CLICK HERE Henrietta Muir Edwards Legacy

Henrietta Muir Edwards was one of the Alberta Famous Five  who changed the British North America Act  to recognize women as persons. Henrietta supported many causes, especially those involving the legal rights of women and children in Canada.

Henrietta Muir Edwards

Henrietta Louise Muir 1849 - 1931
Henrietta was born on December 18,1849 in Montreal, Quebec. Her parents, William and Jane had 9 children. Great grandmother Henrietta was raised with strong religious faith. Her Scottish grandparents immigrated to Montreal in 1819. Montreal didn't have Baptist churches in 1819, so a number of Baptists in the city began meeting at Muir's residence. The Muir family built schools, newspapers, churches and the Montreal Baptist College.

Henrietta was raised in a family that believed in equality, the right of women to vote, to own property, and to have financial security. Henrietta's family participated in the public debates on women's education, legal rights, and employment. In 1865 Henrietta's father and uncles and the members of the Mercantile Library Association sponsored a debate on the right of woman to vote in political elections.

The Muir family concern for married women's property rights and financial security would serve as a role model for Henrietta. Her parent's 1844 marriage contract, guaranteed that Henrietta's mother, would have her own property and protect her from legal responsibility for William's business obligations and personal debts. This gave Jane more financial security than most British women. When Henrietta's grandfather died, his will differed from tradition, and specified that his estate be divided equally between all of his children regardless of age or gender.

Literacy, education and the organization of academies and colleges for both sexes were important priorities for the Muirs. Begun in 1871, the Montreal Educational Association included Mrs. Claxton, Mrs. Lay, Jane Muir and her daughters as members. While Henrietta and Amelia were allowed to attended lectures on arts and sciences at McGill, the elder women lobbied for the establishment of a woman's college at McGill. In 1884, thirteen years later, women were allowed to attend McGill's Art Program, albeit in separate classes. It was another thirty-four years before women were allowed to enroll in McGill's medical program. In 1922, five women graduated from McGill's Faculty of Medicine.

In 1864 Henrietta's father bought a microscope. William was a founding member and President of the Montreal Microscopic Club. When it was William's turn to host the Club, Henrietta and her sisters would stay in the background and listen to the men's discussions. Henrietta's father invented an illuminating lens for the microscope, which he demonstrated to the Montreal Natural History Society. Henrietta accompanied her father to the Second Annual Conversazione of the Natural History Society in 1865.

The Muirs encouraged Henrietta's love of the Arts and provided Henrietta with a rich cultural life. When she was fourteen Henrietta attended the Montreal Art Association's 1865 Conversazione with her father. Henrietta's father chaired a fund created to erect a statute of Queen Victoria in the mid 1860's. Art presented Henrietta with a few options, although the Montreal School of Arts and Design refused female applicants until 1880. Denied entrance into formal program, Henrietta continued private art lessons with John Bell-Smith and the Fraser brothers.

In 1875 Henrietta established the Working Girls' Association, later renamed the Working Women's Association. At the WWA single girls could get rooms, meals, job training, health and fitness lessons, and legal advice. The Working Women's Association filled a need for young women who came to the city in search of employment.

In 1876 Henrietta left for New York to study Art with Wyatt Eaton who had begun teaching at New York's Cooper Union Female School of Art and the National Academy of Design. When Henrietta returned to Montreal she opened an art studio to help subsidize the Working Women's Association. Henrietta was the WWA President, driving spirit and the Boarding House proprietress. She provided the leadership, generated financial support and managed the staff.

Two years later she opened the Montreal Women's Printing Office, where they employed female labor. The women were trained as compositors, and printed the monthly paper Woman's Work in Canada. Henrietta illustrated her newspaper and several books.

In 1876 Henrietta married Doctor Oliver Edwards in Ottawa, Ontario. After they were married Henrietta and Oliver lived in Montreal with the Muir family. Oliver's private medical practice was run out of the family home. Oliver also taught health classes at Henrietta's Working Women's Association. Henrietta and Oliver had three children and six grandchildren. Daughter Alice, and son William were born in Montreal, Quebec and Margaret was born at Indian Head, Saskatchewan.

In 1882 Oliver traveled to Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan to serve as medical doctor for the Department of Indian Affairs. That autumn, Oliver covered hundreds of miles on horseback vaccinating. Henrietta and the children joined him in the spring of 1883. They built a house in Indian Head, Saskatchewan and then moved it to Qu'Appelle in 1885 where they lived until returning to Ottawa in 1890. While living in Qu'Appelle Henrietta became President of the Qu'Appelle Women's Christian Temperance Union. After the formation of the WCTU, Henrietta helped established a cottage hospital for maternity cases.

In 1890 the family returned east to Ottawa, Ontario so the children could attend school. Oliver went back into private practice, and Henrietta opened an art studio and provided lessons for young artists in Ottawa. She also submitted painting to numerous exhibitions. She accepted executive positions on the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) and the Ottawa Local Council of Women. Henrietta became president of the Ottawa Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), superintendent of its building projects and an executive member of the Ontario Women's Christian Temperance Union.

In 1897, Henrietta and Lady Aberdeen founded the Victoria Order of Nurses (VON) to provide nursing services to districts that did not have medical care. In 1898, the VON's first Training Homes were established to provide graduate nurses with six months of training in district work.

Oliver's post-graduate homeopathy training in Scotland was popular in the British medical profession but not in Ottawa. Oliver entered into battles between doctors and homeopaths. They debated the "scientific" merits of homeopathy. Oliver was convinced homeopathy represented a safer treatment approach and he refused to abandon his use of homeopathy. This decision and the fact that a wife was unable to accept paid employment without bringing shame to their marriage caused severe financial difficulties. Henrietta accepted painting commissions in an attempt to help their financial situation. But it wasn't enough.

In 1896 they sold their Ottawa residence. Still in debt, Henrietta and the children moved to Montreal, to live with her family, and Oliver took a medical officer position with the Department of Indian Affairs posted in Regina, Saskatchewan. Henrietta re-established her Montreal art studio and started working in Quebec women's organizations.

In 1900 and 1901 Oliver traveled as the medical doctor with the Treaty 8 Commission in charge of vaccinating native people throughout northern Alberta and the Yukon district. (view images on Oliver C. Edwards page)

After his Treaty 8 Commission Oliver returned to Montreal. In 1902, Oliver left Montreal for a permanent and final posting as a medical officer on the Blood and Peigan Reserves. The Blood Reserve, the largest in Canada, was approximately half the size of Holland. Oliver was the only Medical Officer for 1,700 Blood Indians, and the only doctor for the Peigan's whose rambling reserve lay north of Macleod. The vastness of these Reserves with the dangers of winter blizzards and spring floods made this position more suitable for two young doctors, rather than just Oliver who was now in his fifties.

Spring 1903 found the Edwards daughters traveling west to Fort Macleod. Henrietta remained to attend the Toronto NCWC Convention. After the convention Henrietta boarded the Canadian Pacific Railway for Fort Macleod in the Northwest. Within the first year, Henrietta mounted a campaign for dower rights, homesteading privileges and suffrage through the WCTU and the NCWC. In the Fall, Henrietta went to the Winnipeg NCWC's Convention. She stayed as Annie Bulyea's guest at Government House, and became the North-West Territory Vice President.

The 1895 Edmonton and Calgary local councils established by Lady Aberdeen had collapsed after a few years. The existing Regina Local Council of Women seemed destined to failure despite the efforts of its president Annie Bulyea, Henrietta's friend from the Qu'Appelle WCTU days. Returning from the convention, Henrietta and Annie attended the first Western Canada Temperance Union convention held in Calgary.

At the NCWC convention, Henrietta shared the pamphlet she had prepared showing the impact of Canadian laws on women. As the Law Convener, Henrietta had followed the issue of dower restoration in Manitoba. Following a petition in 1901 the Government amended the Married Women's Property Act but denied the women's request for dower rights. Widow's right to a one-third interest in the marital property was an established clause in British and eastern Canadian law. Manitoba and the North-West Territory (Alberta) had terminated dower rights to simplify land transfers and prevent encumbrances on the transfer of title. Ontario women, who moved west assuming the same dower rights applied to their western homesteads discovered that their dower rights had been cancelled, and married women were ineligible for homestead grants.

Married women could not acquire private property or benefit financially along with their husbands. Henrietta found this disgraceful and she gave a simulating lecture on the North-West Territory laws relating to women and children and outlined suffrage campaign plans. She contacted 21 unions, and found none had begun suffrage petitions. With her knowledge of Canadian legislation, her eastern experience, and her executive positions, Henrietta became one of the movement's leaders. Due to Henrietta's insistence, the NCWC supported a petition to the Federal Government to extend homesteading rights to women.

On September 1, 1905 Alberta became a province. Annie Bulyea's husband became the Lieutenant Governor and A.C. Rutherford another Baptist and a Liberal emerged as the first Premier. A.C. Rutherford, was an Ottawa Valley Scot, McGill University law graduate and friend of Oliver's brother, W.C. Edwards. In 1905 Henrietta requested "advanced Legislation as regards Woman's Rights in property, a measure of Woman's Suffrage and the recognition of a mother's parental rights and the raising of the age of consent.

April 1906, 7 months after Alberta became a Province, Henrietta presented Dower legislation to the Alberta legislature. Although Premier Rutherford had promised that he would be "favourable to better legislation" it was another 10 years of petitions, endless letters and numerous delegations before the new Liberal Government graciously granted some of Henrietta's demands.

Henrietta & Oliver lived among the Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot & Peigan Henrietta & Oliver traveled and lived among the Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Blood and Peigan. They photographed, collected and sent artwork to their family in eastern Canada. Henrietta's father was a member of the Montreal Natural History Society and curator of the McGill University's Redpath Museum. Between 1882 and 1915 Henrietta and Oliver had collected an impressive collection of Aboriginal artifact from the districts of Assiniboine, the Yukon and northern and southern Alberta. In Oliver's letters he wrote about some of the items he purchased and others that were given to him as gifts. Following her father's Montreal example, Henrietta acted as a resident museum curator.

On Carry the Kettle Reserve Henrietta and Oliver met Hongeeyeesa, and artist whose drawings they encouraged. Over the years they collected 22 drawing, which later were called Ledge Art. Henrietta and Oliver took photos of Native leaders and ceremonial events but they placed more value on these unique drawings. They believed these artifacts held importance as a record of a dying culture.

In 1905 Henrietta received the name Otter Woman from the Blood Indians. The otter is a sacred animal so the name Otter Woman was a tribute to her as a strong spiritual leader.

Grannie Claudia told us how when she was a young girl, her grandmother Henrietta had Indian artifacts hung on the walls of her home. She said that when the Duke and Duchess of England came to Alberta the Indians borrowed clothing from the collection. She said that her grandmother frequently lent her collection to the Indians.

Henrietta participated in a women's culture that allowed her to make friendships and treat Aboriginal people with respect. Grannie said that her grandmother kept a pot of soup on the stove, never locked her door, and welcomed many visitors and fed everyone.
"Quioto and her daughter turned up on Sunday about 2 pm and spent the afternoon. I had finished my dinner but I was very glad to cook them theirs, there was plenty of meat and potatoes left over from Saturday so it was not much trouble. Clara, Quioto's daughter who was here with her on Saturday when you saw her is married to Joe Heavyhead who is the Indian scout at the Barracks so she and Quioto are living in town."
~ Henrietta Muir Edwards - 1917
Henrietta assisted Oliver with his medical practice whether it was in private practice, in Qu'Appelle, or on the Blood and Peigan Reserves. After 40 years of providing medical services, of which 13 years were on the Blood Reserve, Oliver died unexpectedly in 1915.

Henrietta had to move from their home in the Agency house on the Blood Reserve. Her son William loaned her money to buy a small home in nearby Fort Macleod where she lived with her sister Amelia until she died in 1931.

During the First World War, Henrietta became a Red Cross leader. When allied resources were being taxed to the limit, Henrietta was invited by the War Committee to advise the Committee on how to enforce stricter conservation measures. This was the first time in Canadian history that the government had called upon a woman to assist with a review of public policy.

Henrietta advised them to establish a Department of Public Health and a Department of Child Welfare. It was agreed that women could take on a larger role in the jobs needing to be done while so many men were away fighting in the war. Henrietta demanded that women who worked in the same jobs as men receive the same pay. She also pointed out that though special training might be needed to equip women to fill roles in industry, such expenditures were a good investment.

Henrietta was made secretary of the National Subcommittee on Thrift and Economy in Canadian Homes, because of the economic practice she and her sister used to help make ends meet while publishing their magazine Working Women of Canada.

As a result of her work on the subcommittee, Henrietta was called upon to address various groups on the duty of the homemaker to reduce waste and practice thriftiness, and good management, especially in cooking. Like many who were aware of shortages, she felt it was criminal to waste food when so many people were going hungry as a result of the war.

The National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) was established in 1893 by Lady Aberdeen and Henrietta. Henrietta and Lady Aberdeen wanted to create a national organization in which people could work together to achieve the common goal of social reform—regardless of their faith, political allegiances, class or race. Henrietta's NCWC commitment increased through service on two important sub-committees, the 'Hours of Work for Women and Children in Factories' and 'Laws for the Protection of Women and Children'. As of 1901, there was 21 Local Councils of Women across Canada and numerous local women's groups and societies were affiliated with the Councils. Henrietta led the Alberta Council movement. The ten local councils organized by Henrietta led most of the province's political and legal campaigns.

In 1916, the right to vote was granted to women in Alberta. Henrietta believed that women had earned the right to a political voice. She attributed the achievement to "the Alberta women who, by their courage, endurance and ability did team work with their husbands and brothers in all that has made for the development of the province".

The NCWC, called a meeting to discuss how women could best use their right to vote. The decision was made to form a Provincial Laws Committee. Henrietta was approached to become its chairperson. Again, Henrietta undertook an intensive analysis of federal and provincial laws affecting women. It was a time-consuming and tedious task, but her summarization of the law pointed out the glaring inadequacies of existing laws and the need for new legislation.

As convener of the law committee of the NCWC she sponsored a resolution in 1917... "That the National Council seek such legislation as will raise the social status of our Indian women and afford her equal legal protection with our White women". When the NCWC federated with the Dominion Social Service Council, they appointed Henrietta to their committee on Indian Affairs.

On May 24, 1918, women were given the right to vote in federal elections. However, Asian and Indo-Canadian men and women were not enfranchised federally until 1947, and in 1960, Aboriginal people were finally also accorded this right.

Henrietta and her sister Amelia hold a unique place among the editors of Canadian women's papers of the 1870's because they alone used female labor, trained women as compositors and printed their own paper. They established the Montreal Women's Print Printing Office in 1878 and their Women's Work in Canada, was Canada's first magazine by and for working women. Henrietta also compiled the chapter "Professions and Careers," as well as writing, The Political Position of Canadian Women for the book Women of Canada: Their Life and Work, which was published in 1901 by the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC).

Henrietta prepared two handbooks on legal matters affecting women in Canada. The first, published in 1908 by the NCWC, was entitled Legal Status of Canadian Women, and quoted actual excerpts from Dominion and Provincial laws. This booklet provided Canadian women with information on the laws that governed their life, and informed them of their legal position regarding a variety of topics. This was a very useful resource for women, as it provided a province-by-province breakdown of women's rights, allowing a woman to see her status, and how it compared to the status of women in other provinces.

Henrietta's second legal handbook, Legal Status of Women in Alberta, was published in 1917. The information contained in this handbook is specific to Alberta. The second edition, published in 1921 was "issued by and under authority of the Alberta Attorney General". This was quite an endorsement, when you consider the fact that Henrietta's handbook, Legal Status of Women in Alberta, was produced by a woman who had no formal legal training.

Henrietta worked to secure protection for women with her work on the Dower Act. Until it became law, a husband held complete rights over any family owned property. The Dower Act required that the wife be consulted and provide her signature before her husband could do anything with their shared property. The Dower Act was one of Alberta's most progressive Acts. Although it was passed in 1925, it was many years before it was enforced.

Henrietta Muir Edwards 1930 age 81From age 22, until her death in 1931, just before her 82nd birthday, Henrietta worked to improve women's and children's lives in Canada. She was a Christian activist, writer, artist, daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. She spoke four languages and enjoyed photography, taxidermy, and playing chess.

She was on the executive of over 15 women's organizations before 1905. Henrietta was the Convener of the NCWC's Law Committee for 35 years. In Alberta she organized and created 8 Local Councils of Women between 1904 and 1916.

Henrietta was an expert on Canadian laws affecting women and children, her voice on legal issues carried a lot of weight. While she could draw attention to the flaws in legislation and advocate for change, she knew that women needed to have a say in legislation. Because she recognized that legislation to protect women and children would be more likely to be enacted once women had a political voice, she was an advocate of female suffrage.

On the eve of what would have been her 50th wedding anniversary, Henrietta wrote a letter to her daughter Alice.
" looking back the way seems strewn with blessings, hard places there were sometimes on the road but what happy companionship! What a son! What two dear daughters! What a husband!! I think few women are as blessed as I. I feel grateful to God for I do not deserve what he has given me – my husband and I walked together in perfect accord for 39 years. My children have never given me any anxiety. It is true I site alone here tonight, but Aunt Min is with me, in looking backward for childhood my path has been strewn with love and care, in looking forward is the joyful day of reunion." ~ Henrietta Muir Edwards Sept. 11, 1929

At the present time almost every Canadian woman, who is at all interested in questions of the day dealing with education, philanthropy, or social life, is in favor of some form of woman franchise, whether school, municipal, or parliamentary . . .The higher education of women, their organized efforts to ameliorate the condition of the poor, or benefit the community, their position in the labour market necessitating laws to protect their interests and welfare, have taught our women that on this account it would be well to have a direct influence upon those who govern.
~ Henrietta Muir Edwards 1901

The woman is queen in her home and reigns there, but unfortunately the laws she makes reach no further than her domain. If her laws, written or unwritten, are to be enforced outside, she must come into the political world as well - and she has come.
~ Henrietta Muir Edwards 1901

We do not ask for the vote because we are antagonistic to men-far from it-we do not want the vote in order that we may vote against the men, the men are our fathers, husbands and brothers, their best interests are ours. We want the vote that we may strengthen their hands in all that stands for right and justice.
~ Henrietta Muir Edwards 1907

If women had the vote there would of be no need to come twice asking for better legislation for women and children, no need to come again and again for the appointment of women inspectors where women and children are employed; we would not ask in vain for the raising the wage or consent. We do not want to vote as men, we want to vote as women- the more womanly the better.
~ Henrietta Muir Edwards 1907

The Alberta women who, by their courage, endurance and ability did team work with their husbands and brothers in all that has made for the development of the province.
~ Henrietta Muir Edwards 1916

The rejoicing all through Canada, was not so much that it opened the door of the Canadian Senate to women, as it was that it recognized the personal entity of women, her separate individuality as a person.
~ Henrietta Muir Edwards 1930

Henrietta's Legacy

- In 1874 Henrietta joined with other Christian women to create the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Henrietta and her sister Amelia started the Young Women's Reading Room and Library on Bleury Street in Montreal.

- In 1875, Henrietta and Amelia started an employment agency, and learned that women needed training and a viable alternative to domestic and shop work. So they formed the Working Women's Association. The Working Women's Association provided vocational training for women and a boarding house for seventy women.

- In 1876 Henrietta and Amelia helped organize the Women's Baptist Missionary Society East.

- In 1878 Henrietta established the Montreal Women's Print Printing Office. Henrietta published the first Canadian magazine for working women, entitled Women's Work in Canada, which she and her sister Amelia edited. By 1882 the Montreal Women's Printing Office had become job printers offering a range of services.

- Henrietta was an artist and studied art nationally and internationally. She helped finance the magazine and Working Women's Association with the proceeds from her artwork. At the request of the Canadian government she painted a set of china dishes for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Each china bowl depicted seasonal Ottawa scenes painted on an oyster shell. April 1883 Henrietta exhibited 5 works of art at the Art Association of Montreal and became an honorary member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, a dubious artistic honor as the position was open to men.

- In 1893, Henrietta Muir Edwards, together with Lady Aberdeen, founded the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC). For nearly 35 years Henrietta served as Convener of the NCWC's Law Committee on laws governing women and children.

- In 1897 Henrietta co-founded the Victorian Order of Nurses with Lady Aberdeen. Henrietta was appointed chair of the Provincial Council of Alberta, serving in this capacity for many years.

- In 1906 Henrietta presented Dower legislation to the Alberta legislature. When Henrietta and Annie Bulyea met with Premier A.C. Rutherford, he promised the Assembly would be "favourable to better legislation" and urged Henrietta to return with a new petition in 1907.

- While Henrietta had no formalized training in the law, she was so knowledgeable on laws relating to women and children that lawyers and judges sought her out for advice and opinions. In 1908, at the request of the Canadian government, Henrietta compiled a summary of Canadian laws, both federal and provincial, which pertained to women and children. Henrietta wrote handbooks on women and Canadian law - Legal Status of Women in Canada in 1917 and Legal Status of Women in Alberta in 1921.

- During the First World War, Henrietta served as a Red Cross leader. The War Committee asked Henrietta for her advice on how to enforce stricter conservation measures. This was the first time in Canadian history that the government had asked a woman to assist with the review of a public policy. Henrietta advised the government to establish a Department of Public Health and a Department of Child Welfare. Henrietta was made secretary of the National Subcommittee on Thrift and Economy in Canadian Homes.

- On October 18, 1929, the Privy Council declared in the famous Persons Case of 1929  that women were persons and thus eligible to hold any appointed or elected office. Four months after the Person's Case Cairine Wilson became Canada's first senator. Cairine was related to the Edwards family.

- On July 18, 1964 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected a plaque in memory of Henrietta Muir Edwards. Grannie Claudia unveiled her grandmother's plaque.

- March 4, 1981 the Henrietta Edwards commemorative postal stamp was issued.

- On October 18, 1999 a monument to Canada's Famous 5 was unveiled in Calgary, Alberta. In 2000 a second set of five statues were placed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. These statues were the first sculptures of Canadian women to grace Parliament Hill.

- A new $50 Canadian bill, unveiled in Calgary, Alberta in 2004 commemorated the Famous Five.

- October 2009, Henrietta along with the other Famous Five women were made honorary senators. It was the first time in Canadian history that a senator was named posthumously.

- July 2012 a Famous Five mural was unveiled at 100th Avenue and 102nd Street, Edmonton, Alberta.

- Edmonton, Alberta has a park named the Henrietta Muir Edwards Park.

Henrietta Muir Edwards Commemorated on a Canadian Postage Stamp  2004 $50 Canadian Bill Commemorating 'The Famous 5'