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Gwen Hooks

Gwen (Day) Hooks was born in Keystone, Alberta in 1920. The Day family was one of the first Black families to settle in the area. The Days later moved to Radway and then to Newbrook, about 62 miles (100 kilometres) north of Edmonton. With no high school in Newbrook, Gwen moved to Edmonton to complete her education. She attended Eastwood High School and participated in the choir and the track and field club. After high school, she was encouraged by her mother to pursue a teaching career—one of the few professions (other than domestic work) open to Black women. She completed a one-year teaching program at a Normal School, an institution solely dedicated to training future teachers.

After obtaining her teaching certificate, Gwen returned to Keystone where she taught at Funnell School. She taught students in Grades 1 through 10.

At this time, she met Mark Hooks, a veteran of the Second World War whose family had also settled near Keystone. They married in 1947 and purchased Rolla Ramsey’s homestead in Keystone. (Keystone, after 1927, became known as Breton in honour of Douglas Breton, whose efforts brought the railway to the community.)

In addition to farming, Mark worked in the oilfields, and Gwen continued to teach. They had two children, Wayne and Terry. Wayne currently works in construction; he and his wife Gail (née Hope) have two children, Karen and Adam. Terry founded the insurance company, Hooks Insurance; he is married to Gail (née Wetwiski) and has two children, Tyler and Devon.

In 1954, Funnell School closed down due to a lack of enrolment. Gwen applied to teach at the nearby Breton School. However, the school board, because of an unrelated incident that spurred racial tension in the area, rejected her application. Clearly distraught over the incident, Gwen was forced to relocate to the County of Leduc, where she began teaching at Warburg School. For 22 years, she focused her attention on helping children with special needs. In 1966, she became the principal for special needs education at Warburg. During this time, she was also able to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Alberta. In 1976, she went to teach special education at Breton Elementary.

Upon her retirement in 1979, Gwen was elected president of the Breton and District Historical Society. This organization has been active in preserving the history of Alberta’s Black pioneers by restoring Keystone Cemetery and by establishing a museum that highlights Black history in Breton.

In 1994, Hooks's husband Mark died and was buried in Breton Cemetery. Gwen wroteThe Keystone Legacy: Recollections of a Black Settler in his memory.

Gwen has travelled across Canada, researching and interviewing Keystone settlers and their descendants. In 2005, in recognition of her exhausting work, Athabasca University awarded Gwen an Honorary Doctorate of Letters. Today, Gwen continues to write and has published two volumes of poetry, entitled As Time Goes By, Volumes 1 and 2.

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