Our final in-person speaker session of the year, hosted by the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library on May 10th 2023, featured presentations from two organizations with whom we have some past connections.
Grant Vogl has been with the Bytown Museum since 2010 and is now the Senior Manager, Collections and Exhibitions. He spoke to us about the changes that have taken place at the museum over the last couple of years and their upcoming season.
Grant explained that, like most organizations, the pandemic disrupted the plans of the Bytown Museum. Closed for their 2020 and 2021 seasons, they opened for a shortened 7 week season in 2022 and were pleased to welcome some 12,000 visitors to the museum. They are very excited to be opening this Friday, May 12, 2023 for a full season. Though mostly out of the public view, much was done behind those closed doors. Grant described the work undertaken by the museum toward Reconciliation. Working with the Algonquin communities of Kigitan Zibi and Pikwakanagan, the museum reviewed their exhibits to ensure that Indigenous perspectives are included. It is important to the museum that visitors with an Indigenous heritage see themselves, their symbols, their culture and their language represented in the displays. As such, the museum has a new mural created by Indigenous artists and has 31 new tri-lingual information panels carrying English, French, and Algonquin language explanations.
Grant also gave us a “sneak peak” into their 2023 season. The Community Gallery hosts an exhibit by artists Gary Blundell and Victoria Ward entitled “Sourcing the Canal”. The exhibit highlights the natural and human landscapes that have been created by resource development whose resources would very likely have travelled through the Ottawa River and the canal. The temporary gallery features an exhibit entitled “City in Flames: Ten Fires that (Re)shaped Ottawa “. Grant explained that Ottawa’s history and landscape have been shaped and re-shaped by fire. Prominent buildings, industrial areas, landmark businesses, homes, and indeed entire neighbourhoods have all fallen victim to flames. These destructive fires not only devastated, but also renewed, allowing for architectural growth, the evolution of the cityscape, new iconic tourism locales, the passing of new laws, and more.
The Bytown Museum and the Historical Society of Ottawa share a common ancestry, both starting by the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa. Grant reminded us that the Bytown Museum still recognises this shared heritage by offering free admission to Historical Society of Ottawa members.
To learn more about the Bytown Museum and their 2023 season, please visit their website: bytownmuseum.ca.
We were then pleased to be joined by Donna Shields-Poë, the President of the May Court Club of Ottawa, who introduced their Past President, Nancy Pyper. Nancy is one of those who has spent her life volunteering at whatever was needed, where ever she was, having been almost everywhere across the country as a military wife. She joined the May Court Club of Ottawa in 2013 and soon found herself drafted into leadership roles with them. She started her talk by giving us some background on their founder.
Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, GBE, was a truly remarkable person. She had been a social activist in England and Scotland promoting education, health care and women’s suffrage. So when Lady Aberdeen, who also became the Patron to the WCHSO, came to Canada in 1893 as the wife of the Governor-General and discovered that there was no social safety net or supports for women, founded the National Council of Women of Canada, the Victorian Order of Nurses and on April 30, 1898, held an elaborate garden party at Rideau Hall to which she invited young women of prominent families and challenged them to use their time and skills to provide service to those less fortunate. Thus a May Queen was crowned, her Court established, becoming the May Court Club of Ottawa, the oldest women’s service club in Canada. The May Court Club of Ottawa is one of nine now operating in Ontario.
Lady Aberdeen’s call to the young ladies of leisure to do good works was taken up then and has been equally well responded to by subsequent generations of Ottawa women. Nancy shared that there has been a transition, as the world has changed, from single women, an initial requirement for membership, to (still only) women who are now mainly retired. This has in no way dampened their enthusiasm or commitment, their most senior member, now with 66 years of service to our community, at age 93, still does her weekly shift in the Bargain Box nearly-new store. Their motto, “Enriching the lives of others as well as our own”, is clearly heartfelt and heeded.
Nancy explained that the Club has always focused their services on women, children, and the disabled and told us some of what they have done in their century and a quarter of service to the families of Ottawa. These include support to the Victorian Order of Nurses, help in and funding for hospitals, creation of an early lending library for hospital patients (now at the Civic Campus but still closed due to Covid), help to the Red Cross, operation of one of the first (1905) Tuberculosis clinics and the creation, expansion, and operation of a Convalescence Home. Doing things “The May Court way” has allowed the Club to continue to support the families in our city and the many new Canadians who now make their homes with us.
Knitting has always been a major activity of the May Court Club. Nancy told us that this continues today with items being made for sale at artisan festivals, or items such as tuques for preemies or hats for cancer patients made and given as needed. She said that during the two World Wars the Club knitted thousands of pairs of socks for our soldiers, sailors and airmen, as well as cutting fabric and doing much other work for the war effort.
Nancy explained that some confusion exists in the mind of the public between “The May Court Club of Ottawa” and “The Hospice at May Court”. When the Club closed their Convalescents Home, in 1997 after 80 years of operation, they looked for another use for their building. The outcome was a partnership between the Club and All Saints, (now Hospice Care Ottawa); the Club provides the building, looks after maintenance etc. and makes an annual donation of $100,000, but does not actually operate the Hospice. Club members do, however, volunteer their time providing some administrative and other support services.
Traditionally, with the exception of the two World Wars, the Club funded their activities through balls, galas, vaudeville shows and other social events, which were attended by Ottawa’s leading citizens. Times change and now the Bargain Box, which has been open on Laurier Avenue East for 50 years, is the major source of their funds. It survived all the closures and restrictions of the pandemic and is well supported by the local community, especially the students at the University of Ottawa, who appreciate the quality and love the prices.
Like HSO, the May Court Club of Ottawa is celebrating their 125th anniversary this spring. To mark the occasion the Club has just announced a donation of $125,000 to the Crossroads Children’s Mental Health Centre. A wonderful gift from an organization that has certainly more than net the challenge laid down to them by Lady Aberdeen all those years ago.
To learn more about the May Court Club of Ottawa, please visit their Facebook page at maycourtclubottawa or their website at maycourt.org.
Several years of annual reports from the Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa, the precursor to the Historical Society of Ottawa, are available via the Internet Archive:
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1910-11
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1913-14
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1914-15
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1915-16
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1916-17
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1917-18
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1918-19
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1919-20
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1920-21
Women's Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa: Annual Report 1921-22
An elaborate public art installation at the new Lyon Street light rail transit station in downtown Ottawa is sharing the origin story of the HSO with thousands of daily commuters.
The undulating stainless steel sculpture commemorates and celebrates the 1898 founding of the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa — later opened to men and renamed the Historical Society of Ottawa — and incorporates the entire 5,000-word text of a society-published pamphlet about the city’s early history.
Individualized silhouettes representing the 32 women who were present at the first meeting of the society in June 1898 adorn the top of the two-metre tall sculpture, which is fully reproduced in French.
The artwork covers a 14 x 4 metre area along a main public concourse, even snaking around one of the station’s support pillars.
The title of the artwork, With Words As Their Actions, is incorporated in a message that appears in large letters across the top of the sculpture: “These Women Built Bytown And Ottawa With Words As Their Actions.”
Along the bottom edge of the steel curtain of text, another message in large letters details the historic gathering that brought the society into existence more than 120 years ago: “Lady Edgar invited thirty-one ladies to her drawing room on 3 June 1898 to consider the formation of a Women’s Historical Society.”
The same messages appear in the French-language half of the art-work, titled Par la Force des Mots.
She added: “With Words as Their Actions pays tribute to the women who kept Bytown alive long after its transformation into Ottawa . . . Here were these women who were saying, ‘We are going to start losing history if we don’t start saving it.’ ”
The installation was created by the Toronto-based firm PLANT Architect Inc., which was awarded the commission after a public art competition held in 2015. The company previously created the Canadian Firefighters Memorial on LeBreton Flats.
As part of the contract for construction of the LRT system, one per cent of the overall construction cost was set aside for displays of artwork at each of the 13 light rail stations.
PLANT Architect’s tribute to the founders of the WCHSO and their work as preservers and promoters of the city’s history cost $200,000.
The silhouetted figures are arrayed in pairs of women facing each other, “representing the society’s founders gathered in conversation” and “passing their knowledge from one another, and to the viewer,” the creators explained.
“This historical society was Ottawa’s first, and from the late 19th century until after World War II, all of its members were female,” PLANT partner Lisa Rapoport, the project’s design lead, told the Daily Commercial News in an interview earlier this year. “While their husbands were building with wood, stone, rail ties and financial capital, the society’s members were building an edifice of words and stories.”
The design, states a PLANT over-view of the project, “celebrates women as keepers of history — and in particular, the 32 women who, in 1898, founded the Ottawa chapter of the Women’s Canadian Historical Society (now the Historical Society of Ottawa).”
The bulk of the sculpture is comprised of alternating English and French lines of text from a presentation titled “The Last Days of By-town,” written in 1954 by society member Anne Forbes Dewar and published in 1989 as No. 32 of the HSO’s Bytown Pamphlet series.
There are now more than 100 published papers in the Bytown Pamphlet series, most of which are available for download at the HSO website — including Dewar’s essay — and all of which are available through the Ottawa Public Library. In a brief introduction to the Dewar pamphlet, the author was described as “an early and active member” of the WCHSO, which she also served as a board member: “She loved history and was extremely knowledgeable and well-read, especially about local history.”
Dewar, who died in 1964, had prepared her 1954 research paper by poring over old Ottawa newspapers, consulting local history books and tapping a variety of other sources to paint a portrait of Bytown as it exist- ed 100 years earlier, in 1854 — the year before the city was officially renamed Ottawa on Jan. 1, 1855.
“This is an amazing document,” Rapoport said in the DCN interview, referring to Dewar’s painstaking reconstruction of 1854 Bytown, on the eve the change to the City of Ottawa. “We thought it would be great for everybody to read it.”
Among the most noteworthy passages in Dewar’s pamphlet — especially now that her words have been laser-cut in steel into a permanent artwork at a downtown train station — were her observations about the December 1854 inauguration of the Bytown and Prescott Railway.
It was a landmark event in Ottawa history and marks the birth of rail transportation in the city.
In recounting the arrival in By-town of the first-ever trainload of passengers from Prescott on Christmas Day 1854, Dewar commented that a celebratory banquet following the event “provided the appropriate jollification.”
She then offered further thoughts on the railway’s launch that should offer some solace to present-day city officials who have faced sharp criticism over the LRT’s bumpy rollout throughout the fall and early winter of 2019.
“The railway had been a great accomplishment,” Dewar wrote of the launch of train service in 1854. “As might have been expected in the early days of operation, unlooked for difficulties arose . . . (but) before long the Bytown and Prescott was generally acknowledged to be the safest and smoothest railway line on the American continent.”
Several HSO members, including past president George Neville and former board members Don Baxter and Bryan Cook, were consulted during the design of the Lyon Station artwork.
The impressive LRT tribute to the matriarchs of the present Historical Society of Ottawa joins a host of other landmarks around the capital attesting to the HSO’s enduring impact since its founding near the end of the 19th century.
These include the Bytown Museum beside the Rideau Canal head-locks and the statue of Lt.-Col. John By in Major’s Hill Park, both of which were society initiatives.
“No longer will only society members be familiar with our beginnings as the WCHSO,” said Karen Lynn Ouellette, president of the Historical Society of Ottawa. “This stunning artistic installation invites all LRT travellers to learn about our society’s contributions to saving and sharing our local heritage.”
She added: “I am so proud to be part of this legacy of women helping to preserve our city’s history.”
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