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Public Life

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United Farmers of Alberta (UFA)


Portrait of Irene ParlbyIrene Parlby's public life may be said to have begun in 1913 when she was chosen as secretary of the Alix Country Women's Club. Her public role greatly expanded when she was elected President of the United Farmers of Alberta's (UFA) Women's Auxiliary, and reached its greatest point when she was made Minister without Portfolio when the UFA formed the government of Alberta in 1921, a position she held for 14 years.

When Miss Jean Reed made her appearance in Alix as the housekeeper at Haunted Lakes—the Marryat household—she caused quite a stir. A Scot who had been educated in England, Reed had picked up some radical ideas, which she was more than happy to share with her new associates. As a personal friend of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Reed had taken part in the activities of the militant suffragettes in London. When a friend of hers, Mrs. Elizabeth Mitchell of London, stopped to visit her while touring Canada to study women's organizations, she suggested a meeting of Alix-area farmwomen be called to see if a women's club could be established. Subsequently, the Alix Country Women's Club was born with Leona Barritt as President, and Irene Parlby as Secretary.

One of Parlby's first achievements as Secretary was the establishment of a library. An avid reader, Parlby had noticed that books were scarce in the district. She placed an advertisement in the London Spectator telling of the community's book-shortage, and asking readers to send any books they could spare. Generous readers sent in two large mail sacks filled with books, getting the library off to a good start.

As Parlby was ill with the flu at the time of the UFA's 1915 convention, Mrs. Barrett and Miss Reed attended as representatives of the Alix Country Women's Club. During the convention, the provincial Women's Auxiliary to the UFA was formed with Jean Reed as President, and Leona Barritt as Secretary. The following year, Parlby was elected as President of the UFA's Women's Auxiliary.

Although she is best-known for her involvement with the UFWA, and her position of Minister without Portfolio in the UFA government, Parlby had a number of other public involvements.

During the 1920s and 1930s, in addition to her political career, she became an increasingly popular speaker. She received many invitations from Canadian Clubs, Local Council of Women meetings, and church groups, and travelled to be before her audiences.

Cartoon from The Eye Opener newspaper, Calgary, Alberta, June 3, 1911Radio also claimed her time, as her ability to express herself clearly and concisely was well-adapted to this new medium of communication. When her sister Sheila moved to Edmonton and became involved in the University radio station CKUA, Parlby was often invited to talk about a variety of topics, including current events, and her beloved gardening.

In 1925, as a delegate from the Canadian National Council of Women, Parlby attended the convention of the International Council in Washington D.C.

Three years later, the family planned a trip to England, and the UFA government proposed that she tie in a business trip to Sweden and Denmark to study their cooperative initiatives, and their educational systems—particularly the Danish Folk Schools. The UFA hoped to find an educational model to follow that would educate rural children without motivating them to abandon the farm. Parlby did happen across some schools that effectively combined more traditional courses with courses in tilling and crop growth, and she left Europe impressed with their progressive views on cooperation and education.

At the end of the hard-fought 1930 election, Parlby looked forward to a little relaxation with her family and her garden, but Prime Minister R. B. Bennett appointed her as one of three Canadian delegates to the Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneval.

Recognizing the great honour—as well as the opportunity to view a cooperative organization at work on an international level, Parlby threw herself into researching the League, so that she would be well informed on its workings. Her appointment also resulted in many speaking invitations, which added to her preparatory work.

In one of her speeches, she spoke on Canadian identity, and the need to integrate immigrants into the larger society. One idea that she raised was a special ceremony conferring citizenship. Her suggestions formed the basis of present day citizenship ceremonies. She was also a proponent of a rich multicultural national life—one that benefited from the various traditions and cultures of the assortment of people who settled the land.

Although it was a great honor to visit Geneva, it was the first time she had gone abroad without a family member to accompany her, and she felt quite lonely. She was not alone long however, as she was appointed to the fifth committee dealing with Social Question, which she enjoyed and felt to be productive. Nonetheless, the heavy social demands took their toll, and on the return voyage she had a physical breakdown. As a result, her doctor Sir Herbert Gray advised her to give up all her public responsibilities immediately.

Her illness ended her speaking engagements, prevented her from attending the 1931 session in the Alberta Legislature, and sadly, she was unable to attend her son Humphrey's wedding.

Canadian delegation to the League of Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 1930. Irene Parlby is sixth from the left, beside Sir Robert Borden.This was a critical time in her career, and she may well have chosen to retire due to ill health, but floods of letters encouraged her not to leave politics—reminding her of work still to be done, and that losing her voice in government would be a blow to women. Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, and Henry Wise Wood were among those who encouraged her to stay on. At the urging of the Lacombe Constituency Association, she did.

Following the Geneva Convention, Parlby turned her attention to international relations and collective security. She also took an interest in the arrival of her grandchildren, and devoted much time to the local UFA and UFWA.

In 1935, the University of Alberta conferred upon her the degree of Honorary Doctor of Laws, making her the first woman the University chose to honor in this way. Although she felt deeply honored by the degree, she did not think she had earned it, and was reluctant to be referred to as Dr. Parlby.

Deciding to retire from politics, Parlby did not run for election in 1935. She did however campaign on behalf of her successor, but made few speeches, thus completing her political career.

Heritage Trail: A Woman of the West—Part 4
Irene Parlby discusses what motivated her and her neighbours to start a Country Women's Club and a local library in the Alix district. Listen Now
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