Celebrating the women who led change in Calgary and beyond; Who will be our new champions?

Article content

When you think of Calgary, do you think of human-rights champions? Do you know who was among the first to break through barriers for gender, race or profession?

As we look ahead to International Women’s Day on March 8, as well as marking Black History Month in February, we can find many shining examples of women who improved the lives of Canadians.

Article content

Here are five female champions.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Violet King was born Oct. 18, 1929, now known as Persons Day. After growing up in Hillhurst-Sunnyside, she moved to Edmonton to attend university. She was the first Black woman in Alberta to graduate with a law degree and the first Black woman in Canada to become a lawyer. After practising law for several years and speaking out against racism, the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration enticed her to move to Ottawa.

Later, the New Jersey YWCA offered her an executive position.

Perhaps the toughest barrier to break occurs when race and politics meet.

Originally from Arkansas, Virnetta Anderson was the first Black person elected to Calgary city council on Oct. 16, 1974. Anderson served from 1974 until 1977, and supported the development of the LRT system and creation of the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts. She also helped establish Meals on Wheels and became its first president.

Indigenous champion Doreen Spence was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. During her career as a nurse, Spence was instrumental in the development of the Calgary Urban Aboriginal Initiative to discuss human rights within the Indigenous community. She was invited to be a member of a working group that drafted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which Canada ratified in 2016.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

U of C law professor Kathleen Mahoney appeared as counsel in leading Supreme Court of Canada cases and was counsel for Bosnia and Herzegovina in its genocide action in the International Court of Justice. She became the chief negotiator for the Assembly of First Nations and played a key leadership role in the successful Residential School Settlement Agreement and for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mahoney led the negotiations for the historic apology from the Canadian Parliament and from Pope Benedict XVI for injustices to Aboriginal peoples. 

Bestselling author Nellie McClung began her fight for women’s rights in Manitoba. She carried the fight to Edmonton when she moved west. It was there that she was elected as a Liberal MLA in 1921.

She lived in Calgary from 1923 until 1935, and it was here that she and four friends, now known as the Famous 5, caused the first significant international statement of equality to be declared. This happened on Oct. 18, 1929, when women were declared persons and therefore eligible to serve in the Senate — which now has 54 female members and 51 males.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Thanks to McClung and her four Alberta friends — Judge Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney and the Hon. Irene Parlby — the principle of equality has helped many other groups to significantly improve their rights and quality of life. Activating the principle of equality has resulted in our same-sex marriage laws, accessibility laws, in menstrual equity arrangements and, soon, reproductive equality when the federal government includes the provision of reversible long-acting birth control devices as part of Medicare.

So, as we honour these remarkable leaders as human-rights champions, what have we learned? Is Calgary still a centre for human rights?

Follow in the footsteps of these champions, but go down your own path. You can do it, Calgary.

Summon your courage. There is work to be done.

Frances Wright is the CEO and co-founder of the Famous 5 Foundation. She also established the Canadian Centre for Adult Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse and led the restoration of our anthem so we sing, “True patriot love, in all of us command”.

Article content