Edmontonians in the Spotlight: Roberta MacAdams Part One

1920 Street, Edmontonians In The Spotlight, In The News

Part 1: Her Signal Honour

By Suzanna Wagner

Among Edmonton’s many remarkable citizens is Roberta MacAdams (1880-1959).

In a forward-thinking city that often forgets to look back, Roberta MacAdams is a shining exemplar of the tremendous contributions Edmontonians have made to Alberta and to the greater world, and so it is fitting that on October 20, 2016, the Edmonton Public School Board officially opened a new Kindergarten to Grade 6 school, which proudly bears the name “Roberta MacAdams”. This school is the first, and only thing, in Edmonton to have her name.

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Roberta in her Canadian Army Medical Corps Dress uniform. Photo credit: Edmonton Public School Board.

As an interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park, I was invited to take part in the official opening of the Roberta MacAdams School. Wearing the light blue working uniform of the Canadian Army Nursing Sister, the uniform Roberta wore during her work in the First World War, I read the opening of the first speech she gave in the Alberta Legislature to the assembled parents, students, and administrators.

“As a beginning member and as one quite unversed in the manners and customs of legislators, it would be naturally my inclination to remain seated for a season at least, to sit at the feet of those of ripe experience and finished proficiency.  But in this time of stress, one’s inclinations go to the wall. The signal honour and very grave responsibility which is mine to represent Alberta’s overseas fighting men, seems to impose upon me the responsibility to say at least a few words on matters directly affecting them.”1

Her signal honour was to represent Alberta’s soldiers. In the 1917 provincial election, Alberta’s soldiers were a constituency of their own with two MLAs representing them in the legislature: Nursing Sister Roberta MacAdams and Captain Robert Pearson.

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Suzanna Wagner as Roberta MacAdams. Photo credit: Edmonton Public School Board.

Though she showed an aptitude for political work, Roberta had not set out to be a politician when she came to Edmonton from Ontario in 1911 armed with an education designed for domestic science teachers and institutional dieticians. For a time she worked for the Alberta government traveling to rural Alberta towns teaching domestic science to farm wives.

It is eminently appropriate that the first thing in Edmonton to be named after this remarkable woman is an Edmonton Public School, for in August 1912, she started working at Edmonton’s Victoria Public High School as the Supervisor the Household Science Program. Domestic, or household, science is the discipline which covers a wide range of topics including food preservation techniques, cooking, home nursing and sanitation.

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Photo credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta.

In a world where meals were home cooked and food supplies had to be preserved if they were to last, bad preparation or sanitation could mean the spoiling of precious food supplies, illness and death.  Roberta’s role with the Edmonton Public School Board involved teaching classes of students, as well as coordinating all the curricula, ordering supplies and supervising other teachers. This was a significant job, as by September 1915, almost five thousand domestic science lessons were being taught every month in Edmonton schools. 2

In 1914, the First World War broke out. Early on, Roberta started looking for a way to help the war effort. At this point, the only women the Canadian army accepted were nurses.  Roberta was not a nurse, however, through some political lobbying, she was granted a commission as a Lieutenant in the Canadian Army Medical Corps.  Here, she used her education in food and diets once again when she became the only dietician in the Medical Corps. 3

At Roberta MacAdams School the display cases at the front entrance contain children’s drawings of Roberta; variations of Roberta’s famous portrait taken for her election campaign.  She is wearing her light blue uniform and a long white veil. These drawings were accompanied by short descriptions of the parts of her life which the young artists found the most interesting: that she was born in Ontario, that she was a dietician, a teacher, and a politician.

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Roberta MacAdams’ election poster. She promised to “work not only for your best interests but for those of your wives, sisters, sweethearts, sisters and children after the war.” Photo credit: Glenbow Archives.

Roberta made the transition from dietician working in a Canadian army hospital in England to politician when a Canadian journalist working in London, Beatrice Nasmyth came to visit her. Roberta had no interest in running for political office and had not even been overly concerned with women’s right to vote. But now that women had the right to vote in Albertan elections, they also had the right to run for office, and Beatrice wanted Roberta to let her name stand. Roberta felt that she was doing her bit to help soldiers in her current job as dietician. It took Beatrice five hours to convince Roberta that she could protect the interests of soldiers, soldiers’ wives, and their children better if she were elected as an MLA.

Once Roberta agreed to run for election, the next step was to make an election flyer for her.  She went to a fashionable London photographer to get a picture taken. One hundred years later, the students at Roberta MacAdams School would draw their own versions of this famous photograph.

Each soldier and nurse from Alberta was allowed to vote for two candidates in the election and so Roberta used the slogan, “Give one vote to the man of your choice and the other to the sister.” Her slogan worked and she earned four thousand votes. Roberta had won a seat in the Legislature!

Join us soon for Part 2, then come down this summer and look for the Nursing Sister on 1920 Street¦if you can catch her!

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Suzanna Wagner as the Nursing Sister. Photo credit: Stephen Elgert.

[1] Speech by Roberta MacAdams, Robert Price Collection.

2 Marshall, Debbie. Give Your Other Vote to the Sister: A Woman’s Journey into the Great War, Debbie Marshall University of Calgary Press, 2007, 100

3 Marshall, Debbie. Give Your Other Vote to the Sister: A Woman’s Journey into the Great War, Debbie Marshall University of Calgary Press, 2007, 108