T.W. Paterson: Yet more historical nuggets from today’s headlines

Earlier this year I told you about ‘Queen of the Hurricanes’ Elsie McGill (1905-1980)

Earlier this year I told you about ‘Queen of the Hurricanes’ Elsie McGill (1905-1980), Canada’s and the world’s first female aircraft designer. She was in the news for having been unofficially nominated as a candidate for the proposed new Canadian currency bearing women’s portraits.

Well, the panel entrusted to advise the Bank of Canada on this challenging matter has just announced that Elsie is among the five women achievers who’ve been shortlisted. Of the hundreds originally submitted, many, I’m sure, were easily discounted for one reason and another. But some of the cuts must have been agonizing, such as that of author and activist Nellie McClung for one. I’d give almost anything to know how the selection board has arrived at its present short selection.

The other so-far-successful nominees are black civil libertarian Viola Desmond (1914-1965), poet and short story writer E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), Olympic running champion Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenfeld (1904-1969), and Idola Saint-John (1880-1945), women’s activist and the first woman from Quebec to run as a candidate in a federal election.

I’m not the only one who’s wondering why, even mourning the fact, that neither Nellie McClung nor Emily Carr made it to the final stretch. There’s some hope for them, and some of the others, yet, however, as the federal government is also going to name some public buildings after great Canadian women. Here’s hoping that Carr, McClung and other worthy candidates yet achieve this added recognition for their contributions to nationhood.

I also told the story earlier this year of another remarkable Nellie, the ‘Miners’ Angel’ Nellie Cashman who, in a man’s world, succeeded as a prospector, as a hotel and restaurant owner and, most of all, as a benefactress to those in need. It’s this latter quality which made her a legend in her own lifetime and is why Thora Kerr Illing has just written a book about her: Gold Rush Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Nellie Cashman. (Incidentally, my own mini-series in the Citizen was picked up for reprint by the Tombstone Epitaph, that Wild West town having been one of Nell’s longest stop-overs.) It’s unlikely that Nellie Cashman will ever grace a banknote or a public building in Canada but her well-earned memory obviously is alive and well in the United States and in British Columbia.

Another extraordinary pioneer, this one a male, was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a black American who came to Victoria because of the racism that prevailed in California. Successful here as a merchant, he became the second black elected official in Canada when he won a seat on Victoria council in November 1866. Which is why he’s been in the news lately, the City of Victoria having honoured him by designating Nov. 19 as Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Day. It’s an honour which he shares with colonial governor Sir James Douglas (a political foe, as it happens).

Gibbs and Peter Lester opened what’s believed to be the first store in Victoria that wasn’t owned by the controlling Hudson’s Bay Co. After an unsuccessful attempt to mine coal in the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwai), and the end of the American Civil War, Gibbs returned to the U.S. in 1869. As a lawyer in Arkansas he also served as a delegate to the Republican national conventions in 1880 and 1884, then held several government and judicial posts before becoming the U.S. Consul in Madagascar for four years. Back in Arkansas, he rounded out an astonishing career as a bank president. All this, remember, as a black man in an age of almost absolute intolerance, and in a part of America where white intolerance often expressed itself in vigilante violence.

Finally, for today (although I’ve by no means exhausted my file on current events with historical connections), this one from Vancouver where philanthropist Michael Audain, 79, has pledged $2 million to the Art Gallery of Victoria’s new building program. The obviously extremely successful home builder’s Audain Foundation has contributed no less than $100 million to date toward the visual arts. What makes Mr. Audain of interest, historically speaking, is the fact that he’s a great-great-grandson of Island coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, one of the province’s most vilified capitalists of all time. Many would argue, passionately, that Robert Dunsmuir built Victoria’s Criagdarroch Castle at the expense of his miners, as did his son, James when he later built Hatley Castle, today’s Royal Roads University.

Mr. Audain, obviously, is cut from a different cloth.


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