Community Stories

International Women’s Day-Local women pave the way

March 08, 2021

The evening of October 18, 1961 marked a very important milestone in our community’s history. It was on that night, 60 years ago, that Ethel Taylor became the first woman to be elected to Red Deer City Council.

Red Deer has had a long, progressive tradition in local politics. In 1901, when Red Deer was incorporated as a town, unmarried women and widows, who owned property, were given the right to vote. In 1913, when Red Deer became a city, the franchise was extended to all women property owners, regardless of their marital status.

In 1921, Laura Irish became the first woman to run locally for public office. She lost her bid to become a public school trustee by only 10 votes. Five years later, Edith McCreight became the first woman to be elected in Red Deer when she won a seat on the public school board.

Mrs. Isabel Smith, with the backing of the local Home and School Association, was elected to the public school board in 1946 and remained on the board until 1953. In October 1955, Margaret Parsons was elected to the public school board and became the first woman chair of the board in October 1959.

A big boost to women’s involvement in local politics came with the formation of the Red Deer Local Council of Women (LCW) in the late 1950’s. In the 1961 municipal election, three women connected to the LCW ran for public office. Kathleen deLaunay, the LCW president, ran for the hospital board. Mary Martin, a long time city resident, ran for City Council. The third candidate was Ethel Taylor. A native of Gwelo, Zimbabwe, but raised in southern Alberta, she had moved to Red Deer with her husband and family in 1940.

Ethel Taylor was incredibly active in the community. She was a founding member of the Red Deer Women’s Institute. She became a leader for Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) and became active with the local Home and School Association. She helped to found the Quota Club, Red Deer Local Council of Women and the Red Deer Allied Arts Council, and was active with the Alberta Drama League.

Ethel Taylor did very well in the 1961 municipal election. She garnered 2,240 votes and finished sixth out of the field of 17 candidates. Mary Martin also did well, but finished below the eighth spot required to get elected. Other women did well on that election night.

Red Deer City Council 1967-1968
City Council 1967-68, Photo credit: Red Deer & District Archives

Margaret Parsons cruised to an easy re-election on the school board, while Pat Rouselle, a local teacher won her first term on the Red Deer Catholic School Board. Unfortunately, Kathleen deLaunay was edged out in her bid for the hospital board.

In 1977, Ethel Taylor was named Red Deer’s Citizen of the Year. In 1979, when a third bridge was built across the Red Deer River, the bridge and the connecting roadway were named in her honour. In 1991, when the arterial road was built south along the old CPR right-of-way, it became part of Taylor Drive, thereby making it the major north/south continuous roadway on the west side of the city.

Ethel Taylor cutting the ribbon at the opening of Taylor Bridge
Ethel Taylor at Taylor Bridge opening, Photo credit: Red Deer & District Archives

In 1992, Gail Surkan was elected as Red Deer’s first female Mayor. She held the office for 12 years, thereby tying the record as longest serving Mayor set by her predecessor, Bob McGhee.

Gail Surkan celebrating her first Mayoral win
Mayor Gail Sukan election night, Photo credit: Red Deer & District Archives

Mayor Tara Veer, Red Deer’s second female mayor, and youngest person to hold the office, has often talked about her life-long interest in government and was inspired by The City’s first female Mayor, Gail Surkan.

“Mayor Surkan was a strong role model for me. Watching her function in the capacity inspired me, and removed any perceived barriers in that she was a living example of the fact that it could be done,” said Veer who often has girls tell her they want to run for office when they are older.

Veer, a City Councillor from 2004 to 2013 before running for Mayor, said Central Alberta has strong roots and links to the suffrage movement.

“Going back as far as pioneers, women such as Hazel Braithwaite, who fought her way through a crowd in order to cast her ballot, paved the way. It is because of this commitment from women like Hazel, Ethel and Mayor Gail Surkan, that I am able to sit here as a Mayor of one of the greatest emerging cities in Canada,” said Mayor Veer. “City Council should be a microcosm of the community. Those entrusted to legislate and make public policy are making decisions for the people they represent. Local government, in particular, makes decisions that impact the everyday lives of citizens. The fact that women are half of the population makes it imperative that there’s strong representation, so those voices are represented amongst the policy makers who are affecting community change.”

Mayor Veer sitting at her desk
Mayor Tara Veer

A bronze sculpture, part of Red Deer’s Ghost collection, of Hazel Braithwaite can be found on Ross Street and 50 Avenue. In 1926, a determined young Hazel Braithwaite pushed her way through a crowd of men to exercise her right to vote. Thirty-nine years later, she was a federal candidate. Braithwaite believed in women's equality and was a champion for those without a voice.

“I am very intentional in investing time with kids and youth in our community. In particular, the young girls who will come into my office and say, ‘I want to be a Mayor’. We sometimes underestimate our influence and impact. It’s important that we continue to pave the way for others,” said Mayor Veer.

City Councillor Tanya Handley said women sometimes bring a bit of a different perspective than men, and it is important to have that balance of voices. She sought advice prior to running for Council for the first time in 2013.

“I called a former City Councillor who had to balance being a mom,” said Handley who has three children and was concerned about juggling parenting and Council duties. “She was very encouraging and said go for it. That really helped me.”

One of the best ways to encourage more women to run is through example, Handley said. “The more women see other women doing it, they know that they can do it too and gives them a little boost of confidence.”

“I view elected office as a sacred responsibility and the fact that I’m one of four women on Red Deer City Council is a trust I don’t take lightly,” said Councillor Vesna Higham. “It’s very important in my mind that citizens hear their views and voices reflected on Council. Women bring a wealth of unique insight and understanding to the Council table.”

“As far as I’m concerned, gender should play no role in politics or any other endeavour – merit alone defines a job well done and trust earned under any circumstance,” added Higham. “Hard work, rigorous preparation, and a bedrock commitment to integrity and the public trust qualify one for elected office – period, full stop.”

Her advice for young women thinking of entering the world of politics, “Be bold, brave, and humble. Do your homework and reach for the stars. Circumstances vary, but you can achieve your dreams and you are needed in politics to influence the decisions and policies that shape our world for generations to come.”

City Councillor, Dianne Wyntjes encourages women considering a run for office to build a circle of trust. “Women can be really hard on themselves, but there are many examples of female leaders in Alberta,” said Wyntjes. “Statistics have shown because of the many challenges, whether it’s home, elder care, personal education, their own job, women have to be asked three times before they’ll commit to running for office,” said Wyntjes.

“There are great days, and not so great days. We bring our head, heart, fortitude, stamina and courage to politics. For me, listening is a significant action of being an elected official; one doesn’t know what you don’t know. And that connecting and building relationships matters. Women’s fingerprints on decision making I think is very important,” Wyntjes said.

Currently, Red Deer City Council holds three female Councillors and a female Mayor.

March 8 is International Women’s Day. This global event, originally known as International Working Women’s Day, has been marked since 1911.

International Womens Day Proclamation (pdf)

Photo credits: Red Deer & District Archives