I was researching early Edmonton women’s organizations at the Provincial Archives of Alberta and I came across some very interesting hand-written minutes from the early 20th century that led me down several archival rabbit holes. So I hope you can bear with me and read through my entire slightly long-winded post.
The minutes that I was researching were created by such organizations as the Edmonton Local Council of Women (ELCW), the Edmonton Chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE), and the Alberta Federation of Women. Women’s associations carried out a heavy load of charitable work long before governments took this on.
National Council of Women, Edmonton , Provincial Archives of Alberta #A5605
I titled this painting The Visitors after the Visiting and Relief Committee of the Edmonton Chapter of the IODE. Most often they were simply referred to as “The Visitors” in the minutes. This committee was started to help some of the women and families of the soldiers who were serving overseas in the First World War. Although the Canadian Patriotic Fund paid the women and families an allowance, it was rarely enough and was sometimes lost in bureaucracy. The Visitors went to the women’s homes and assessed their needs, and then found support for them. The March 1916 report stated that the Visitors had visited and assisted 2343 families since the committee’s inception in August 1914.
The Visitors by Marlena Wyman, 2019, Image transfer & oil stick on Mylar, 20″ X 20″
The minutes record good works such as providing furniture, clothing, food, coal for heating, and short-term loans. On several occasions it is mentioned that the Visitors took children of sick or deceased mothers into their own homes.
Edmonton IODE Relief & Visiting Committee report, 1 February 1915, Provincial Archives of Alberta #74.1/180
Edmonton IODE Relief & Visiting Committee minutes, 9 March 1916, Provincial Archives of Alberta #74.1/182
Not all of the work of these women’s organizations was of such a benevolent nature. They were on the forefront of initiatives such as banning black immigration, advocating for eugenics, and the intrusive assimilation of indigenous peoples.
I noticed contradictions in some of the work that these women’s organizations did. I assume that it depended on the leadership in the organizations at any one time. For example, in the Nov 4, 1907 minutes of the Edmonton IODE, the need for a club room for homeless and foreign girls was discussed.
Edmonton IODE minutes, 4 November 1907, Provincial Archives of Alberta, #74.1/183
Yet in the April 7, 2011 minutes of the Edmonton Local Council of Women, the same IODE group presented a letter recommending that a petition be sent to Frank Oliver, asking for action on “the danger to Alberta from the rapid increase in Negro immigration”.
Edmonton IODE letter dated 29 March 1911, presented at the Local Council of Women meeting April 7, 1911. ELCW minutes, Provincial Archives of Alberta #74.1/191
Frank Oliver, Edmonton MLA, MP, Minister of the Interior, Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, and owner of the press (The Edmonton Bulletin) had a very influential hand in much of the harm that was done in our early history; so much so that it would take too long to go into all the details here. I refer you to (now) Senator Paula Simons’ Edmonton Journal article of August 30, 2017.
Edmonton Local Council of Women minute, 7 November 1911, Provincial Archives of Alberta, #74.1/191
I noted another contradiction in the Nov 7, 1911 minutes of the Edmonton Local Council of Women, where a motion was passed for “the appointment of matrons to Indian reserves”. The job of a matron was to encourage assimilation of indigenous women and girls by teaching them to make their homes like those of white people. It was considered that the indigenous way of life was unsanitary and that the women lacked in proper mothering skills.
Yet, in the mid 20th century, the IODE sponsored educational bursaries and leadership training for indigenous girls, as well as Cree language programs, and native friendship centres.Alberta Federation of Women resolution, 2 October 1938, Glenbow Archives
The belief that indigenous women were not good mothers also resulted in the tragic involuntary sterilization of many indigenous women, who were particularly targeted by eugenics legislation. Eugenics is a part of our history that caused much harm, and Alberta was in the forefront of the legislation with the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta. Again, paradoxically, women’s groups who were simultaneously fighting for women’s rights, also led the charge for eugenics.
We are influenced by the zeitgeist of our time and we can be easily led astray. Just ask any advertiser whether what they do is profitable and successful. For example, the eugenics movement was started largely due to fear and faulty information. Insanity was widely defined, and it was thought that all mental illness was inherited. The common thinking of the time claimed that if the population of the “insane” continued to grow, then soon half the population would be in insane asylums and the other half would be caring for them.
Human beings are flawed. We are none of us perfect, and we all possess both good and bad – although some gravitate more toward either end of that spectrum. The negative parts of our history need to be unearthed and remembered along with the good. Destroying and burying what we are ashamed of and would rather not remember, means that we forget about the harm that was done and that harm can be repeated. Telling both sides of the story is an opportunity for learning and doing better.
Although today it is difficult to understand some of the thinking of the past, it is important to consider the influences of those times because analogous forms of influence come into play every day. History lays the foundation for critical thinking, moral sense, and vigilance so we can protect human rights and freedoms.
Posted by Marlena Wyman