Famous Five Centre of Canadian Women: Canada’s Largest Living History Exhibit

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If well-known teacher, author, social activist, and suffragette Nellie McClung were alive today no doubt she would be recognized as one of Canada’s leading ‘Women of Influence’.

As a result of her efforts women can run for office, be appointed to the senate, hold property, as well as vote, to name a few examples. Not only did she actively campaign for social reform and women’s rights but her achievements are as relevant today as they were in the twenties.

According to Marcia McClung, Nellie’s granddaughter, “If Nellie were alive today she would agree that although she made many inroads in championing women’s causes there are still issues around ensuring that women, who comprise 52 per cent of our population, are represented in all political positions commensurate with that number. Today’s women also face many challenges such as equal pay for equal rights, reproductive issues, and pension reform, among others. There’s still work to be done.”

Born in Ontario, McClung moved to Alberta in 1923 where she met Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Emily Murphy. The ‘Famous Five’ made a difference to women forever when they successfully overturned the British North American Act in 1929 and won the right for women to be recognized as ‘Persons.’

As a testament to their efforts Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary opened the Famous Five Centre of Canadian Women this June. The Centre, a stylized representation of Nellie McClung’s Calgary home is a permanent legacy project built to commemorate the park’s 50th anniversary.

“We are Canada’s largest living history exhibit,” explains Sandy Kam, Manager of Marketing and Special Events, “and for our anniversary we wanted to celebrate women in history. We chose to feature Nellie’s house as she actually lived in Calgary. The house sets the stage for us to bring the history of the day to life.”

An enhanced replica of the original building, which still stands today and serves as the Columbia Consulate in Calgary, McClung’s home in the park has been resurrected in keeping with the style of the era. Although slightly larger and featuring a classroom in the basement offering programs for schoolchildren the home speaks volumes of the character and elegance of McClung’s 1920’s residence.

“Nellie was very house proud,” explains Barb Munro, Communication Specialist for the Village, “She kept detailed records of her wall coverings, fabrics and furnishings, allowing the centre to easily source or reproduce the necessary pieces to furnish the centre as in Nellie’s life time.”

By day the home is an exhibit but after hours it is available for dinners, cocktail receptions, weddings, and events. Known for their afternoon ‘pink teas ‘where the famous five held political discussions in secret, the Centre offers a formal tea every Sunday in July and August on the wrap around verandah.

“We are very pleased to see that her name is being kept alive for future generations of Canadians,” says Nellie’s granddaughter Marcia.

On September 11, seven of Calgary’s acclaimed female chefs prepared a collaborative dinner in honour of McClung and her trailblazing cohorts.  And like the generation of women before these female chefs are on the forefront of a male dominated scene.

“Leadership does not know gender distinction,” states Alida Visbach, President and CEO of Heritage Park Historical Village. “The Famous Five showed us the way in what can be accomplished with passion and perseverance and I think an example of that are these seven female chefs tonight.”

The Famous 5 Gala – Belles & Bootleggers was held on Sept. 11, 2014. Photo Credit: Jodi O ~ Calgary Photographer