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Nellie McClung in Nelson

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

In 1937, prominent suffragette Nellie McClung visited Nelson. She wrote about it in her book More Leaves from Lantern Lane, a collection of her newspaper columns, published later that year (one of 18 books she wrote).

Then a Victoria resident, she recorded observations about snow conditions, the lack of a bridge across Kootenay Lake, the newly-built Civic Centre and its theatre, opposition to funding Kootenay Lake Hospital through a lottery, Nelson’s first mayor, and the success of the Kimberley Dynamiters at the World Hockey Championship in Europe.

Below is an excerpt from the chapter entitled Winter in the Kootenay, originally published in the Vancouver Province, Ottawa Citizen, and Victoria Daily Times of March 20, 1937. My annotations are in italics. The entire text is available online through Project Gutenberg Canada.

Pictured: Nellie McClung, undated. Wikipedia/National Archives of Canada PA-032012


It gives me a feeling of riches to travel through the country, even now in the time of snow. The snow piled high beside the track, and sitting on the tree stumps like a drum-major's cap, has in it the charm of abundance. At the Coast no one has a good word for the snow.

It is a menace there, a disturbance and a pest, and there is certainly no beauty in its ugly, bedraggled, dirty face as it lies on the streets of Vancouver. No one ever wrote an ode to a snowflake there.

But here in the Kootenay country, the snow is white and powdery. It covers the ground in billows; it runs down the mountains in white channels, veining their sides in lacy patterns. It softens every rock and ledge, and puts a knob on every fence-post, and when the bright sun pours through the white and blue mists that drape the peaks, the winter landscape softens into beauty.

In Nelson the sun goes down behind the mountains in the middle of the afternoon, but reappears through a gap and throws a lingering radiance on the eastern slopes. The streets of Nelson run uphill and down, and many of the people leave their cars in the garage in this weather and do their travelling on foot, or on the two street cars, which bring the scattered parts of the town together. Nelson also has a ferry, which keeps a channel open across the Kootenay in all weathers.

I heard about the bridge which should have been built here many years ago. (The Nelson Bridge, aka Big Orange Bridge, was not built until 1957.)

“Four times we have sold our souls for this bridge,” said the woman who drove me around; “four times it has been promised to us, by a candidate in the Provincial election, and that promise makes a sure election — I suppose we'll vote for the bridge as long as we live ... We get nothing, but we can't resist the bribe. Some of them promise us a Normal School, too ... they might just as well.”

(I wish we knew who the woman who drove her around was. The Normal School, i.e. teachers’ college, never opened, but Nelson is home today to the West Kootenay Teacher Education Program.)

Nelson has a new Civic Centre, which lifts it out of the small-town class. The Civic Centre has an auditorium, which seats 900 people; badminton and basketball courts, containing 8,400 square feet, a curling rink and skating rink, with great showers and dressing rooms, club rooms and kitchen equipment sufficient to feed an army.

The Civic Centre has artistic features, too. The walls in the corridor of the theatre are covered with squares of wood veneer — (a home product) the grain of the wood running vertically and horizontally in alternate squares, making a striking checkerboard of the walls.

I asked them how this great project was being paid for, and given the information that two by-laws had been floated to cover the $250,000 cost. Nelson owns its own utilities and always has a balance on the right side of the ledger. This year the profit is over $100,000.

The late mayor, who held firm to the principle of city ownership of all utilities, had a rough time of it, receiving the censure of his fellow-citizens. But now his name is honored, and a drinking fountain in the square bears testimony to his statesmanship.

(She’s referring to John Houston, who died in 1910, and whose monument on Vernon Street was unveiled in 1914. It’s still there, although now missing its fountain.)

The John Houston monument, including horse trough and fountain, is seen on Vernon Street in Nelson sometime in the 1930s or ‘40s. The cenotaph and a German cannon (a souvenir from World War I) also sat on this boulevard.

The question of how to maintain the hospitals is much in the public mind and it is strange to note that this highly fortunate city in excellent financial standing is considering a huge sweepstake scheme for the care of their sick. Out of every 50 cents contributed only 10 cents would go to the hospital, but the friends and advocates of the scheme are not worried about that. Public opinion is sharply divided on this question, and the newspapers are full of letters up and down the country.

The Bishop of Kootenay has declared himself against the scheme, in a strong letter in which he deals with the arguments with a cool logic that should but will not clear the air. The chance of something for nothing never loses its appeal. People crave the privilege of having a golden dream, which lights all the lamps of hope and desire. They know the chances are small but they like the dream.

(First I’ve heard of this, but here’s a story about it from the Calgary Herald of Feb. 13, 1937.)

Great Britain tried raising money by lotteries, urged on by these same arguments of keeping the money at home, but the scheme was abolished because the results were evil. Gambling is always an evil, no matter how carefully it is disguised under the name of charity. The law recognizes this, and has declared against it, with one qualification (which should make us all ashamed) “except for church or charitable purposes.”

The winter sports in the Kootenay country absorb the people. Such activity I have never seen before. The children hurry home from school for their skates, or skis and are gone until darkness halts the game. The women play badminton, or curl, or both. The skating is a delight and joy to the eye. No one is too young or too old to cut scrolls on the ice.

The victories of the Kimberley Dynamiters in Europe is a personal triumph to all the population of the Kootenay, and I was asked very pointedly if the CBC was making plans to broadcast the final games. (McClung was on the CBC board of governors.)

I was in Kimberley the night the Dynamiters defeated France 13-1 and the people were very composed about it. They expect success now, and no wonder, for in all the European games the Dynamiters have not been defeated and only once have been tied.

(That game against France was played on Feb. 23, 1937. Jack Forsey scored four goals for Kimberley, while Gordon Wilson, George Goble, Fred Botterill, and Ralph Redding had two each. The Dynamiters won the World Championship four days later.)

The sponsors of the Dynamiters evidently believe that the appearance of these young men is good advertising for Canada and no doubt they are more effective than posters or literature. They are the living demonstration of a young and virile country.


UPDATE: I checked the Nelson Daily News to see if there was any mention of McClung’s visit. Indeed, there was. She spoke at Trinity United Church on Feb. 19, 1937 on “The Dividends of Life.” Tickets were 35 cents for adults, 25 cents for children.

According to an account of the speech published the next day (seen in full below) it was “a fascinating as well as searching and pungent address” before “a large and appreciative audience,” in which McClung “graphically listed the various satisfactions remaining to people after every mischance has taken its toll.”

A FURTHER UPDATE: I am indebted to Sylvia Crooks for pointing out that this was not McClung’s first visit to Nelson. She was also there on April 7, 1918. In the afternoon, she spoke at Trinity Methodist Church (the same venue as her 1937 speech) and in the evening at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church. The themes of her addresses were the duties of citizenship and “The Ideal Church.”

According to the Daily News, “A surprisingly large number attended to hear the afternoon address, although a still larger crowd greeted her at the more convenient evening hour address.” McClung “was a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Shore of the Strathcona Hotel” while in Nelson. She departed the next day by sternwheeler for her home in Edmonton.

Updated on June 10, 2020 to add the details about McClung’s speech. Updated on Dec. 31, 2020 to add the details about McClung’s 1918 visit.

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