This week in Herstory: Ruth Robinson

IMG_1321The week of Aug. 25 to 31 in the 2014 issue of Herstory: The Canadian Women’s Calendar, we feature Ruth Robinson, who attended the issue’s launch last fall. Join us at our launch for the 2015 calendar at McNally Robinson Saskatoon on Oct. 30!

Community organizer Ruth Robinson has devoted much of her adult life to work in the service of others. Born in Toronto on February 28, 1939, Ruth moved with her family to Saskatchewan in 1946 and Saskatoon in 1954. She attended the University of Saskatchewan, where she received her certification as a teacher. She lived and worked both in and outside Saskatchewan, before finally settling in Saskatoon with her family in 1975.

Ruth developed an interest in community-based activism early in life. She first joined the Consumers’ Association of Canada in 1967, when she lived in Regina. She has been actively involved in the association at the local, provincial, and national level, primarily addressing issues of safety with consumer goods. Through her work with the association, she became chair of the Saskatchewan Child Safety Committee, an advisory committee to the Minister of Health.

First working full time as a teacher at the elementary and high school level, and then later working full time raising her family, Ruth stepped more fully into community organizing in the late 1970s, when her children were older. She has been actively involved in a broad spectrum of community concerns since she moved to Saskatoon, including mental health issues, consumer rights, public safety, architectural heritage, education, women’s issues, and with her church.

In her volunteer work, Ruth has worked with individuals as well as with many organizations. Amongst her many charitable initiatives, Ruth coordinates a class for those with intellectual disabilities at her church, calling it a “great spiritual outreach of her faith community. As well as operating on a grassroots level, building relationships across ability and difference, Ruth has also formally advocated for systemic policy changes in Saskatoon. As part of the Anti-Poverty Coalition, she and others lobbied the City of Saskatoon to subsidize bus passes for low income families. In 2006, the City of Saskatoon introduced the discounted bus pass as a joint initiatives between the city and the province of Saskatchewan.

Ruth has received many accolades for her community organizing, including the 1992 Saskatoon Citizen of the Year, the 2004 Saskatchewan Volunteer Medal, and 2003 Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. However, according to Ruth, such recognition was never the point: “It’s about building relationships, having fun, supporting one another, and trying to improve people’s lives.”

“I think supporting one another is more important than getting laws changed.” – Ruth Robinson, 2013.

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From the archives: Aileen Meagher (Herstory 2012)

Aileen MeagherAileen Meagher represented Canada at the 1931 Olympics and went on to become one of Canada’s most successful athletes during the 1930s.

Born in Edmonton in 1910, Aileen grew up in Halifax and attended Dalhousie University, where she earned a teaching degree and began to run. She astonished the track world when she won a spot on the 1931 Olympics team. “Miss Meagher, who competed in her first major track meet on July 1, of this year, in the Maritime Olympic Trials, captured a berth on the Canadian contingent by outfooting the fleetest girls in the Dominion….”1 Aileen recalled, “Just running was a lovely free feeling, training a bit boring but pleasant. Competitive running was nerve-wracking lonely ordeal, good for one’s discipline, no doubt… winning and making the team opened up a whole new world of friends, experiences, and a lifelong itchy foot to travel.”2

In 1934, Aileen won three medals at the London British Empire Games (BEG) and was part of a medal-winning relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She later recalled, “Training as still not very scientific, nobody thought too much about food, nobody had medical exams so it must have been a natural gift and luck too.”3 Her final international competition was in Sydney as part of the 1938 BEG team, where she won two medals. Instead of returning home immediately, she used her travel money to purchase an around-the-world ticket and spent six months travelling – a pursuit she was to enjoy her entire life. In 1935, she was named Canada’s outstanding woman athlete and Canadian Athlete of the year.4 She is in both the Canada and the Nova Scotia Sports Halls of Fame.

Returning to Halifax, she resumed teaching elementary school and became known as “Canada’s Flying Schoolmarm”5 – she ran to work every day. Aileen became more and more interested in art, both as a teacher and as an artist. She studied art during the summer, took her sketchbook when she travelled and exhibited her work in a number of venues, winning prizes. Aileen died in 1987. Since 1992, the Aileen Meagher International Track Classic has been held in Halifax, attracting an international slate of athletes.

“Postmaster-General Ouellet introduced me as ‘Mrs. Aleen Meeger’ gymnast in the ’36 Olympics – grr. When I corrected him he asked if that was the first time Canadian women were in the games – grr, grr.” – Aileen Meagher, 1974

Barnard, Elissa. “Meagher Makes Both Shows, One as Artist, Other as Runner,” [Halifax] Chronicle-Herald, 25 September 1985, 3-E.
[Halifax] Chronicle-Herald, 13 July 1985, 26.
Meagher, Aileen, Fonds. Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management, MG 1 vol 2994-2999 & 3660-3661.
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management. “Aileen Meagher Olympic Medallist and ‘Canada’s Flying Schoolmarm’.” Virtual Exhibit available:
O’Brien, Betty. “The Flying schoolmarm.” The Nova Scotian, 26 November 1983, 3.
Townsend, Hugh. “Memories of Berlin.” Unidentified clipping found in Meagher, MG1 vol 2996, file 1.
1. 11 July 1931, unidentified clipping found in vol 3360, file 8.
2., 3. Meagher. Handwritten memoir found at vol 3360, file 1.
4. Meagher, MG 1, vol 3360, file 1.
5. O’Brien.

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Herstory 2015 preview: Centenarian Thelma Finlayson

Thelma Finlayson, via Simon Fraser University.

Thelma Finlayson, via Simon Fraser University.

Born in 1914, Thelma Finlayson is a retired entomologist living in Burnaby, B.C. She was the first woman to be hired at Dominion Institute for Biological Control, but when she married in 1940, government regulations restricting married women from public service forced her to retire.1 Later, she and other female scientists fought the regulation, and won.

Her lengthy publishing career extends from 1938 to 2012, and she has two insect species named after her: a moth (Anisota finlaysoni) and a wasp (Mesopolobus finlaysoni).2 She’s spent over four decades volunteering as a student adviser,3 and has received many honours for her work, including the Order of Canada. To read all about this amazing woman, pick up a copy of the new calendar!

At the beginning of July, the herstorian who profiled Thelma had a chance to meet her in person. Kristine Flynn was in Vancouver for work, so she delivered Thelma’s complimentary copy of the calendar in person.

“Thelma Finlayson turned 100 just a couple of weeks ago,” said Kristine of the visit. “I visited her in her condo on the 18th floor of a highrise in Burnaby overlooking the Sky Train. When I commented that her view must be very different from when she moved to the city, she shared stories of travelling around her hometown in Ontario by horse and buggy and her first rides in her father’s motorcar.

“She is a delightful person who insisted on giving me a big hug on my way out. After researching her life and interviewing her by phone, it was like meeting a celebrity. I had a giant smile on my face for the rest of the day. It was a wonderful experience and one that would not have been possible without Herstory.”

While Herstory focuses on the many amazing women who have made a difference in Canada, the calendar is also a fantastic experience for the people who are involved in producing it!

1 Finlayson, Thelma. Interview with Simon Fraser University, July 2011.
2 Western Front Insect Work Conference, “Photos from the WFIWC Archives: WFIWC — General.”
3 “Finlayson made the twice-weekly post-retirement trips to campus — by taxis when she could no longer drive — until [2009] when, at 95, she was no longer physically able to do so.” Simon Fraser University.

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From the archives: Judy LaMarsh (Herstory 1977)

Judy LaMarsh, via the Niagra Falls Public Library.

Before her entry into politics, Judy LaMarsh had trained as a teacher, mastered drafting and the Japanese language while in the army, and had realized her life-long ambition to become a lawyer. Her ability won her the Minister of Health and Welfare portfolio after the 1963 election. During the next eight years, her determined leadership ensured the passage of the Canada Pension Plan. Canadians can be grateful to Judy for single-handedly persuading the Cabinet to hook the pension plan to an index, and to lower the eligibility for old-age security payments to age sixty-five. Ms. LaMarsh is also responsible for the introduction of Youth Allowances, and for organizing the framework for the National Medical Insurance Plan.

Judy LaMarsh

Art work used as the cover of Judy LaMarsh’s biography “Memoirs of a bird in a gilded cage,” via the Niagra Falls Public Library.

She instigated the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Women’s groups across the country, organized by Mrs. Laura Sabia, were so enthusiastic in their response to the idea of such a commission that Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson reluctantly agreed to it and asked Judy LaMarsh to appoint its officials.

Judy LaMarsh wrote Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage after she left the “parliamentary fishbowl,” wiser, very tired, and much poorer than when she entered it, but with a bright vision of finally being able to run her own life. A ten-day trial convinced her that managing a cosmetics firm was not for her. She made the same decision when she left the CBC in April 1976. Besides practicing law, she now teaches law at Osgoode Hall, and has many other interests. She has leisure to enjoy friends and her home. Hers is a success story. She tried the rat-race, did very well, and has had the courage to choose instead to live her life in her own style.

Judy LaMarsh

This postage stamp issued in 1997 commemorates Judy LaMarsh’s public service. Via The Canadian Museum of History.

In December 1979, Judy was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. She was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada at her hospital bed in July 1980. She died on October 27, 1980, aged 55. At her funeral, she had six female pallbearers, including Edith Druggan and Florence Rosberg of Niagra Falls, broadcaster Barbara Frum, B.C. Judge Nancy Morrison, lawyer Pamela Verill Walker, and Doris Anderson, president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. (Wikipedia).

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From the archives: Ellen Neel (Herstory 2012)

Ellen Neel, via

Ellen Neel, via

Ellen May Neel was the first and most famous female carver of West Coast totem poles. She was born in 1916 at Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Her parents were Charles Newman, an American sailor, and Lucy James, daughter of the famous Kwakwaka’wakw totem pole carver, Charlie James. From an early age, Ellen learned to draw and carve at her grandfather’s side and, as a youngster, made small totem poles for tourists at Alert Bay.

Ellen married Edward Neel and they had six children. In 1943, the family moved to Vancouver. When Edward suffered a stroke and was unable to work full-time, Ellen and her children began carving mini totem poles in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition for tourists. Realizing the popularity of their craft, the City of Vancouver provided them with a workshop in Stanley Park.

Ellen was commissioned to restore damaged totem poles and to carve full-size totem poles such as the Thunderbird Pole in Stanley Park, which she carved in 1955 for the Woodward’s department store. As the popularity of her mini totem poles grew, the art community began to debate the artistic merits of the modern craft, some contending that only the traditional full-size totem poles warranted attention. Ellen strongly countered that misconception in an address at the University of British Columbia in 1948:

Our art continues to live, for not only is it part and parcel of us, but can be a powerful factor in combining the best part of Indian culture into the fabric of a truly Canadian art form…. Were it not for the interest created by the tourist trade, the universities and the museums, we would no longer have any of our people capable of producing this art.1

In 1961, her son and protégé David, died in a car accident. Ellen’s physical and mental health deteriorated. Unable to pull herself out of poverty (and having been denied a Canada Council grant), her caving tools and family heirlooms were sold for cash. She died in Vancouver in February 1966 of ill health and was laid to rest in the Kwakwaka’wakw cemetery in Alert Bay.

“To me, the art is a living symbol of the gaiety, the laughter and the love of colour of my people – a day-to-day reminder that even we had something of glory and honour, before the white man came.” – Ellen Neel, 1948

"Kaka'solas" by Ellen Neel Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C., via Cathedral Grove.

“Kaka’solas” by Ellen Neel
Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C., via Cathedral Grove.

Kramer, Pat. Totem Poles. Canmore, Alberta: Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd., 2004.
Neel, Ellen. Address at University of British Columbia, April 1948. Website:
“Totem Pole Carver Ellen Neel 1916-1966.” The Great Canadian Website.
1. Neel.

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