Annie Laurie and the Cranbrook Citizen’s League

Annie Laurie struck a mighty blow in the battle for women's emancipation in the city of Cranbrook.

Annie Laurie ca. 1907

Annie Laurie ca. 1907

Jim Cameron

Annie Laurie died on August 16, 1950, at the age of 82. Her death certificate states her trade as “housewife.” Understatement. Still, having raised 10 children with her husband John it would certainly be an accurate addition to her list of accomplishments.

Annie Laurie — nee Acaster, of Sheffield, England, born Jan. 14, 1868 — struck a mighty blow in the battle for women’s emancipation in the city of Cranbrook. In January 1921, age 53, she attended a ceremony at City Hall to be sworn in as the first woman councillor in the history of our town. In fact, it is safe to say, she was among the first female city councillors in the history of our province, indeed, of Canada. The first (in any level of government) was Hannah Gale, who was elected to Calgary City Council in 1917. That same year, two women, Annie Laurie and Mrs. McKowan, placed their names on the ballot for election to the three-man Cranbrook School Board. Neither lady was elected, placing fourth and fifth respectively in a field of six with Annie missing by 33 votes and Mrs. McKowan by 56. Considering the small voting list at the time it was somewhat more than a narrow margin but certainly an indication that many voters were prepared to accept a co-ed council.

Although Cranbrook city councils of the day were not necessarily “old boys’ clubs,” they were certainly the exclusive enclave of male movers and shakers. Conversely, the women’s suffrage movement, ongoing for many years in Canada, had taken a large step forward during the First World War and many women felt it was not only their right to vote in provincial and federal elections but further that they should have an equal say in decision-making in municipal matters.

The right to vote in Cranbrook municipal elections was given to female city property owners at the time of the city’s incorporation in 1905, and a fair number of ladies accordingly exercised their right, year after year. Still, until 1917 no woman had attempted to run for civic office.

In December 1920, a group of women met at City Hall to discuss local municipal affairs and problems, and further to consider the possibility of placing female candidates in the upcoming civic election (at that time held in early January). The women-only meeting was well-attended and resulted in the formation of the “Cranbrook Citizen’s League,” much to the bemusement of the local menfolk. Mrs. Constantine, president of the local Women’s Institute, delivered a short message and then introduced Mrs. Grevett of Calgary (presumably Mrs. F.W. Grevett who was very active in women’s affairs in that city). She gave an interesting and informative, if not eye-opening, talk on what was expected of women in municipal matters, advising the group to choose the strongest possible candidates and offer them every support. The Citizen’s League solidified their assembly by electing Mrs. Idella Baxter, president (mother of Muriel Baxter, for whom a local school would later be named); Sarah Shankland, secretary; and Mrs. J. H. McQuaid, treasurer. The local women’s movement was now an organized reality.

The group met again the following week in the Methodist Church schoolroom – this time joined by a number of men – and once again took up matters of civic affairs, focusing on local problems and the perceived short-comings of the local police commission (crime being of some issue in the community at the time), consisting of two commissioners elected by the populace. It was decided to place a woman candidate for alderman and another as school board trustee. Although consideration was given to the possibility of a candidate for the police commission the Citizen’s League decided against it.

A nomination committee was formed and the names of Mrs. Annie Laurie (alderman) and Mrs. Helen Jackson (school board) were officially placed on the upcoming voter’s list.

The election took place on Jan. 13, 1921. The city council outcome was, in some ways, a moot point. The ballot required the election of one mayor and six aldermen, precisely the number listed on the ballot and thus the entire council was elected by acclamation (a common occurrence in those days). Mrs. Jackson placed second in voting out of a field of four (three of whom were required) and thus became the first woman to hold the office of Cranbrook School Trustee.

Annie Laurie attended her first meeting at City Hall on Monday, Jan. 17. Apparently the first order of business was to decide if the male councillors might continue to enjoy their cigars during their meetings while a lady was in attendance. Councillor Laurie (tactfully) broached no objections. Formation of civic committees followed and Annie found a place on the Health and Relief, Water and Sewerage boards.

Mrs. Laurie was not re-elected in the municipal race the following year, losing to George Moir by a mere 10 votes. Although it was to be many years before another woman would grace City Council, the women of the Citizen’s League, headed by Mrs. Laurie and Jackson, made their mark and laid the groundwork for the ladies who followed.

Annie, her husband John and their children — Robert, Charles, Ralph, William, Edward, Walter, Bruce, Annie, Ernest (John) and Herbert, each born two years apart and raised in the family home at 203–4th Avenue — contributed a great deal to local civic and business affairs over the years. The local Laurie legacy continues to this day under the banner of Laurie Middle School, opened in 1962, built on land previously owned by Janet Laurie, daughter-in-law of John and Annie and named, not just in honour of Annie, but for the entire family.

janusthenandnow@shaw.ca