponents to be determined—Thornhill, Welland, and North Toronto were still in the running. To keep their form, the team played exhibition games in Finch, Winchester and Chesterville.

The first Ontario Ladies’ hockey championship pitted the Alerts against North Toronto in a two-game, total-goal series, with the first game held in Ottawa at Dey’s Arena. (The two teams had met twice the previous year with the first game ending in a scoreless tie and with Toronto winning the second 1-0 on a disputed goal.) 

As expected, the first game was a close, hard-fought contest with the Alerts taking the game 1-0 on a third-period goal by Shirley Moulds assisted by Marion Gilles. According to the Ottawa Journal reporter, the score would have been higher had it not been for the heroics of Toronto player Fannie Rosenfeld, whose play was likened to that of the great Albertine Lapensée. (Fannie Rosenfeld, also known as Bobbie Rosenfeld, was Canada’s premiere female athlete of the 1920s. In addition to hockey, she played numerous other sports and was an Olympic gold medalist.)

The Alerts team, whose colours were yellow and black, was composed of Florence Dawson (goal), Ann O’Connor and Grace Grier (defence), Tena Turner [captain], Marion Giles, and Shirley Moulds (forwards) and Charlotte Forde, Eva Ault, Bee Hagen and Edith Anderson (substitutes).

In the second game held in Toronto on 20 March 1923, Shirley Moulds, the Alert winger, dominated the game scoring four goals in the Alerts’ 5-2 victory. The first period ended tied with Moulds and Toronto’s Rosenfeld each scoring two. Moulds scored the only second period tally and again in the third along with her teammate Marion Gilles. Captain Tena Turner was credited with keeping Rosenfeld largely in check. With the victory, the Alerts won the first Women’s Ontario Ladies Championship and the Dr Lorne Robertson trophy with an overall score of six goals to two.

The Alerts went on to win the league championship for the second time the following year though in a less than satisfactory manner. After two lopsided shut-out victories over Campbellford, the Alerts were again slated to play the North Toronto team in the finals. However, the Toronto team forfeited when the Alerts refused their demand for a guarantee to cover the cost of their travel from Toronto to Ottawa. The Alerts had paid for their own way to Toronto in 1923 and felt it was only right that Toronto covered its own travel expenses.

The Alerts remained a power in Ontario women’s hockey through the rest of the decade, but were weakened by the shift of their star Shirley Moulds to the Ottawa Rowing Club team in 1926. The Rowing Club team dethroned the Alerts as the Ottawa and District champions in 1926 and went on to win the women’s Ontario title in 1927, and lost to Toronto’s Aura Lee team in the 1928 championship. Shirley Moulds subsequently left the Ottawa Rowing Club team to play for Salloway Mills, a team supported by a brokerage firm of the same name that failed in the Great Depression.

In 1930, the Alerts were back on form, taking the Ottawa and District title by trouncing Chalk River, the winner of the Upper Ottawa league, 5-0 in Ottawa’s Auditorium. Expecting to face the Toronto Pattersons in the L.O.H.A. finals, the Alerts were shocked when the L.O.H.A. declared them ineligible. Through an oversight, the team had failed to send in player certificates to the L.O.H.A. by the required date. The far weaker Chalk River team went in their stead, losing to the Toronto Pats in a match that was held at the Montreal Forum owing to a lack of ice in Ontario.

The Alerts subsequently disappeared from the sports pages of Ottawa newspapers, most likely another casualty of the Depression.

The L.O.H.A. continued for another decade before it too collapsed in 1940, a victim of declining interest in women’s hockey. Before that happened, another Ottawa women’s hockey team, the Ottawa Rangers, briefly had some success, making it to the L.O.H.A. finals in 1938 and 1939. The team lost to the incomparable Preston Rivulettes in 1938 who dominated the league through the 1930s. The following year, the Rangers defaulted to the Rivulettes when the team was unable to provide the required $200 financial guarantee demanded by the Rivulettes.


Edmonton Journal,” 1922. “Ontario Ladies’ Hockey Leagues Form Association,” 18 December.

Freeborn, Jeremy, 2021, “Ladies Ontario Hockey Association (LOHA)” Canadian Encyclopedia,

McFarlane, Brian, 1994. Proud Past, Bright Future: One Hundred Years of Canadian Women’s Hockey, Stoddart Publishing Company, Toronto.

Montreal Star, 1916. “Miss Lapensee Is A Young Lady, Says Cornwall,” 12 February.

Ottawa Citizen, 1916. “Ottawa Ladies Met Defeat,” 31 January.

——————–, 1916.  “Alerts Win Fast March,” 24 February.

——————–, 1923. “Pro and Amateur,” 2 January.

——————–, 1923, “Local Ladies Win From Campbellford,” 16 February.

——————–, 1923. “Ottawa Alerts Win the Ontario Title,” 21 March.

——————–, 1924. “Alerts Again Champ’ Ladies Hockey Team,” 28 March.

——————–, 1926. “Rowing Club Ladies Sextet Defeats Alerts,” 12 March.

——————–, 1927. “Shirley Moulds Notches Goal That Eliminates Alert Squad,” 28 March.

——————–, 1930. “Girls From Chalk River Defeated 5-0 By Alerts Team In Local Auditorium,” 25 March.

——————–, 1930. “Alerts Ineligible To Play In Finals,” 28 March.

——————–, 1938. “Rivulettes Defeat Ottawa Girls And Retain The Title,” 28 March.

Ottawa Journal, 1915. “Birthday Party,” 20 April.

——————–, 1923. “Alerts Play Again with Campbellford,” 15 February.

——————–, 1923. “Alerts And N. Toronto On Tonight, First Game of Ladies’ Title Series,” 15 March.

——————–, 1923. “Ottawa Alerts Win From North Toronto,” 16 March.

——————–, 1923. “Ottawa Alerts Win The Ontario Title,” 21 March.

——————–, 1930. “Chalk River Girls Play At Montreal,” 3 April.

——————–, 1030. “Chalk River Girls Lose to Pattersons,” 4 April.

——————–, 1939. “Ottawa Rangers Default to Preston,” 25 April.

Mrs. Pankhurst Comes to Ottawa

2 March 1916

In 1999, Time Magazine named Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst one of the most influential persons of the twentieth century—and for good reason. She devoted much of her life to obtaining the right to vote for women in her native Britain as well as around the world, including Canada and the United States. To this end, she toiled tirelessly, travelling constantly to spread the word, cajoling often hostile audiences, and raising funds for the cause. She also spent considerable time defending herself against criminal charges, or cooling her heels in prison for rock-throwing, window-breaking and conspiracy as the suffragette movement under her leadership became increasingly militant during the years immediately prior to World War I. Some militant suffragettes went even further, assaulting police and engaging in arson and bombing. One, Emily Davidson, died when she stepped in front of the King’s horse in the middle of a race at the Derby in 1913.

In jail, Mrs. Pankhurst and other militant suffragettes, went on frequent hunger strikes. Many were force-fed by prison officials. When this horrific practice gained the women widespread public sympathy, the British government introduced what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act, officially, the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act of 1913. Under this legislation, women on hunger strike could be released temporarily from jail to recover their health and then re-prisoned.

The effectiveness of the suffragettes’ tactics is subject to debate. Certainly, militant actions turned off many moderate supporters of women’s suffrage. However, progress towards gaining the vote was glacial despite successive legislative changes that broaden male suffrage. Many women were understandably aggrieved by their lack of progress. All this was to change with World War I.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913, Wikipedia.

Emmeline Pankhurst, née Goulden, the heroine of this story, was born in 1858 in Manchester, England to Sophie and Robert Goulden. Her father was a partner and manager of a cotton printing and bleach company. The eldest of ten children, young Emmeline was raised in a loving family and received the education given to a girl of the middle classes of the period, i.e., a bit of everything with a focus on social and “womanly” skills. 

From a very early age, she was politically aware, attending her first suffrage meeting at age fourteen. In 1878, she married Richard Pankhurst, a socialist barrister more than twice her senior who was a supporter of left-wing causes including Home Rule for Ireland, the abolition of the House of Lords, independence for India, and, most importantly, women’s rights. Together, they had five children, Christabel, Sylvia, Francis Henry (who died at the age of four), Adela, and Henry Francis (named in memory of his deceased brother). Their three daughters were later to join Emmeline in the fight for women’s suffrage. Husband Richard died of ulcers in 1898. Their second son, Henry Francis, died in 1910 at the age of nineteen. In 1915, Emmeline Pankhurst was to adopt four “war baby” girls, born to single mothers whose fathers were soldiers.

In 1889, Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst, along with others, founded the Women’s Franchise League. Emmeline also help establish the left-wing Independent Labour Party. In 1903, she and her daughters founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to continue the fight for women’s right to vote when the Women’s Franchise League dissolved.

Prior to World War I, Mrs. Pankhurst made a number of trips to North America to encourage women in Canada and the United States in their fights for women’s suffrage. She was invited to Ottawa by the Ottawa Equal Suffrage Association on several occasions, but to no avail. However, in 1909 Ottawa suffragists travelled to Toronto to hear Mrs. Pankhurst speak first at the Men’s Canadian Club of Toronto, and later that day at Massey Hall. Lady Edgar, the President of the National Council of Women, and Mrs. Falconer, the president of the Women’s Canadian Club, were special guest at the Canadian Club lecture.

While the Ottawa Equal Suffrage Association was supportive of Mrs. Pankhurst objective, the organization did not support militant action in Canada. It contended that “The conditions which have led to extreme measures in the British campaign did not exist here. Our approach is to men’s reason, intelligence, and sense of justice.”

It was slow going; male intelligence seemed to have been in short supply. During a visit to Toronto in 1911, Mrs. Pankhurst was asked by a man “Do women possess the same mental activity as men?” Another argued that “Women were not meant to be on equal footing with men.”

On hearing that Mrs. Pankhurst had said that Robert Borden, Canada’s prime minister, “should not be allowed to lead a comfortable life,” the Ottawa Citizen disparagingly opined that the commissioner the of Dominion Police should “recruit a bodyguard of Amazonian police officers” whose duty would be to “deal with militant suffragist demonstrations.” The newspaper also said “it could not imagine Mrs. Pankhurst or any other woman throwing a rock straight, or the chances are it would be some innocent bystander who would get what was not coming to him.” Mrs. Pankhurst and her colleagues were described as the “hysterical sisterhood.”

The first of the Pankhurst family to visit Ottawa to speak on women’s suffrage was actually Sylvia Pankhurst in 1911. Only twenty years of age at the time, Sylvia Pankhurst gave an address at the Russell Theatre in November of that year. At the time, she was the secretary of the WSPU and was a veteran fighter for women’s rights having already served two prison terms.

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst’s first visit to Ottawa occurred on 2 March 1916 when World War I was in full swing. Like her daughter Sylvia four years earlier, she lectured at the Russell Theatre. However, instead of Mrs. Pankhurst, the suffragette, people heard Mrs. Pankhurst, the warrior.

When war began in late July 1914, Mrs. Pankhurst and her eldest daughter Christabel immediately put their campaign for women’s suffrage on hold and directed the energies of the WSPU against the “common foe”—the Central Powers, led by Germany. They campaigned vigorously for not only male conscription but also for women’s conscription, successfully encouraging the employment of women in munitions factories, farms and elsewhere to release able-bodied men for the front. Mrs. Pankhurst also participated in hundreds of recruiting meetings. Members of the WSPU also tried to shame un-uniformed men to join up by giving them white feathers. Emmeline and Christabel’s active support for the British war effort led to a split with Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst who were both socialists and pacifists. Both were later to become involved in anti-war movements and communism.

Emmeline and Christabel’s campaign in favour of the war gained them respectability. It also indirectly did much to further the goal of female suffrage. The fact that women, by their tens of thousands, were making munitions and bringing in the harvest meant that the British government owed them…big time. Even before the war was over, it was clear that women were finally about to get the vote in Britain and elsewhere.

Advertisement, 2 March 1916, Ottawa Citizen

Emmeline’s first visit to Ottawa in 1916 was part of a Serbian mission to North America to raise funds for Serbian refugees and to thank Canadians and Americans for their past support.  She was accompanied by Mr. Cheddo Miyatovich of the Serbia government. They had been invited to Ottawa by the British Committee for Serbian Aid whose offices were located on Laurier Avenue at the headquarters of the King’s Daughters. The pair spoke at the Russell Theatre, with ticket prices set very low “so that even those who have already given so generously” could attend. A luncheon for Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. Miyatovich was held at the Russell House Hotel under the auspices of the Equal Suffrage Association. At the head table was the Mayor of Ottawa along with the guests of honour. A reception followed at the Chateau Laurier Hotel.

Following her presentation, the once critical Ottawa Citizen opined that it was “abundantly clear that Mrs. Pankhurst, the great suffrage leader, places her country and the welfare and integrity of Empire before all else” and that she was “consumed with deep patriotism.” The Ottawa Journal noted that Mrs. Pankhurst was neither a “raging maenad” nor a “frenzied bacchante,” adding “Whether we share your opinions or not, we admire you Mrs. Pankhurst for your perseverance and skill as a leader.” However, the quest for women’s suffrage was not forgotten, just in abeyance. When asked whether suffragists intended to continue their fight for women’s votes after the war, Mrs. Pankhurst replied that they were “like a dog with a bone. The bone might be buried, but they knew exactly where it was and when they should dig it up.”

Ottawa Citizen, 17 February 1916

While in Ottawa, Mrs. Pankhurst visited Parliament and was given a seat on the floor of the House of Commons to listen to the debates. The Ottawa Journal wryly noted that it was but a few days earlier that a resolution calling for women’s suffrage had been rejected.

In Ontario, Premier Hearst also refused to give women the vote in Ontario, saying that such a contentious issue should not be introduced at this time, and that it would lead to division among women and distract them from the splendid work they were doing for their country.

After leaving Ottawa, Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. Miyatovich continued their Serbian mission tour, visiting next Carleton Place, Smiths Falls and Peterborough. At Carleton Place, she spoke ninety minutes to a spell-bounded audience at a meeting chaired by the President of Carleton Place’s Red Cross. She was introduced as “the greatest woman leader of the world.”

Mrs. Pankhurst returned to Ottawa two years later in September 1918. What a difference two years made! By this time, women had received the vote in six Canadian provinces—Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia. At the federal level, voter equality between men and women had also been legislated, effective at the beginning of 1919. (Other provinces were to follow, with the laggard, Quebec, only giving women the right to vote in 1940.)

Similarly in Britain, the Representation of the People Act had been passed, which enfranchised women over the age of 30. (21 was the voting age for men.) Women were also permitted to run for Parliament. When question by the Ottawa Journal, Mrs. Pankhurst said that war had changed the British government. With a British election imminent, she stood solidly behind Prime Minister David Lloyd George. With women (mostly) having been given the franchise, the WSPU was converted into the Women’s Party. Christabel Pankhurst was to run under the Women’s Party banner in the December 1918 general election in the constituency of Smithwick, but lost narrowly to a Labour Party candidate.

Like during her previous visit to the capital, the focus of Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1918 visit to Ottawa was the allied war effort. Her mission, which was supported by the British government, was “to strengthen the union between the women of the Dominion and the women of the Mother Country.” Her message to Canadian women was “Let the women of the Empire unite to make the Empire strong as the pioneer of civilisation for the world.” She later spoke at Knox Presbyterian Church on the state of affairs in Russia, having recently returned from that country.

Before heading to Toronto to speak at the Canadian Club, Mrs. Pankhurst was entertained at a tea at Murphy-Gamble’s tea room on Sparks Street. Isabel Meighen, the wife of future Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Meighen, was present at the tea.

After the war, Emmeline Pankhurst spoke frequently on empire unity as well as the evils of Bolshevism. She was also very fond of Canada. In an interview with Maclean’s Magazine in 1922, she said that “in Canada there seems to be more equality between men and women than in any other country I know.” For a time, she lived in Toronto, and was active there in combating venereal disease.

After returning to Britain in 1925, she joined the Conservative Party, a move that shocked many of her friends and colleagues given her past association with the Independent Labour Party and other left-wing organizations.

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst died in June 1928 in Hamstead, England at the age of 69.


Chapman, Ethel, 1922. Mrs. Pankhurst–Canadian”, Maclean’s Magazine, 15 January.

Ottawa Citizen, 1909. “Nothing In It,” 28 December.

——————, 1911. “Pankhurst Suffragetism [sic],” 27 October.

——————, 1911. “Men Asked Questions,” 13 December.

——————, 1911. “Comment,” 19 December.

——————, 1916. “Mrs. Pankhurst To Visit Ottawa,” 17 February.

——————, 1916. “Women Placed Service First,” 4 March.

——————, 1916. “Ontario Again Refuses The Women’s Vote,” 18 March.

——————, 1918. “…. The War’s Women’s Aim, Says Mrs. Pankhurst,” 10 September.

——————, 1919, “For Mrs. Pankhurst,” 11 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1911. “ Young, But Is No Tyro,” 6 February.

——————, 1916. “Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst,” 2 March.

——————-, 1916. “Impressions of Mrs. Pankhurst,” 3 March.

——————-, 1916. “On Parliament Hill,” 3 March.

Purvis, June, 2002, Emmeline Pankhurst, A Biography, Routledge, London & New York.

Time Magazine, 1999. “Time 100 Persons of the Century,” 6 June.

Windsor Star, 1916. “No Sacrifice Too Great To Bring Allied Victory,” 2 March.

Women’s Memorial Building

21 December 1925

Intimations received mid September 1925 that the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King had informally agreed to provide a plot of land for the proposed Women’s Memorial Building must have been greeted with considerable satisfaction by Mrs. Asa Gordon. (Her first name was Amelia, but she was always known as Mrs. Asa Gordon.) Then in her late 70s, Mrs. Gordon had spent a lifetime in service, toiling for the great causes of the day, especially temperance and women’s suffrage. At one time, she was the Dominion President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as well as the Dominion President of the King’s Own Daughters, an international Christian service group. She had also been a founding member of the Ottawa Women’s Club organized in 1914. Another cause dear to her heart was the erection of a memorial that would recognize the contribution of women to Canadian society, and their service through the Great War. She and the Ottawa Women’s Club had approached the government the previous January and had lobbied hard for funding. An Order-in-Council dated 21 December 1925 made official the government’s offer of land for the memorial.

Women's Memorian OJ30-1-26

Proposed architectural drawing for the Women’s Memorial Building,  The Ottawa Journal, 30 January 1926.

The site for the proposed Memorial Building was immediately to the south of the Dominion Archives building between Sussex Street and Lady Grey Drive, close to Nepean Point Park. It would have been difficult to find a more prestigious location. The government also drafted architectural plans for the proposed four-storey edifice that would conform with the nearby neo-gothic Parliament buildings and the baronial-style Château Laurier Hotel. There was a catch, however. Canadian women would have to raise $100,000 of the estimated $250,000 price tag for the Memorial Building before construction would commence. To this end, Mrs. Gordon, despite her advanced age, threw herself whole heartedly. The Ottawa Women’s Club immediately pledged to raise $5,000. Within two months almost half of that amount had been raised.

The reasons behind Mackenzie King’s support for the Women’s Memorial Building are unclear. It has been suggested that he wanted to curry favour with a large new electorate; women had only received the federal vote in 1918. However, it’s possible that the grant of land was a sincere gesture, particularly given King’s attachment to his mother. Regardless, politicians of all strips quickly got on board.

In addition to recognizing Canadian womanhood in all their activities, including as pioneers, war nurses and mothers, the building was to be the headquarters of national Canadian women’s organizations. The building would be non-sectarian and open to all women regardless of race. It would be a place for women’s groups to hold their national conventions and banquets. To accommodate everybody, Richard C. Wright, the chief architect of the Public Works Department, designed a four-story neo-Gothic building to be built of Nepean sandstone. As well as providing space for the national headquarters of the major Canadian women’s organizations, the edifice would contain a 2,000-seat auditorium, a banqueting hall, a museum/Hall of Fame, and archives. In addition to offices and a memorial for the historical contributions made by women to Canadian society, the building would also be used “for the cultivation of the finer arts and sciences,” and to provide an “inspiration for the future.”

An interim committee of Ottawa women, with Mrs. Asa Gordon as chair, was appointed to oversee fundraising activities until a national board was elected. To this end, representatives from more than two dozen national women’s organizations gathered first at the Ottawa City Hall on Elgin Street and later at the Château Laurier Hotel to elect a permanent governing committee and to endorse the Memorial Building proposal. Among the women’s organizations that gave their support were: The King’s Daughters, The Catholic Women’s League, The Hadassah of Canada, The Women’s Art Association, La Fédération des Femmes Canadiennes Françaises, and La Fédération Nationale St. Jean Baptiste. The representatives at this inaugural meeting naturally chose Mrs. Gordon as their President. The organization was later incorporated as the Women’s Memorial Building Federation.

At the municipal level, Ottawa Mayor Balharrie threw his support behind the Women’s Memorial Building proposal. In March 1926, he appeared at a benefit concert of religious music held at the Keith’s Theatre organized by the Ottawa Women’s Club. At the benefit, Mayor Balharrie noted that monuments to deeds of men were commonplace, but that there were few to women. He reviewed the careers of famous women, including Florence Nightingale who organized nursing care for English soldiers during the Crimean War and in so doing turned nursing into a respectable profession, and Edith Cavell, an English nurse who was executed by the Germans during the Great War for helping Allied soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium. He added that Canada owed much to women, “to none more that its mothers, who worked quietly and prayerfully at home during the dark days of the war.” He hoped that the provincial government would contribute much of the necessary $100,000 that the women needed to raise before the federal government would commence construction. Later, the City pledged $5,000 to the building fund. The concert only raised $100 for the building but it was optimistically viewed as the “nucleus” of the $100,000 fund.

Over the following years, women’s groups and churches, especially in the Ottawa area, held teas, benefits and socials to raise funds for the Memorial building. Any society or individual that donated $25 or more could enter the name of one person on the Memorial’s “golden scroll.” The name of every donor who gave a $1 or more would be entered in the “Book of Remembrance.” The name of any child, aged 16 or younger, who gave $1, with the consent of her parents, would be entered into the “Child’s Book of Remembrance.

Mrs. Asa Gordon campaigned tirelessly for the building. She argued that the memorial would be “a factor in the unifying of all classes, creeds and nationalities into the highest Canadian citizenship.” She requested grants from both Premier Taschereau of Quebec and Premier Ferguson of Ontario. When the provincial leaders came to Ottawa for meetings, Mayor Balharrie asked Premier Ferguson for a $25,000 provincial grant for the building. Ferguson said that the issue had come up at conference, but that some premiers were “not fully seized with the proposal.” He thought that a publicity campaign was needed to educate the people. Once citizens showed that they were “in sympathy” with the idea, he was sure that provincial legislatures would provide the necessary backing. Premier Taschereau said he would follow the lead of Ontario’s premier.

Funds trickled in. To give publicity to the Memorial, Mayor Baharrie gave the unveiling of a tablet that was to be installed on the wall of the Memorial Building a prominent place in Ottawa’s centenary celebrations held in mid August 1926. The brass tablet was engraved with Canada’s coat of arms in its centre with sprays of maple leaves and the word “Memorial” over it. On the left-hand side were the words “Dedicated to the Women of Canada,” with the same words in French on the right. The names of every person who donated $1,000 or more would be immortalized on the wall of the Memorial Building alongside the brass tablet.

Lady Byng, the wife of the Governor General, was asked to unveil the tablet at a ceremony to be held on the proposed site of the building on Lady Grey Drive. Among the invited speakers were Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Sir Henry Drayton, who would represent the opposition Conservative Party, and the Bishop of Ottawa. Souvenir booklets were prepared as a way of raising funds.

In the event, Lady Byng declined the invitation as her husband’s term of office ended before the Ottawa’s centenary festivities began and they had left the country. There was also a change in government, with the minority Liberal government replaced by Arthur Meighen’s Conservative Party in the famous “King-Byng Affair.” (Lord Byng had refused King’s request for new elections following the Liberals’ defeat in the House of Commons, but instead asked Meighen to try to form a new government. The Conservatives held 116 seats to the Liberals’ 101, with the remaining 28 seats shared among Progressives, Labour and Independent members. Meighan tried, but subsequently failed to win a vote of confidence in his government. New elections were finally called with King’s Liberals winning a majority in September 1926 just a month after Ottawa’s centenary celebrations.)

With political sands shifting, the organizing committee, headed by the indomitable Mrs. Asa Gordon, quickly tacked, and asked Mrs. Meighen to unveil the brass tablet. In the event, Sir Henry Drayton, the acting Prime Minister in the absence of Arthur Meighen, represented the federal government, and Lady Drayton did the actual unveiling. Mackenzie King, who was out of Ottawa, sent a congratulatory telegram, as did Lady Byng. At the ceremony, Sir Henry said that there were “some things on which we are all agreed upon, and this is one of them.” He also claimed that the Conservatives were at least partially responsible for the memorial building, saying that “this is one of the things which we let Mr. Mackenzie King do; in fact, we assisted him to do it.” However, in his speech, he entirely missed the point of the building. Instead of focusing on the accomplishments of women as men’s equals, he applauded their supporting role. “The man who gets the best start in life is he who thinks he has the best mother in the world. Another essential to success is when a man believes he has the best wife.”

Over the next few years, fund-raising went on across the country, especially in the Ottawa region. It was hard going. A national membership campaign was launched in May 1928. However, the response was tepid. In Ottawa, where the objective was to raise $1 from every woman and girl, only 1,000 people contributed.

Some women were dead set against the proposed memorial. Lady Henriette Pope, a prominent Ottawa citizen, wrote a letter in 1926 to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen voicing her opposition to the use of public funds to what she called a “vainglorious scheme.” She thought that instead of allocating money to fund a monument to women, Ottawa City Council should use its $5,000 to help the poor buy fuel. When there was talk that the City might increase its contribution in 1930, she wrote a second letter saying that the inability of the committee of ladies to succeed after four years of ceaseless efforts was evidence that “the women of Canada will have none of it: their innate good senses and good taste repudiate such glorification”. City Council desisted.

Women's Memorial Foundation winding up 20-5-1936

Winding up notice of the Women’s Memorial Building Federation, Ottawa Citizen, 20 May 1936.

By early 1931, Mrs. Asa Gordon and her Women’s Memorial Building Foundation had raised only $46,407 in cash and pledges, far short of the $100,000 goal. The idea of erecting a building on Lady Grey Drive was slipping away. Promotion of the scheme shifted to emphasize the benefits to Ottawa, especially the attraction of a new large auditorium which could be used as a theatre that Ottawa lacked owing to the demolition of the Russell Theatre. Mrs. Gordon said that the Memorial building would be like London’s Albert Hall, and would be part of the beautification of Ottawa.

It was not enough. With the country gripped by the Great Depression, there was no money for a Women’s Memorial Building. In June 1932, the coup de grace came with the death of Mrs. Gordon, aged 85, in Columbus, Ohio, where she had been attending a meeting of the Sons and Daughters of the King. With the death of its most avid supporter, the building project also died. In December 1934, the City of Ottawa transferred the $5,000 it had promised to the Building Fund in 1926 out of an escrow account into the City’s general account as it seemed unlikely that the building would ever be constructed.

In 1936, at a special general meeting of the Canadian Women’s Memorial Building Federation at the King’s Daughters’ Guild on Laurier Street in Ottawa, acting President Jane R. Stewart signed the document winding up the Federation. The Federation returned the bulk of $26,293 it held in cash and investments to contributors, giving them back their subscriptions, plus 5% interest. 98 per cent of contributors of $2 or more were tracked down. The largest was the Ottawa Women’s Club which received $4,500. The estate of Mrs. Asa Gordon received $3,000. After paying liquidation and legal fees, the remaining $3,000 was turned over to the Crown in 1938.

Today, the site of the proposed Women’s Memorial Building is occupied by the National Gallery of Canada.


Montreal Gazette, 1926. “Mrs. Meighen To Unveil Tablet,” 14 August.

———————, 1935. “Canadian Women’s Memorial Building Federation,” 26 November

Ottawa Citizen, 1925. “Grateful To Govt. For Building Site,” 25 September.

——————, 1926. “Drive Launched To Get $100,000 Memorial Fund,” 23 January.

——————, 1926. “Two Deputations To Mr. Ferguson,” 10 June.

——————, 1926. “unveiling Brass Insert, August 19th,” 3 August.

——————-, 1926. “Plan Unveiling Founders’ Tablet,” 13 August.

——————-, 1926. “Memorial To Women Of Canada Will Be Erected In Capital,” 16 August.

——————-, 1926. “Commemorate Beginning Of Rideau Canal Construction And Women’s Memorial Building,” 19 August.

——————-, 1928. “Campaign In Aid Women’s Memorial Building Fund Is Starting Today,” 15 May.

——————-, 1930, “Letter to the Editor from A. E. Gordon,” 24 February.

——————-, 1930, “Lady Pope Protests,” 14 July.

——————-, 1934. “No title,” 12 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1925. “Govt. Accedes to Desire For Women’s Hall,” 12 September.

——————-, 1926. “Representatives of 440,500 Women Endorse Memorial Building Plan,” 30 January.

——————-, 1926. “Canadian Women’s Memorial To Be Erected On Lady Grey Drive, Near Nepean Point,” 30 January.

——————, 1926. “Mayor Balharrie Approved Plan To Erect A Woman’s Memorial,” 22 March.

——————, 1926. “Says Women’s Memorial Building Factor In Unifying All Classes,” 29 April.

——————, 1926. “City To Give $5,000 To Aid New Memorial,” 27 August.

——————, 1926. “Lady Pope’s Protest,” 10 September.

——————, 1937. “Returns $26,293 To Contributors,” 30 January.

——————, 1937 “Ottawa Women’s Club Will Receive $4,500 In Memorial Funds,” 1 February.

——————, 1938. “Return Contrbutions To Memorial Federation

Province (The), 1926. “Women’s Memorial At Ottawa Will Cost $250,000,” 4 April.

Urbsite, 2014. Ottawa’s 1926 Centenary Projects & The King-Byng Affair, 2 February, http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2014/02/ottawas-1926-centenary-projects-king.html?q=Women%27s+Memorial+Building.


Victorian Order of Home Helpers, a.k.a. the VON

10 February 1897

By early 1897 Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was fast approaching. Across Canada, communities and governments were trying to decide on how best to mark this historic event. On 10 February 1897, a public meeting was held under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Canada in the assembly hall of the Normal School on Elgin Street to discuss a proposal to establish the Victorian Order of Home Helpers as a means of honouring the Queen’s long reign. This idea was consistent with the Queen’s wish that celebrations be connected with efforts to alleviate the suffering of the sick and poor. The Council’s president was the Countess of Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks, was a woman of extraordinary energy and ability. An early feminist, she had founded a number of charitable organizations in her native Scotland that focused on poor women. Following her husband’s appointment as Canada’s Governor General, she founded in 1894 the National Council of Women of Canada, and was the Council’s first president.

VON Lady Aberdeen, 1898, LAC
Lady Aberdeen, 1898, Library and Archives Canada

The idea of a national organization of “Home Helpers” originated in western Canada, possibly at a meeting of the Vancouver local council of women and Lady Aberdeen. Another report suggested that the idea came from the local council of Victoria, and was later forwarded to the National Council of Women. Regardless, Lady Aberdeen was an early supporter and quickly became identified with the proposal.

The public meeting at the Normal School was well attended. With the Governor General and senior government officials present, including the Premier, Wilfrid Laurier, Lady Aberdeen addressed the assembly. She stressed the debt owed by women to Queen Victoria—“no section of Her Majesty’s subjects have more cause to sing the praises of this glorious epoch than the members of Her Majesty’s own sex.” She noted that new possibilities had opened up for women during the Queen’s reign. The Queen has demonstrated that a woman can “have an intimate knowledge and grasp of the affairs of state whilst at the same time being a model of all womanly, wifely, and motherly virtues and charms.”

Speaking about the proposed scheme, Lady Aberdeen said Home Helpers would need to have a practical knowledge of midwifery, first aid, home-keeping, simple home sanitation, and the preparation of food for invalids. She thought that a “Home Helper” would be “constantly visiting homes in need—would be giving advice, cheering the home and doing various acts of mercy and kindness.”  Successful applicants, who would have to pass an examination set by the medical profession, would be supplied with a uniform and the badge of the Order.

She estimated that $1 million was needed to ensure that funds would be available in perpetuity. Local women’s councils would undertake collections in co-operation with others. The Bank of Montreal agreed to receive subscriptions.

At the public meeting, Wilfrid Laurier, moved the following resolution, seconded by Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior:

That this meeting heartily approves of the general character of the scheme described as the Victorian Order of Home Helpers as a mode of commemoration by the Dominion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and that a fund be opened for the carrying out thereof.

Despite governmental support, Lady’s Aberdeen’s Order of Home Helpers met mixed reviews, especially from members of the medical profession. Although doctors in Montreal, including Professor Craik, the dean of McGill’s medical school, supported the plan, it was rejected by others, including the Ontario Medical Association, as being impractical and even dangerous. Many feared that well-meaning but otherwise under-qualified women would be sent out to administer to the sick.

In part as a way to alleviate these concerns, the name of the scheme was quickly changed to the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). The plan was also tweaked to make it clear that only highly-qualified nurses would qualify for the Order. The VON’s objectives were also clarified. They were: i) to provide skilled nurses in sparsely settled regions of the country; ii) to provide skilled nurses to attend sick poor people in their own homes; iii) to provide skilled nurses to attend cases in cities at fixed charges for persons of small incomes; iv) to provide cottage hospitals or small lying-in rooms in homes; and v) to train nurses to carry out these objectives. Nurse salaries, estimated at $400-500 per year, would be paid by the Order, with any fees collected by nurses from those who could afford them to be sent to the Order.

Despite these changes, opposition continued. Many doctors believed that it would be better if physicians and surgeons were paid bonuses to go out to frontier districts, or if funds were used to expand existing hospitals. Others doubted whether “even a very strong-minded female,” would be physically up to the rigours of a north-western winter if called out in the middle of the night.

Lady Aberdeen and other officials worked hard speaking to groups across the country to drum up support for the Victorian Order of Nurses and to dispel rumours that only minimally trained nurses would be hired. They also stressed that instead of replacing doctors, the nurses would, to the extent possible, be working under their direct supervision. This helped. In Winnipeg, the Manitoba Morning Free Press, which had been a fervent opponent to the scheme, was converted. Instead of believing that the Victorian Order of Nurses was “a well-meaning fad” that was “ill-digested, unwise and impractical,” as it had earlier opined, it concluded that “as the scheme becomes better known and its aim better understood, opposition and indifference will disappear.” The paper chided Winnipeg doctors for not attending a public meeting where details of the scheme were presented.

Some criticisms became very personal. The Halifax Herald attacked Lady Aberdeen. It wrote that the proper commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee was being “frustrated through Lady Aberdeen’s inability to mind her own business.” It was a “thoroughly quixotic scheme” and that “we expect our Governors-General to so govern their own families as to keep them out of mischief.” The New York Evening Post said that Lady Aberdeen was not popular in Canada, being “too clever and too advanced for Canadians.” Instead of paying attention to “etiquette and raiment,” she was “too much interested in ‘movements.’” Clearly the sight of an independent woman striving to make a difference in a male-dominated world was too much to stomach for some members of the public.

Given such criticisms, Lady Aberdeen must have received a much welcomed confidence boost when the British Medical Association and Lord Lister, the father of antisepsis, endorsed the Victorian Order of Nurses. She must have been similarly gratified when Florence Nightingale, the most famous nurse of all time, also came out in favour of her scheme.

VON toej 3-6-98
Newspaper clipping announcing the granting of a Royal Charter to the Victorian Order of Nurses, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 3 June 1898.

Here in Ottawa, weekly meetings were held through the spring of 1897 in the Governor General’s office in the Departmental building on Parliament Hill to get the VON up and running. A provisional management committee was established, comprised of some high-powered people, including Lady Ritchie, the wife of Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Bishop of Ottawa, and Sir Henri Joly de Lotbinière, a former premier of Quebec, later to become the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Four trustees were also appointed to manage the money that began to flow to the Order. Sandford Fleming, a resident of Ottawa and the father of world-wide standard time, was one of the trustees. In late April 1897, the VON was officially endorsed by Ottawa citizens at another public meeting at the Normal School. The indefatigable Lady Aberdeen presided.

Slowly the money began to roll in. Subscriptions began at 5 cents. Both the great and small contributed. Sir Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal), the president of the Bank of Montreal and the man who hammered in the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway, donated $5,000, and pledged another $5,000 as soon as donations of $100,000 had been made by others contributing $1,000 or more. Meanwhile, fourteen children, the oldest aged 12, at a francophone school near Ottawa sent in their allowances. Their teacher attached a letter to Lady Aberdeen saying “The children of my school cannot pass this occasion to do something for Queen Victoria. Not being rich but having the will to aid the poor, they send you the amount enclosed.” The letter listed the names and ages of the children.

Although the scheme came nowhere near reaching the goal of $1 million, a huge sum back in those days, it received enough in donations and pledges, about $250,000, for it to proceed. On Jubilee Day, 22 June 1897, Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General officially announced the formation of the Victorian Order of Nurses as a lasting tribute to Queen Victoria.

VON Charlotte MacLeod, c. 1897. LAC
Miss Charlotte MacLeod, First Chief Superintendent of the Victorian Order of Nurses, 1898, Library and Archives Canada

The VON hit the ground running. Within its first year, Lady Aberdeen had acquired the home of Alderman Davis of Ottawa at 578 Somerset Street for the Order’s headquarters. VON training homes were also established in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Miss Charlotte MacLeod, who had worked with Florence Nightingale, was named as the VON’s Chief Superintendent. In the spring of 1898, four nurses were sent to help administer to the sick in the Yukon. At this time, tens of thousands of people were travelling to the Klondike in the great gold rush.  Disease, owing to poor sanitation, was rampant. Lady and Lord Aberdeen bid the nurses au revoir with a dinner at Rideau Hall on the eve of their departure on their month-long journey to Dawson City.

In early June 1898, it was announced that the Victorian Order of Nurses had received a Royal Charter for Canada as well as a local charter for an Ottawa chapter for the counties of Carleton and Russell in Ontario, and the country of Ottawa in Quebec. Life membership in the Ottawa chapter was set at $100, with an annual membership costing $5. Quickly, Ottawa had 18 life members and 40 annual members. A meeting was also held in the committee room of the Ottawa City Hall to elect a board of management. With the now Sir Sanford Fleming in the chair, an all-woman, twelve-person board was elected. Prominent among them were Lady Laurier and Lady Ritchie.

In late 1898, Lord Aberdeen’s tour of duty as Governor General came to an end. But before the vice-regal couple left Ottawa, Lady Aberdeen received a letter from Colonel Evens, the commandant of the Yukon military contingent expressing his and his soldiers’ “sincere appreciation” for the services of the Victorian Order nurses. “The work of the Victorian Order in Dawson is a great one, and the opening of the new hospital was providential.  Their presence with the force has been invaluable…I don’t know how we should have fared without them.”

In 2017, one hundred years after its founding, the Victorian Order of Nurses had 5,000 employees and 9,000 volunteers, and provided 75 home care, support and community services in more than 1,200 Canadian communities.


Halifax Herald (The), 1897. “A Halifax Opinion,” in The Ottawa Evening Journal, 25 May.

Manitoba Morning Free Press, 1897. “Victorian Nurses,” 23 April.

————————————-. 1897. “The Victorian Fund,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Victoria Order,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Order of Nurses,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Order Of Nurses,” 31 May.

————————————-, 1897. “The Victorian Order,” 2 June.

————————————, 1897. “The Victorian Order,” 7 June.

————————————, 1897. “The Doctors And The Victorian Order,” 8 June.

The New York Evening Post, 1897. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” in the Vancouver Daily World, 12 August.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1897. “Victorian Home Helpers,” 11 February.

————————————-, 1897. “Some Explanations,” 3 March.

————————————-, 1897. “Getting Organized,” 19 March.

————————————-, 1897. “Citizens Will Meet,” 21 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Nurses,” 24 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Ottawa Is In Line,” 26 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” 14 June.

————————————-, 1897. “The Scheme Unpopular,” 13 July

————————————-, 1897. “Eager To Help, 20 July.

————————————-, 1898. “Klondike Nurses,” 28 March.

————————————-, 1898. “Music For Rideau Hall,” 31 May.

————————————-, 1898. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” 3 June.

————————————-, 1898. “Home For V.O.N.” 7 June.

————————————-, 1898. “Women’s Council,” 12 July.

————————————. 1898. “Victorian Nurses In The Klondike,” 1 October.

Vancouver Daily World, 1897. “Women Helpers,” 22 February.

—————————–, 1897. “Taking Practical Form,” 26 March.

—————————–, 1897. “Cablegram from Sir Donald Smith” 28 June 1897.

—————————–, 1897. “Victorian Order Of Nurses,” 1 October.

—————————–, 1898. “Training Home For Nurses,” 27 July.

VON Canada, 2017. http://www.von.ca/.

National Council of Women of Canada

11 April 1894

The National Council of Women of Canada, an Ottawa-based, women’s advocacy group, celebrated its 125 anniversary in October 2018. It was founded in 1893 in Toronto by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the then Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Aberdeen. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks (pronounced Marshbanks), was a person of outstanding ability with a strong interest in social reform, an interest shared by her husband. In Scotland, she established, among other things, the Aberdeen Ladies’ Union that helped young girls in cities, and the Onward and Upward Association that provided education to servant girls. She was also head of the Women’s Liberal Federation that advocated for women’s suffrage.

Shortly after her husband took up his post as Governor General, Lady Aberdeen attended the congresses of the National Council of Women of the United States and the Women’s Alliance held at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in May 1893. There, she spoke on women as a force in politics. This was, of course, long before women’s suffrage. Canada’s Dr. Emily Howard Stowe also spoke at the same meeting. Stowe was the president of the Women’s Enfranchisement League of Canada. Subsequently, women convened at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago where it was decided to organize a National Council of Women in every country which in turn would be affiliated with the International Council of Women. Lady Aberdeen was elected as the International Council’s first president. She was to hold this position for three extended terms—1893 to 1899, 1904 to 1920, and 1922 to 1936. May Wright Sewell, an American pioneer for women’s rights, was elected Vice President. Sewell was famous for advocating sensible clothing for women at a time when women’s clothing, which included corsets, bustles, petticoats and floor-length skirts, was anything but sensible.

The small group of Canadian women who attended the meetings in Chicago returned home ready to organize a National Council of Women of Canada. Five months later in late October 1893, hundreds of women assembled in Toronto to launch the new organization under the leadership of Lady Aberdeen. Speaking to the assembly, she remarked on how wonderful it was to look at the advances made in the recognition given to “women’s work, women’s education, women’s influence, and women responsibilities in all directions.” She also commented that women of her day owed much to the heroism of such people as prison reformers Elizabeth Fry and Sarah Martin. As well, Lady Aberdeen outlined the plan for the National Council. She envisaged every town having a local council or union of women’s organizations which in turn would send delegates to a National Council so that the “work and thought of women in the Dominion” would be represented from “Halifax to Victoria.” The locals and National Council would be free of religious denomination and open to all. The only requirement would be that the institution or organization have as its objective the good of mankind. Besides sharing information about what each group was doing and identifying gaps, the idea behind a National Council was to draw strength from unity in order to advance nation-wide social objectives. At the meeting, Lady Aberdeen was elected President of the National Council of Women of Canada. She accepted the position on the condition that the women of Canada allowed her to be considered an adopted Canadian.

National Council of Women at Rideau Hall, Oct1898 LAC-PA-028033
Lady and Lord Aberdeen with the National Council of Women at Rideau Hall, shortly before their return to the United kingdom, October 1898, Topley Studios/Library and Archives Canada, PA-029033

After this inaugural conference, major cities in Canada began forming local councils of women’s organizations and associations. Organizations that had both male and female members could also join if the women of those organizations put forward a woman representative to participate in council meetings. Toronto was the first city to establish a local council in early November 1893 with 24 federated societies or associations. This was followed by Hamilton and Montreal later that same month with 25 and 32 member organizations, respectively. Ottawa followed in mid-January 1894 with 27 member organizations. These included: the Children’s Hospital, the Protestant Home for the Aged, the Home for Friendless Women, the Protestant Orphan’s Home, St. Patrick’s Asylum, the Ottawa Humane Society, the Women’s Enfranchisement Association, the Women Christian Temperance Union, and the Ladies’ Auxiliaries of many Protestant churches. There were few Catholic organizations as the Roman Catholic Church had not yet given its blessing to the new Women’s Council. The cost to affiliate with the Ottawa local council was $2.

Lady Ritchie, born Grace Vernon Nicholson, was elected the first President of the Ottawa chapter. She was the wife of Sir William Johnstone Ritchie, who at the time was Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Lady Ritchie had for many years been the president of the Humane Society. She was also the Vice-President of the National Council of Women of Canada.  Other vice-presidents, all women with high-powered connections, included Mrs R.W. Scott (Mary Ann Heron), wife of Mr. Richard W. Scott (later Sir), Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Madame Taschereau (Marie-Antoinette Harwood), the wife of Supreme Court Justice Henri-Elzéar Taschereau (later Sir), Mrs Erskine Bronson (Ella Webster), the wife of Erskine Henry Bronson, the businessman and philanthropist, and Mrs Gwynne, the wife of another Supreme Court Justice, John Wellington Gwynne.

Normal School Ottawa, Topley-LAC-PA-008857
Ottawa Normal School, James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008857.

The first Convention of the National Council of Women of Canada took place in Ottawa over a two-day period beginning 11 April 1894 under the direction of Lady Aberdeen. The afternoon prior to the meeting, the Executive Committee of the Council met at Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General, to finalize last-minute arrangements for the Convention. Around a large table set in the middle of the room sat the presidents of the various local councils and representatives of nationally-organized associations affiliated to the National Council. Lady Aberdeen chaired the meeting.  It was described as a very business-like affair with full regard given to Parliamentary rules. It was also described as “very womanly” as “the meeting did not adjourn without the inevitable cup of tea.” After the meeting, blotters and pens were removed and the table was reset for an Executive Council dinner hosted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen.

The Convention officially began the next morning at 10 a.m. in the convocation hall of the Normal School at Elgin and Lisgar Streets. (Today, this Gothic-revival building erected in 1874 forms part of the Ottawa City Hall.) The hall was decorated with flags and bunting with flower arrangements in the windows and on the platform. For the first session, roughly 120 women were present from all the principal cities of Canada. Lady Aberdeen presided over the proceedings. She began the meeting with a silent prayer after noting that the women present represented “different creeds, different churches, different races (i.e. English and French), have different views but are all children of the same Father.”

In her opening address, Lady Aberdeen provided a traditional assessment of woman’s place in society. She described the movement as “mothering.” While not everybody had children, all women were called upon to “mother” in some way, she said. As well, it was the responsibility of women to be the “true homemaker”—“her husband’s companion, her children’s guide” who “should always understand the changes that take place in the everyday world.” She hoped that the Council would be able “to forge a grand band of union between the members as homemakers and home builders.” Later in the conference, she noted that some thought that the Woman’s Council was only a cover for a campaign for women’s rights. She assured people that the women’s movement was “not seeking to agitate for rights or to glorify their own sex at the expense of the other.” Women’s duties rather than women’s rights were their watchwords. Such duties were to the poor, to the fallen and to the ill. Moreover, as well as finding cures, it was important to get to the root causes of the evils.

National Council ExCommitee Oct1898, Topley-LAC PA-028035
Executive Committee of the National Council of Women of Canada, October 1898, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-028035.

Lady Aberdeen’s description of women in their traditional roles as nurturers and caregivers may have in part been directed at disarming potential critics rather than being indicative of her own beliefs. Her position as the Governor General’s wife also limited her to what she could say or do. When approached by women’s suffrage supporters for her support, she refused to comment noting that the subject was politically too controversial.

Over the two-day convention, papers were presented and discussed covering three broad topics—co-operation in the workplace, women’s clubs and their advantages, and the relation of parents and children and their responsibilities—with three to four papers presented in each section. When the presenter on “co-operation of working women for protective purposes” was unable to speak, Lady Aberdeen stepped in and took her place. Lady Aberdeen spoke of women employed in Toronto factories and workshops earning as little as $2-3 per week, with the women’s pay docked for the slightest excuse. She also spoke about the impact of women who worked for pocket money on the wages of those who worked for a living. When buying cheap items in a bargain store, she thought that the purchaser needed to reflect upon the lives of those women who made those goods. Lady Aberdeen opined that a union was necessary—a radical position for somebody in her position at this time.

Also discussed was the issue of domestic service. While not a subject that resonates today, it was a major topic back in the late nineteenth century. Papers were provided from the mistress’s point of view, the servant’s point of view, and on possible solutions. While the report on the discussion was very limited, it would appear at issue was the difference between a mistress’s expectations and a servant’s rights. One suggestion to improve the lot of servants was for families to be content with cold dinners on Sundays.

The Ottawa author and poet Annie Howell Fréchette spoke on raising difficult children. In a very well received lecture, she told the audience that “no child should be asked to submit to a rule that will not permit the search-light of wisdom and right.” She added that “the rod of correction cannot be the diving road that searches the pure waters in the child’s soul.” In other words, corporal punishment doesn’t work—a very modern concept, and one that did not jibe with the biblically-derived proverb of “spare the rod, spoil the child” that many took literally at the time.

At the conclusion of the first day’s business, the Aberdeens hosted a huge reception for delegates and guests at Rideau Hall, opening up the entire ground floor of their home. More than one thousand people showed up despite a conflicting ball being held on the same night at the Russell House Hotel for the wives of members of parliament and senators. Many people attended both functions. Lady Aberdeen wore black with diamonds as she was in mourning for the death of her father the previous month. In the ballroom, amateur musicians and vocalists played and sang. Refreshments were served in the winter tennis court under a red and white marquee that was lowered from the roof.

The highlight of the second day’s afternoon session, which was open to the public, both men and women, was the appearance of Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General, and Sir John Thompson, the Prime Minister. Lord Aberdeen heartedly endorsed the formation of the National Council of Women of Canada, saying that it would promote “greater unity of heart, sympathy, and purpose among the women workers of all sections and classes of the people.” He also thought that it was no longer “a strange or fantastic thing that a body of ladies should be gathered together with the serious and definite purpose of promoting the public welfare.” Lord Aberdeen became the Council’s first patron, donating $100.

Sir John Thompson seconded the motion and congratulated himself that the National Council had been established during his premiership. He promised that “the sympathy of Parliament would be extended to the movement in any practical form.” This, of course, did not extend so far as supporting women’s suffrage.

At its first Convention, the National Council of Women of Canada approved a number of resolutions. It urged provincial governments to appoint women inspectors for factories and workshops that employed women. Another resolution advised provincial departments of education to supply schools with an improved history of Canada, with decent maps, that skillfully blended the “whole record of ‘Indian Romance,’ ‘French Chivalry,’ and British Endeavour.’” Governments were also called upon to use international arbitration to settle international disputes peacefully. As well, the National Council asked local councils to co-operate with the Children’s Aid Society to try to secure separate prisons and trials for young offenders, especially first-time offenders.

National Council of Women Lady Aberdeen Lady Taylor Mrs. John H. AchesonLACPA-057319
Lady Aberdeen (right) with Mrs John H. Acheson, 2nd President of the National Council of Women, October 1898, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-O57319.

Following the conclusion of the Convention, a number of affiliated associations held their own meetings at the Normal School. These included the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association, the Dominion Girls’ Friendly Society, the Montreal Hebrew Sewing Society, the Montreal Ladies Morning Musical, the King’s Daughters, and the Temperance Workers of Hamilton.

From this auspicious beginning, the National Council of Women of Canada grew and prospered. During the late 1890s, it was active in bringing free public libraries to Canadian cities, including Ottawa in 1906. It was also active in the development of the Victorian Order of Nurses formed in 1897 with Lady Aberdeen as its first president. In the early twentieth century, it came more involved in the women’s suffrage movement. The National Council also supported the “famous five” Alberta women, all of who were Council members, in their fight in 1930 for women to become eligible persons to sit in the Senate of Canada. Other work over the years included efforts related to public health, equal pay for equal value, rights of children, and consumer protection. These and other initiatives have improved the lives of countless Canadians.

The Council’s work continues today educating the public and working with governments on a host of issues including human rights, reproductive technologies, violence against women, development assistance and disarmament.


Evening Journal (The), 1893. “The Divided Skirt At The World’s Fair,” 17 May.

—————————, 1893. “Lady Aberdeen Elected,” 20 May.

—————————, 1893. “The National Council of Women of Canada,” 2 December.

————————–, 1894. “Women For Women,” 17 January.

—————————, 1894. “Twenty-Five In Affiliation,” 8 February.

—————————, 1894. “Women’s Field,” 11 April.

—————————, 1894. “National Enthusiasm,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “Bargains and Sweating,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “Notes,” 12 April.

—————————, 1894. “It Has The Sympathy Of The House,” 13 April.

Globe (The), 1893. “Where Women Held Sway: National Council For Canada,” 28 October.

————–, 1893. “Women Of Canada,” 10 April.

————-, 1893. “The Women’s Council,” 13 April.

————-, 1893. “From A Woman’s Standpoint,” 21 April.

Harris, Carolyn, 2016, “Lady Aberdeen,” in Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ishbel-gordon-lady-aberdeen/.

National Council of Women of Canada, 2018. http://www.ncwcanada.com/.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 2017. “The Capital Builders: Lady Aberdeen, a feminist for Canada,” 25 June.

A Free, Public Library

30 April 1906

While libraries have existed since the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt more than four thousand years ago, free, public libraries are a recent phenomenon, dating back only to the nineteenth century. Previously, libraries were the preserve of the Church, kings and wealthy private citizens—the small minority who were literate and had the resources to afford books. Mass education was viewed by elites with suspicion. It might lead people to question their station in life. In a largely agrarian society, knowing how to plough fields, grow crops, and raise livestock were deemed far more important skills for the common person than reading and writing.

Ideas became to shift during the industrial revolution. Social reformers started to advocate in favour of educating workers in order to advance science and reduce superstition. Increasingly, an educated workforce was seen as an economic blessing rather than a social curse. With thousands of men and women pouring into the cities seeking employment in those “dark satanic mills,” the Church and temperance supporters hoped that edifying lectures and libraries would reduce crime, and keep people out of bars and brothels during their (limited) time off. Starting from the early nineteenth century, mechanics’ institutes and literary and philosophical societies, often sponsored by wealthy industrialists, began popping up in the major cities of Britain. These institutions provided lectures on scientific subjects to their members, typically industrial workers and clerks, who could join for a small fee. They also operated libraries and reading rooms for the benefit of their members. In Britain, the Museums Act of 1845 allowed boroughs to raise funds to support museums and libraries for the edification of the general public.

Similar developments took place in Bytown, later Ottawa, albeit with a lag. Calls for a library to be established in Bytown started as early as 1837. Four years later, a small, circulating library opened for subscribers out of the offices of Alexander Gray, a jeweller and bookseller. Unfortunately, it apparently failed after only one year. In 1847, the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute was founded by the town’s leading citizens. In addition to uplifting educational lectures, the Institute provided a library for its members. Drawing principally upon the English-speaking community, the Institute was unable to attract sufficient members, and quickly became inactive. It was, however, revived in 1853 as the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum (BMIA). Area Francophones established their own cultural institution, l’Institut canadien français d’Ottawa in 1852 that still exists today.

The new BMIA, which received an annual grant from the provincial government, did better than its antecedent. It too provided lectures, classes, a reading room and a small circulating library for its members initially out of the basement of the Congregational Church located near Sappers’ Bridge. By 1856, BMIA had a library of roughly 1,000 volumes, mostly academic works though there were a few novels as well. It also subscribed to British, French and American newspapers, journals and periodicals. In 1869, the BMIA merged with the Ottawa Natural History Society to form the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society (OLSS). While the new organization continued to offer classes, held lectures, and maintained a growing library, its membership was drawn largely from the ranks of civil servants and industrialists rather than mill workers and labourers. Although a fine Parliamentary Library also existed in Ottawa, its use was also largely confined to the town’s elite rather than the working poor. A small lending library was also maintained by Battle Brothers at the corner of Rideau and Sussex Streets. In 1876, the store, which sold cards of various descriptions, advertised its books could be loaned at two cents per day, along with a deposit.

In 1882, the Ontario Government passed the Free Libraries Act, allowing municipalities to establish public libraries funded out of local taxes with the assent of the ratepayers. A number of cities across the province, including Toronto, took advantage of this new legislation and established public libraries for their citizens. In these cases, the libraries of local mechanics’ institutions were transferred to the new municipally-run libraries. In Ottawa, however, the new legislation had little impact.

During the early 1890s, the Ottawa Council of Women began to lobby for the establishment of a free library in the Capital. In February 1895, the Council, chaired by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, issued the following statement:

“Whereas the Local Council of Women of Ottawa feel that the establishment of a Free Library would be a benefit to the city, resolved: That this Council recommend that the subject be brought prominently before the public through the medium of the press and that a petition to the city council in accordance with the terms of the Free Libraries Act, be prepared for circulation by the Women’s Council.”

The Perley mansion at 415 Wellington St was offered to the City as a home for a public library in 1896. Topley Studio Fonds/Library & Archives Canada, PA-027381.

In March 1895, the Council of Women submitted its petition to the city with 280 signatures (almost triple the number required by law). The city then prepared a draft by-law establishing a free library to be voted on by Ottawa ratepayers at the upcoming municipal elections. Ratepayers consisted of men over 21 years of age who owned property in excess of $400. Single women and widows who met the property requirement could also vote.  The Council of Women then launched an advertising campaign in support of a free library. With the support of Philip Ross, the editor of The Evening Journal, the Council of Woman published the “Woman’s Edition” of the newspaper in April 1895, with all profits of the edition going to a fund for the free library. In this edition, all the articles, stories and letters were written and edited by women. Front and centre were articles in support of a free library. The movement got a further boost when the heirs of William Perley, a lumber baron, offered the Perely mansion on Wellington Street as home for the new library.

However, the efforts of the women came up short. In the vote held in January 1896, the city’s eight wards all decisively turned down the idea of a public library, with the popular vote 1,958 for and 3,429 against. It seemed that cost of running a library, estimated at about $10,000 per year, was too steep for ratepayers. Instead of becoming a library, the Perley mansion became “The Perley Home for Incurables” until the land was expropriated by the Dominion government in 1912. (In the long run, the location did become a library; the site is now the home of Library and Archives Canada.)

The Council of Women did not give up, and continued to press the issue at city council. But councilmen, while supporting the idea of a free library, collectively continued to reject the idea as being too costly. In 1899, a draft by-law was defeated on second reading on a vote of 13-11. By the early 1900s, with over 400 public libraries in Ontario, Ottawa was looking decidedly backward.

Andrew Carnegie, 1835-1919, Theodore C. Moreau, Library of Congress

Salvation came from the United States. In 1901, Otto Klotz, past president of the OLSS and husband of Marie Klotz who was a leading light in the Ottawa Council of Women’s fight for a public library, wrote Andrew Carnegie, the prominent, Scottish-born, American philanthropist for funds to build a free, public library in Ottawa. The day after Klotz sent his letter, Ottawa mayor W. D. Morris also petitioned Carnegie for funds. By this point, Carnegie had funded hundreds of libraries throughout the United States, Canada, and Britain. Within weeks of receiving the letters, Carnegie pledged $100,000 to pay for an Ottawa Public Library, if Ottawa found a site and if it would agree to spend not less than $7,500 per year in upkeep.

It took several years, however, to bring this about. First, the city hoped that the Dominion government would supply land for the library. When that didn’t happen, city council purchased a site at the corner of Laurier Avenue (then called Maria Street) and Metcalfe Street. Second, it took time to select the design by architect E. L. Horwood out of eleven plans submitted. Third, the project was almost derailed following publication of Carnegie’s views that the United States should annex Canada. But work proceeded. In 1905, council approved $15,000 for the purchase of books, of which $3,500 was spent on French books. Lawrence Burpee, former clerk at the Department of Justice, was selected as Librarian. In turn, Burpee hired an assistant librarian, a cataloguer, three assistants for the circulation desk, and a caretaker. To help expedite the huge task of cataloguing books, Burpee purchased ready-made index cards at a penny a card from the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Carnegie Library. Notice the stained glass window above the entrance, and the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters on the lintel. Department of Mines and Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada, PA-023297.

Opening day was Monday, 30 April 1906. Carnegie himself was there for the big event. It was the great industrialist and philanthropist’s first visit to Canada. He came the day before via Toronto, where he had given a speech at the Canadian Club. He was met at the train station by Sir Sandford Fleming and the U.S. Consul General who conveyed him to Government House where he stayed on his short trip to Ottawa. The evening before the official opening, Carnegie was the guest of honour at a formal dinner at the Russell House Hotel. With the prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at his side, Carnegie spoke extemporaneously about the union of English-speaking countries, especially the United States and Canada—his favourite hobby horse. Calling himself as a “race imperialist,” he dubbed Canada “the Scotland of America,” and disingenuously envisaged Canada annexing her southern neighbour, just as Scotland had “annexed” England, and “afterwards boss it for its own good, as Scotland did also.” [James VI of Scotland became James I of England at the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.] He also praised Laurier for maintaining Canada’s fiscal independence [from Britain] and for not being swept into the vortex of militarism [a dig at the British who were engaged in an arms’ race with Germany]. Despite Carnegie’s annexationist and racial views, Laurier replied graciously saying that he too was a “race imperialist,” and opined that the separation of England from her American colonies had been a “crime,” and hoped for re-union. He added that had he “not been born of French parentage, there was nothing he would have rather been than a Scot.”

For the official opening the next afternoon, the classical, four-storey library building was clad in Union Jacks, the Stars and Stripes and colourful bunting. Constructed at a cost of slightly less than $100,000, the building was made of Indiana sandstone. The central main entrance was bracketed by four Corinthian columns, two on either side. Above the entrance was a large stained glass window that featured famous authors—William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, Lord Tennyson, and the Canadian Confederation poet Archibald Lampman. Overhead, on the lintel of the building, was inscribed the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters. For the official opening, these words were hidden by bunting to avoid embarrassment as the official name of the building was “The Carnegie Library,” a name used by the Ottawa Public Library into the 1950s.

Interior of The Carnegie Library looking towards the main entrance, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009086.

The building’s interior walls were clad in Italian marble with beautiful red oak wooden flooring and wainscoting. In front of the entrance hung a portrait of Carnegie painted by Miss V. Fréchette, the daughter of Achille Fréchette the translator of the House of Commons, and Annie Howells Fréchette who edited the “Woman’s Edition” of The Evening Journal in 1895. The basement held classrooms, a newspaper room, a furnace room and the caretaker’s quarters. The ground floor was devoted to reading rooms to the right and left of the large lobby, the librarian’s offices, the stack room as well as the circulation desks. A marble and bronze staircase led upstairs to boardrooms, a reference department, a lecture room for 125 persons, staff offices, and a cloakroom.

After the customary welcoming speeches, Carnegie thanked the city and praised it for constructing such a fine building. He then reprised his speech on “race imperialism.” On a tour of the facilities, Carnegie was “waylaid” by a delegation of the St Andrew’s Society who gave the philanthropist an honorary membership to the Sons of Scotland of Canada. After the ceremonies, Carnegie left by train for Montreal, where he was granted an honorary degree at McGill University, and gave yet another speech on race imperialism before returning to New York.

The Carnegie Library was a great success. By the end of 1907, almost 20,000 library cards had been handed out, with an annual circulation of 129,000 books. So successful was it that the old Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society closed for good, its members flocking to the free services provided by the city. Before long, strong demand for the Library led to the establishment of branch operations. In 1916, Carnegie donated an additional $15,000 to build a western branch on Rosemount Avenue. It opened in 1919. This donation was the last Carnegie gave to Canada. He died in 1919 at the age of 83.

Columns salvaged from The Carnegie Library, Rockcliffe Rockeries, 2016, by Nicolle Melanson-Powell

By the 1960s, the downtown Carnegie library was showing signs of age. Serious cracks had opened up in its walls and ceilings under the weight of the books it contained. In a time when little thought was given to heritage considerations, the beautiful, classic structure was demolished in 1971, a year after the gracious Capitol Theatre also succumbed to the wrecking ball. It was replaced by the current, Brutalist style, concrete building that was completed in 1974. The only thing retained from the old building was the stained glass window. The Library’s Corinthian columns were also saved and were reused as a “folly” in the Rockcliffe Rockeries.

Today, things have gone full circle. Plans are afoot to replace the current central library at 140 Metcalfe Street. Also, the aging Rosemount Branch, built a century ago using a Carnegie donation, is too small for current needs. Its future is now in doubt.


Bytown Gazette & Ottawa Advertiser (The), 1841, “Circulating Library,” 9 December.

Carnegie Library (The), 1908. 3rd Report, Ottawa: The Ottawa Printing Co. (Limited).

Evening Journal (The), 1895, “Women In Council,” 4 February.

—————————, 1895. “Woman’s Edition,” 13 April.

—————————, 1895, “Free Library Law,”19 December.

—————————, 1896. “Just the Place,” 4 January.

—————————, 1896. “All Jumped On,” 7 January.

—————————, 1899. Free Library By-Law Killed, 5 December.

—————————, 1901. “Free Public Library for City of Ottawa, Carnegie to donate $100,000,” 11 March.

—————————, 1906. “The Program In Ottawa,” 28 April.

—————————, 1906. “The Carnegie Library,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Carnegie Library Formally Opened,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Reception of Library King,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Ceremonies at the Opening,” 1 May.

—————————, 1967. “Old Library to Come Down,” 21 November.

—————————, 1969. “Funds, Weather, Moon Shot Blames for Library Woes,” 12


————————–, 1970. “Library Cracks Up,” 8 August.

—————————, 1971. “Old Building Wrecked by Cohen’s, 24 September.

—————————, 1974. “Salute to the New Central Ottawa Public Library,” 8 May.

Gaizauskas, Barbara, 1990. Feed The Flame: A Natural History of The Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society, Carleton University, M.A. Thesis, https://curve.carleton.ca/b81c434b-04c8-4886-9c97-cfc1a560ff51.

Ottawa Citizen, 1876. “Valentines!”, 2 February.

Jenkins, Phil, 2002. The Library Book: An Overdue History of the Ottawa Public Library, 1906-2001, Ottawa: Ottawa Public Library.

Rush, Anita, 1981. The Establishment of Ottawa’s Public Library, Carleton University.

Urbsite, 2012. Unforgotten Ottawa, The Carnegie Library, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/09/unforgotten-ottawa-carnegie-library.html?q=Carnegie+library.

The Evening Journal — Woman’s Edition

13 April 1895

Prior to the twentieth century, women in Canada, and indeed throughout most of the world, had few political, economic or social rights. Typically, women went directly from the jurisdiction of their fathers to that of their husbands. They had little control over property, income, children, or their own bodies. Women were denied the franchise, banned from most professions, and were often forbidden university-level education. A woman’s place in society was limited to caring for her husband, raising a family and managing the household. Few married women were in the paid labour force. If a single woman was forced by poverty to seek out paid employment, she was confined to occupations that were extensions of home life—carrying for children, sick, or elderly, or being a seamstress, or a house maid. Teaching was also acceptable. Once married, however, a woman was expected to resign her position so that she could devote her time to wifely duties. In 1901, only 14 per cent of Canadian women were in the paid labour force, many earning only a pittance, much less than their male counterparts doing the same work, a rationale being that a man had a family to support whereas a woman had only herself.

However, during the later decades of the nineteenth century, Canadian women began to organize and agitated for change. They challenged the widely-held belief that it was ordained by God that a woman’s place was in the home. They also rejected the paternalistic notion that they were the weaker sex, who must be sheltered from the hurly burly of politics, or worse did not have the intellectual capacity to work in the professions. But change came slowly in Canada, and when it did it came in small steps. In 1872, the Married Women’s Property Act gave married women the right to their own wages. Three years later, Dr Jennie Trout became the first woman to be licensed to practise medicine in Ontario. In 1876, Toronto women formed the Women’s Literary Society with a covert aim of obtaining equal rights; it later was transformed into the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association.  The Young Women’s Christian Association and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were also formed during the 1870s, with a mission, among other things, to improve the lot of women. In 1884, Ontario granted married women the right to own and dispose of their own property without the consent of their husbands. In 1889, the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association grouped local suffrage groups into a national body, giving them more political clout. In 1893, Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General at that time and an early feminist, formed the National Council of Women in Canada to improve the status of women. The Council’s initial efforts focussed on women immigrants, factory workers and prisoners. In 1895, the Law Society of Upper Canada agreed to admit women as barristers.

Female suffrage was still a dream, however. In June 1895, the House of Commons debated votes for women…and thoroughly rejected such an outlandish idea. One Member of Parliament, Flavien Dupont, expressed the prevailing sentiment of the time. He argued against throwing “upon woman’s shoulders one of the heaviest burdens that bears on those of men, the burden of politics, the burden of electoral contests, the burdens of representation.” He contended “To invite the fair sex to take part in our political contests seems to me to be as humiliating and as shocking a proposition as to invite her to form part of our militia battalions.” Women over 21 years of age had to wait until 1917 to be enfranchised in Ontario, and until 1918 to be able to vote in federal elections.

Against this backdrop, the Ottawa Evening Journal ran a unique edition on Saturday, 13 April 1885—an all-women production of the newspaper. For that one day, Ottawa women assumed all the responsibilities, including managing, editing and reporting, necessary for producing a newspaper. While a number of women had been personally asked to contribute articles, the management of the newspaper invited the ladies of Ottawa to submit stories of up to 600 words-“an opportunity for feminine Ottawa to ventilate her ‘fads and fancies.'” The Editor for the day was Annie Howells Fréchette of 87 McKay Street, New Edinburgh. Fréchette was a poet and the author of many magazine articles, some of which were published in Harper’s Magazine. She was also the wife of the translator for the House of Commons. The Managing Editor was Mary McKay Scott, while the News Editor was Ellie Cronin. The Journal’s office boy was “the only person of the male persuasion” who assisted in the newspaper’s production. Female reporters selected and edited international stories that came in over the newswires, as well as covered local newsworthy events, including sports. Instead of a “Woman’s” column, a common feature in newspapers of the age, a “Gentleman’s” column appeared. Women also solicited advertisements from area businesses, and all letters to the Editor were written by women.

The Evening Journal — Woman’s Edition, 13 April 1895

This special edition of The Evening Journal was in support of the creation of a “Free” or Public Library in Ottawa. At that time, library resources in the Capital was essentially limited to the Parliamentary Library, the University of Ottawa library and the library of the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society (OLSS).  The OLSS, which had a small, circulating collection of roughly 3,100 volumes in 1895, was funded by Society members and an annual grant from the Ontario government. The Ottawa Council of Women, founded by Lady Aberdeen, together with women’s church groups and other charities, were the principal advocate of a free Ottawa Library that would be open to all. The special newspaper edition was a way of rallying support for the initiative. More tangibly, the profits from the issue would form the nucleus of a library fund. Library supporters hoped that others would contribute and, in time, lead to a grant from the City that would fund a Public Library.

Given the purpose of the special, twenty-page, newspaper edition, there was an extensive front-page article making the case for a free, public library in Ottawa. Three principal motivations were outlined: a way of uplifting men and women to a higher plane; a means of securing greater remuneration for work; and a way to form better citizens, thereby adding to the advancement and stability of the state. A public library was viewed as an extension of the school system—a “peoples’ university where “rich and poor, old and young, may drink at its inexhaustible fountain.”

Besides articles in support of an Ottawa library, there was an array of fascinating news stories, both national and international, that emphasized women. One article titled La Penetenciaria featured a hard-hitting report on an Ottawa lady’s visit to a Mexican state prison in Guadalajara. Another story focussed on Canadian women in poetry. Front and centre was Emily Pauline Johnson, the daughter of a Mohawk hereditary chief and an English mother. Johnson’s poem “In Sunset” was published. Johnson is recognized today as one of Canada’s leading poets of the nineteenth century. Others profiled included Ethelwyn Wetherald, author and journalist at The Globe newspaper in Toronto, who wrote under the nom de plume Bel Thistlewaite, and Agnes Maule Machar. As well as being an early feminist, Machar wrote about Christianity and Darwinism, arguing that Christians should accept evolution as part of God’s divine plan.

Others stories had a more domestic focus. One provided tips on how to deal with servants: “If the mistress wishes her household machinery to run smoothly, give her orders for the day immediately after breakfast.” In turn, servants were advised never to “put white handled knives into hot water, and to “cleanse the sink with concentrated lye at least once a day.” In the light-hearted “Gentlemen’s Column,” “matters pertaining to the sterner sex” were dealt with, including “men’s rights, and, “the age when a man ceases to be attractive.” Regarding the former, the columnist thought that men looked after their own rights and the needs of their own sex far better than did women, “because they probably know more about them.” As for the latter issue, she thought that there was no definite conclusion.

Lady Aberdeen, Wife of Canada’s  Governor General, 1893-1898, prominent early feminist and contributor to the “Woman’s Edition of The Evening Journal, Library & Archives Canada, PA-22760.

Notable women in the Ottawa community also contributed articles to the special newspaper edition. Lady Aberdeen wrote a lengthy column about what “society girls” might do. She opined that “service is the solution of the problem of life.” In Experimental Farm Notes, Mrs William Saunders, the wife of the director of Ottawa’s Experimental Farm, described life on the Farm, and wrote about what the visitor could see in April, which included a “good display of early spring flowering bulbs.” Mrs Alexander, the Assistant Librarian at the Geological Museum, located at the Geological Survey at the corner of Sussex Avenue and George Street, wrote about the many treasures to be found there. In addition to an extensive collection of rocks and minerals, there were botanical, entomological exhibits as well as a collection of birds and mammals. A range of “Indian relics” were also on display from western Ontario, Yukon and the Queen Charlotte Islands, including a sacrificial stone of the Blackfoot Indians, also known as the Niitsitapi, presented to the Geological Survey by the Marquis of Lorne, a previous Governor General. The Geological Museum later became known as the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The most fascinating stories deal with women’s rights, providing a glimpse of the state of play at that time, and the aspirations of Canadian women in the late nineteenth century. There were at least two references to the decision just made by the Law Society of Upper Canada to admit women as barristers. One reporter with considerable foresight wrote:

Until two weeks ago, women in the province of Ontario had only the privilege of obeying or breaking the law. Now, however, they may assist men in interpreting it. And who can say that he is altogether wrong who looks forward to the time when they shall share in making it, either through the ballot box or the legislative assembles, or becoming its interpreters upon the bench?

In an article called “The Home,” Mrs Stone Wiggins drew readers’ attention to the proverb “Women’s sphere is the home and of it she should be queen.” Notwithstanding the proverb’s wide acceptance by society, she asked “how many wives in Canada have a legal title to their home over which they preside so that it may be safe from the bailiff in case of financial loss on the part of the husband?” As only one in one hundred women owned their own home, she argued that the proverb “has no significance in our age.” She contended that “If the stronger sex have the almost exclusive right to possess themselves of all the offices, and the professions in the state, surely women make a modest request when they ask that the home should be the legal property of the wife.”

Another article looked toward the position of women in the upcoming twentieth century. Its author wrote:

It is my cherished belief that in the twentieth century there will be no artificial restrictions placed upon women by laws which bar them out of certain employments, professions and careers, or by that public sentiment, stronger than law, which now practically closes to them many paths of usefulness for which they seem to me to be specially adapted. All the most progressive pioneers have ever dreamed of asking is that, in the case of women as in that of men, they should not be hedged about by barriers made by the privileged classes, who, in politics, ecclesiastical, professional and business life, have secured the power to say who shall come in and who shall stay out….I confidently expect that they [women] will win their greatest laurels in the realm of government. Many of the great statesmen of the future will be women; many of the most successful diplomatists will be women; many of the greatest preachers will be women.

The special one-day “Woman’s Edition” of The Evening Journal was a great success. The newspaper sold 3,000 additional copies beyond its normal daily circulation. Many local businesses also supported the issue through their advertisements. It demonstrated that women could do men’s jobs, and excel at them. However, the women’s campaign to establish a Free, or Public Library in Ottawa foundered, at least for a time. The Capital had to wait another decade before Andrew Carnegie, the American millionaire, came to the rescue, and provided the money necessary to build a Public Library.

How have women fared in Canada since that 1895 special newspaper edition in government, in the church, in the courts, and in business? Have the “artificial restrictions” and societal pressures been eliminated? The answer is mixed. Despite the approaching hundredth anniversary of female enfranchisement in Ontario and at the federal level, women still account for a minority of federal Members of Parliament and Senators. Kim Campbell has been the only woman to become Prime Minister of Canada, holding power for only 133 days in 1993. At the provincial level, women have fared better. Kathleen Wynne is the current Premier of Ontario, while women currently head governments in Alberta and British Columbia. For a short period in 2013, six of ten provinces had a woman premier. The ordination of women as ministers or priests has been permitted since 1936 in the United Church of Canada, and since 1975 in the Anglican Church of Canada. The first woman Moderator of the United Church was elected in 1980. The ordination of the first Canadian woman Anglican bishop occurred in 1994. There are, of course, no woman Roman Catholic priests. At the Supreme Court of Canada, women are well represented, four of nine Justices are women, including the Chief Justice of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin. In business, however, women continue to fare poorly, According to the 2013 Catalyst Census, only 15.9 per cent of board seats of Canadian companies are filled by women.


Anglican Church of Canada, 2016. Ordination of Women in the Anglican Church of Canada (Deacons, Priests and Bishops), http://www.anglican.ca/help/faq/ordination-of-women/.

Catalyst, 2013. Catalyst Accord: Women On Corporate Boards In Canada, http://www.catalyst.org/catalyst-accord-women-corporate-boards-canada.

Connelly, M.P. 2015. “Women in the Labour Force,” Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/women-in-the-labour-force/.

Evening Journal (The), 1895. “Air Your Fancies,” 4 April.

————————–, 1895. “Saturday is the Day,” 11 April.

————————–, 1895. “Woman’s Edition,” 13 April.

————————–, 1895. “The Woman’s Number,” 15 April.

Gaizauskas, Barbara. 1990. Feed The Flame: A Natural History Of The Ottawa Literary And Scientific Society, Carleton University, Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, https://curve.carleton.ca/b81c434b-04c8-4886-9c97-cfc1a560ff51.

House of Commons, 1895. Debates, 7th Parliament, 5th Session, Vol. 1, page 2141, http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC0705_01/1081?r=0&s=1.

Ottawa Council of Women, 2016, About, http://www.ottawacw.ca/index.html.

National Council of Women of Canada, 2016. History, http://www.ncwcanada.com/about-us/our-history/.

Canada’s First Woman Senator

 20 February 1930

At roughly 3.30 pm on Thursday, 20 February 1930, two newly-appointed senators to Canada’s Upper House of Parliament were introduced and took their seats. They were the Hon. Robert Forke of Pipestone, Manitoba, and the Hon. Cairine Mackay Wilson of Ottawa, Ontario. In and of itself, this event was not unusual, senators are routinely appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister when vacancies result from retirement or death. What made this occurrence special was that it was the first time a woman had taken a seat in Canada’s Senate. Only four months earlier, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London had ruled that women were indeed “eligible persons” to sit in Canada’s Upper House, overturning an early judgement to the contrary by Canada’s Supreme Court.

Cairine Wilson,
Cairine Mackay Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator, Library and Archives Canada, C-0052280

The elevation of Cairine Wilson to the Senate, announced a few days earlier on 15 February 1930, did not come as a great surprise. Her name had been mooted as a likely candidate almost immediately after the Privy Council had made its ruling. On her appointment, Prime Minister Mackenzie King said that “the government [had availed] itself of the first opportunity to meet the new conditions created by the finding of the Privy Council as to the eligibility of women for the Senate.” However, her appointment was almost stillborn as her husband was apparently opposed to her taking paid employment, and had informed the Governor General that she would decline the nomination. She quickly set the record straight and accepted the Prime Minister’s nomination over her husband’s objections.

Press reports of her appointment were positive, though they focused more on her personal attributes and family connections rather than her qualifications. Wilson was described as a tall women, still in her 40s, with a “dignified bearing.” She was “highly educated, tactful, and had unaffected manners,” with “dark hair and bright blue eyes.” The bilingual mother of eight lived at 192 Daly Avenue in Ottawa, though she and her husband were in the process of renovating and moving to the old Keefer manor house in Rockcliffe. The family also owned a summer residence in St Andrews in New Brunswick. Newspapers speculated on how she would be addressed when she entered the Senate, and on what she would wear. One newspaper article thought that she would bring to the Senate, “the feminine and hostess touch.”

Born in 1885, Wilson came from a wealthy and socially prominent Montreal family that had strong ties to the Liberal Party of Canada. Her father, Robert Mackay, a director of many leading Canadian firms including the Bank of Montreal and the Canadian Pacific Railway, had been appointed to the Senate in 1901 by his good friend Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a position he held until his death in 1916. Cairine Wilson’s husband, Norman Wilson, had been a Liberal member of parliament for Russell County in Eastern Ontario prior to their marriage in 1909. She herself was a Liberal Party activist, having chaired the first meeting of the Ottawa Women’s Liberal Club in 1922, and was Club president for the following three years. In 1928, she was a key organizer of the National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada.

Perhaps surprisingly, given her political credentials, Cairine Wilson had not been active in the suffrage movement, nor had she been involved in the legal suit, known as the “Persons Case,” that challenged the exclusion of women from the Senate. However, in her first Senate speech, given in French to honour her natal province, she saluted the “valiant work” of the five women, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby, commonly referred to as the “Famous Five,” who made her appointment possible. She also expressed “profound gratitude to the Government for having facilitated the admission of women to the Senate by referring to the courts the question of the right to membership.” She added that she had not sought the “great honour of representing Canadian women in the Upper House,” but desired to eliminate any misapprehension that “a woman cannot engage in public affairs without deserting the home and neglecting the duties that Motherhood imposes.”

The “Persons Case,” launched by the “Famous Five” in 1927, was a landmark decision in Canadian jurisprudence that not only opened the door for women to participate more fully in public life, but also determined how Canada’s Constitution, the British North America Act, now called the Constitution Act 1867, should be interpreted. Although most women were given the vote in federal elections in 1918, with Agnes McPhail of the Progressive Party of Canada elected in the 1921 General Election in the Ontario riding of Grey Southwest, women were still barred from sitting in the Senate on the grounds that the BNA Act referred only to male senators. Successive governments did nothing to change the law despite evincing support for women’s rights.

After years of frustration, the “Famous Five” petitioned the federal government in 1927 to refer the issue to the Supreme Court for its judgement.  After some discussion on the exact wording of the question, the government did so, with the Supreme Court reaching its decision on 24 April 1928. The Justices unanimously ruled against admitting women into the Senate. While they agreed there was no doubt that women were “persons,” the Justices contended that women were not “qualified persons” within the meaning of Section 24 of the BNA Act. In contrast, women could become members of the House of Commons as Parliament had the authority under Section 41 of the Act to determine membership and qualifications of Commons’ members, a latitude that did not extend to senators.

The Justices argued that under English common law women were traditionally subject to a legal incapacity to hold public office, “chiefly out of respect to women, and in a sense of decorum, and not from want of intellect, or their being for any other reason unfit to take part in the government of the country.” While the word “person” was often used as a synonym for human being, and there was legal precedent that allowed for the word to be interpreted as either a man or a woman, such an interpretation was deemed inapplicable to this case. The Justices argued that it was important to examine the use of the word in light of circumstances and constitutional law. When the BNA Act was drafted in 1867, it was clear that the drafters intended that only men would be “qualified persons” as this was the convention of the time. The section, which listed the qualifications of members of the upper house, had also been clearly modelled on earlier provincial statutes, and under those statutes women were not eligible for appointment. This restrictive interpretation of the word “person” was  underscored by the use of the pronoun “he” in the relevant sections of the Act. The Justices argued that had the BNA Act’s drafters intended to allow women to become senators, something that was inconsistent with common law practices of that time, they would have explicitly included women in the definition of “qualified persons” rather than rely on an obscure interpretation of the word “person.”

The Famous Five, with the support of the Government, took the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, at the time the highest appellant court of Canada. On 29 October 1929, the Judicial Committee overturned the Supreme Court’s judgement ruling that women were indeed “qualified persons” to sit in Canada’s Senate. Speaking on behalf of the Committee, Lord Chancellor Viscount Sankey said that the “exclusion of woman from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.” Standing the question on its head, he asked why the word “person” should not include women. He put forward a “living tree” interpretation of Canada‘s Constitution, viewing it as something organic “capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.“ Consequently, the Committee interpreted the Act in “a large and liberal” fashion rather than by “a narrow and technical constraint.“ Lord Sankey’s “living tree” doctrine subsequently became, and continues to be, the basis of how Canada’s Supreme Court interprets the Constitution to this very day.

Cairine Wilson went on to have a long and distinguished career in the Senate. She was the first woman to chair a Senate Standing Committee, presiding over the Public Works and Grounds Committee from 1930 to 1947. She chaired the important Immigration and Labour Committee from 1947 to 1961, a time when Canada was welcoming hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe each year despite its population being less than half of what it is today. In 1957 alone, Canada welcomed more than 280,000 immigrants, of which more than 37,000 were refugees who had fled Hungary after the failed Hungarian Revolution. In 1955, she was appointed Deputy Speaker in the Senate. 

As chair of the Canadian National Committee on Refugees, a position she held from 1938 to 1948, Wilson controversially went against her own government’s support for British and French efforts to appease Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. She was also an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism, and fought (sadly with only limited success) to open Canada’s doors to Jewish refugees fleeing fascism in Europe. In 1945, she became the honorary chair of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada founded by Lotta Hitschmanova. The USC Canada became one of Canada’s leading non-governmental organizations, providing  food, educational supplies, and housing to refugees, notably children, in war-ravaged Europe during the late 1940s and 1950s. It continues to be active today in developing countries. France made Wilson a knight of the Legion of Honour for her humanitarian efforts.

Cairine Wilson died on 3 March 1962, still an active senator. A secondary school in Orleans, Ontario, now a part of Ottawa, is named in her honour.

As a postscript to this story, it took the federal government four years to nominate the second woman to the Senate. Iva Fallis was appointed in 1935 by the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett. In 2009, the “Famous Five” were posthumously made senators. As of September 2015, 32 of 83 senators were women.


About.com. 2015. Cairine Wilson, http://canadaonline.about.com/od/womeningovernment/p/cairinewilson.htm.

Canadian Human Rights Commission, 2015. Reference to Meaning of Word “Persons” in Section 24 of British North America Act, 1867, (Judicial Committee of the Privy Council), Edwards c. A.G. of Canada  [1930] A.C. 124, http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/en/browseSubjects/edwardspc.asp.

Hughes Vivian, 2001/2002, “How the Famous Five in Canada Won Personhood for Women, London Journal Of Canadian Studies, Volume 17.

Parliament of Canada, 2015. Wilson, The Hon. Cairine Reay, http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parlinfo/Files/Parliamentarian.aspx?Item=176923a1-4b32-4b92-8bee-1d447764ec79&Section=ALL&Language=E.

Senate of Canada, 1930. Debates, 16th Parliament, 4th Session,Vol. 1.

The Evening Citizen, 1930. “Woman Senator Is Appointed By Gov’t of Canada,“17 February.

———————–, 1930. “Canada’s First Woman Senator Is Well Qualified By Her Talents And Training For Part She Is Called To,” 17 February.

University of Calgary, 1999. Global Perspectives on Personhood: Rights and Responsibilities: the “Persons” Case, http://people.ucalgary.ca/~gpopconf/person.html.

Supreme Court of Canada, 2015. Judgements of the Supreme Court of Canada, Reference re meaning of the word “Persons” in sec. 24 of British North America Act, 1928-04-24, http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/9029/index.do.

Image: Cairine Wilson, Shelburne Studios, Library and Archives Canada, C-0052280.