On the afternoon of March 5, Fort Calgary’s program manager Allison Graham and program coordinator Nicole Henbrey led a group of 30 people to the statue of Col. James MacLeod that stands in front of their museum, for the Fort Calgary Women’s History Walking Tour.
Graham asked the crowd why they think the tour starts at the statue of a man. Pondering the question in silence, eventually, one woman in the group gave an answer: there are no statues of women at Fort Calgary.
The fort is part of a rich history that has been taught and shared over generations. Yet numerous stories related to women have been overlooked and forgotten. In celebration of International Women’s day, Fort Calgary organized the tour to recognize women who have played a part in the city’s development.
Graham and her team’s goal is to bring attention to the prominent women who helped shape the historic site.
“Fort Calgary is known for being the site of the North-West Mounted Police occupation. It’s known for that great man history,” said Graham. “We really are starting to talk about the different stories and the different layers of this site.”
Henbrey views the site as an opportunity to educate and inform people on history that has been forgotten over time. She explains that the historic spot holds value that should be acknowledged and talked about.
“What I love about this place is there’s just so much potential for different conversations,” she says.
As an Indiginous women, Henbrey wants to bring more information about her people to the community and share the many voices that haven’t been highlighted. With the division in society between women and men, Henbrey hopes that events like the Women’s History Walking Tour will make it easier for people to come together and understand different perspectives.
Henbrey believes events like these are important because they showcase representation.
“The definition of women in the colonial world is slowly changing, it’s not just this one thing, it can be anything,” she says. “It’s important to look back and see that these things did happen and how we can do better.”
During the afternoon tour, Henbrey shared numerous stories of various women in Calgary’s history.
Mary Isabella MacLeod
Mary Isabella MacLeod was born in the Red River settlement to wealthy white parents. Her mother was a governess and her father worked with the Hudson Bay Company. Mary gained status in 1869 during the Red River Rebellion when she completed a bold mission. At 17, she smuggled a dispatch across enemy lines.
“She took these documents (the dispatch) and stuffed them down the front of her dress, and then hooked up a horse and buggy, and just crossed the line,” Henbrey says. “She did this at 17. During a war!”
Born in the 1800s to the Piikáni of the Blackfoot Nation, Running Eagle, originally named Brown Weasel Woman, was the eldest of five children.
From a young age, she preferred hunting and fighting, compared to traditional women’s work. However, due to her mother’s weak health, Brown Weasel Woman was discouraged to follow her passion for combat, since all the responsibilities of her mother would fall to her as the eldest daughter, if her mother were to pass. Despite this reality, her desire to be a warrior triumphed, so her father taught her to fight.
During a raid, her father was attacked and his horse was shot. Upon seeing this, Brown Weasel Woman ran into enemy fire to grab her father and save his life.
That is how she got the name Running Eagle, which is commonly a traditional male warrior’s name.
Jane Howse was born to a Métis family in the Red River settlement. Her family were fur traders, and so Jane learned the skills of trapping and tanning.
In time, she met Sam Livingston, who was born in Ireland. They married when Jane was 16 and Sam was 33. They had 14 children, and were one of the earliest families to settle around the Fort Calgary site, in the 1870s.
Jane was a teacher and supported various families who moved to the area from places like Ontario and the United Kingdom. Many of these settlers did not know how survive in the harsh conditions of the prairies and Jane taught the women what she knew, assisting them while they settled in their new homes.
In the early 1900’s, brothels ran wild in Calgary. According to a CBC episode of Heroes, Hustlers, and Horsemen, in 1912, 116 people were charged with operating a brothel. During this time, there were not a lot of ways for women to survive by themselves, and so prostitution became a popular occupation.
Dolly was a figurehead for these women in Calgary. Unashamed of her profession, she would wear every piece of jewelry she could, showcasing the riches she’d accumulated for herself. This is how she garnered the name Diamond Dolly.
She would often borrow a horse and carriage from Capt. Richard Burton Deane, the last commanding officer of Fort Calgary. An illustration of the friendship she and the captain shared was an unspoken agreement between the North-West Mounted Police and the sex workers, that as long as the women stayed inconspicuous, they would be left alone. Many officers could even be found at the brothels.
“The jewelry store owner, he could kind of tell how the economy was doing in early Calgary based on how often he saw Dolly,” says Henbrey. “And it’s interesting because the first red light district was in East Village, right next to our property.”
However, as the city grew and became more settled, the police had to start regulating the brothels more heavily. Houses like Dolly’s began disappearing from the public eye, and so did Dolly.
“There’s no photos of her. There’s no letters or diary entries, at all, from her. There’s only talkings of her,” Henbrey shares. “She’s like this ghost who just kind of popped up and then disappeared, even though she has probably the coolest story.”
No one even knows if Dolly was her real name.
Wheel of Women
The last stop on the tour was at East Village’s Wheel of Women located on Riverwalk Plaza. It is an initiative led by the East Village Community Association, this installment was made to celebrate inspirational women and their contributions to making Calgary the city it is today.
On the wheel there are 30 different women. Of those women 25 were white and five were people of colour. Henbrey recognizes the lack of diversity.
“It’s huge,” she says. “There’s so much space [on the wheel], it has the potential of becoming so much greater.”
Although she wishes to see more names and variety added to the wheel in the future, Henbrey says its installation is still an accomplishment on its own.
“There are 30 women who were not talked about until this thing came up, and now their stories are being shared,” she said.
More than a museum
Fort Calgary is recognized as an educational site that is great for learning about the city’s history. But they are working to do more with a goal to bring in new stories and more interactive experiences.
“I think lots of people don’t realize that Fort Calgary does this sort of programming,” says Henbrey. “We are trying so hard to be accountable to our communities and ourselves.”
Fort Calgary held two walking tours, both days were sold out of tickets. After such a positive response from the community, Graham hopes to make it a regular event, drawing more awareness to the many influential women of our past.
“We’re always learning more… it’s kind of a big project of re-envisioning Fort Calgary and the types of stories that we tell,” says Graham. “As we learn more about women, and other groups that were on this site, we’re going to be adding that to different tours and programs.”
To learn more about Fort Calgary and their upcoming events, check out their website here.