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Irene Parlby, Cabinet Minister

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Reading: "Woman Member of Government and Nellie McClung Engage in Bitter Debate in Legislature"


Cabinet members of the Legislative Assembly, Edmonton, Alberta, 1921. Irene Parlby at right. When he chose his cabinet, the new United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) Premier, Herbert Greenfield with whom Parlby had worked to draft the Municipal Hospitals Act—chose her as Minister without Portfolio.

Though she had no portfolio, she considered herself guardian of the rights of women and children. As a result, she worked closely with Nellie McClung, who was elected that same year—as a Liberal. Though they were on opposite political teams, they were on the same side when it came to issues affecting women and children.

Parlby was the second woman in the British Empire to hold a Cabinet position—the first being Mary Ellen Smith of British Columbia, who was appointed about a month earlier.

Members of travelling clinic at Steveville, Alberta, c 1930s Her election resulted in a move from Dartmoor to a newer house closer to the railway, which they christened Manadon after the Parlby family home in Devonshire. Though it broke Parlby's heart to abandon her long-cultivated garden at Dartmoor, within days, she was busy working on a new one, into which she poured her energies at every opportunity. She took similar pride in her housekeeping and cooking, combining typical womanly duties with success in the traditionally masculine world of politics.

Platform and pasteurizing room, Central Alberta Dairy Pool, Alix, Alberta, c. 1933 One of the new government's first concerns was public health, a topic of great concern to Parlby. As a result of government measures to regulate the conditions for performing surgery, the number of post-operative deaths dropped dramatically. Increasing the number of Public Health Nurses was a pet project of Parlby's, and government sponsored travelling medical and dental clinics filled a great need.

Cooperation was another key UFA concern—one that Irene Parlby strongly believed in. She viewed cooperation as essentially spiritual, a means of social progress that would quietly transform the economic structure of society as people recognized the advantages of working together. Parlby envisioned the day in which farmers not only marketed their produce cooperatively, but also milled, butchered, transported and sold their produce—all cooperatively. In 1923, the Alberta Wheat Pool was established and became the largest cooperative in Alberta. The Buffalo Lake Livestock Cooperative was the first purely livestock shipping association in North America, and a few years later, the Central Alberta Dairy Pool was formed with headquarters in Alix.

Cartoon &quot;Clearing the Right of Way&quot;, 1921.Immigration was another UFA concern, one that Parlby had experience with through her work on the Immigration Committee in 1918. She spoke strongly on the subject in the House, promoting a constructive immigration policy based on four principles: Canada had a responsibility to ensure that settlers were placed where they had a reasonable chance of making good; settlers must not be exploited; services looking after settlers' affairs must be coordinated; and neighbours had a clear duty to welcome immigrants and help them adjust.

Ole Nissen at Alberta Wheat Pool elevator, McLaughlin, Alberta, c. 1944 Though the two did not always agree, Nellie McClung applauded Parlby's views on these issues.

One practical initiative by the Department of Agriculture was for the UFA to sponsor a number of young British men to come to Alberta for a six-month course in provincial schools of agriculture. Parlby supported the plan, and a good number of the young men sponsored under it became productive Canadian citizens.

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