I recently had the opportunity to visit our neighbors to the north. The ones in Calgary, specifically. I had an absolutely fantastic time. You know a city’s stolen your heart when the temperature hovers around zero degrees Fahrenheit during your stay and you still come home saying you loved it.
One place I loved in particular was the Glenbow Museum. I had a lot of personal epiphanies as I wandered exhibits displaying Asian, African, and Indigenous cultures. But the one I want to share with you today is that of the women of Alberta.
In almost every section of the museum I visited, there was mention of a prominent woman who made her mark on Alberta’s history. Since the country isn’t that old–they’re just turning 150 this year–we don’t have to go very far back to see the influence these women have wielded.
Charlotte Small was a Native woman that married Canada’s great surveyor, David Thompson. If you’re American, think Lewis and Clarke only much better traveled.
Her father was Scottish, but returned to Europe when she was five, leaving Charlotte, her siblings, and their Cree mother behind. This type of abandonment was what all the cool fur traders were doing at the time.
She married at age 13, which was not uncommon in those days, but it was uncommon that when Thompson went back east to Quebec years and years and five children later, he took Charlotte with him.
Too often women are defined by the men they marry, but in this case, it may well be that Thompson was defined by his relationship with Small.
David himself relayed that without Charlotte’s influence and cultural mediation the trading business that supported his passion project of surveying wouldn’t have gotten very far. Without her survival skills in the unexplored wilderness, he would have been lost.
Mary Schaffer Warren
Mary Schaffer Warren was actually an American Quaker from Philly, but she’d soon call Canada home. She was everything women of the time were supposed to be–polite, well-mannered, and, unfortunately, fragile to the point of poor health. So when she first saw the Albertan Rockies, she was in awe, but wasn’t in a hurry to climb them.
As time went on, that changed. She ended up bucking tradition, traveling the Rockies further and wider than any white woman ever had before. She:
- contributed artwork and photography to botanical books.
- served as Alberta’s unofficial tourism ambassador.
- surveyed and named landmarks even though it was illegal for women to do so at the time.
- successfully lobbied for Maligne Lake to be included in Jasper National Park.
She settled in Banff, which is still a town inside yet another national park.
Mary Dover for sure grew up with privilege. Her maternal grandfather helped found Calgary and her dad helped found the Calgary Stampede–which is a big deal to this day.
But what she did with her privilege was way different than what Paris Hilton or any Kardashian have decided to do with theirs. She could possibly be described as a media darling in the context of her time, but over her lifetime she proved that you could be simultaneously elegant and hardcore.
An example that they used at Glenbow was that she won beauty pageants, but she also served as a stunt rider in films.
When WWII broke out, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps had some bad PR going on. Everyone thought the women who joined up were no more than camp followers–essentially the groupies of the war world.
Dover signed on and changed all that. She went across the country correcting those misconceptions and recruiting women to join her. She served overseas in England, and when she came home from the war, she served as an elected official in local government on top of doing a heck of a lot of volunteer work.
Mother Mary Greene
It’s the late 1800s. Your boss asks you if you’d be interested in leaving your home in Ireland to set up schools in the still wild west of Canada.
Do you go?
Mother Mary Greene did. She helped establish one other Albertan school before setting up Calgary’s first. She also organized Calgary’s first Roman Catholic school district which is still in operation today. In 2017, it’s the largest of its kind in the entire province.
We need to remember that as she was doing all this, she was operating in a man’s world. She had to handle relationships and hold her own at the same time with government officials, politicians and even officials of her own church in order to do what needed to be done.
Eventually she ended up in Australia, helping a nun senior to her as she aged.
All pretty intense. I’m giving this one to the fact that she spent her early informative years growing up during the potato famine. Much like the Depression forged young children into strong adults, I’m guessing that the famine helped forge Mary Greene into the woman of initiative that she was, giving her the necessary self-confidence, willingness and grit to do what needed to be done–wherever she was called.