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The Reluctant Politician: The Story of Irene Parlby
Director's Notes
Director: David Adkin

Location: Alberta

In his inspirational film, The Reluctant Politician, Director David Adkin proves that an individual can make a difference. By telling the story of English immigrant Irene Parlby and her struggle to improve the lives of turn-of-the-20th century Alberta farm women, we see how Parlby's steadfast concern took her far from her beloved homestead in Northern Alberta, all the way to the Privy Council in London, England.
Irene Marryat settled in Alberta in 1896, and shortly after married an Oxford-educated Alberta homesteader, Walter Parlby. Despite being the daughter of privilege in London, England, homestead life was the great equalizer, and Irene thrust herself into the hard work of being a farmer's wife.

In 1909, Walter and Irene Parlby joined the local chapter of the United Farmers of Alberta, an organization formed to give the farmers of Alberta a stronger political voice. Seven years later, Irene Parlby reluctantly became President of the United Farm Women of Alberta, a position which she would hold until 1920. She used this position to bring particular attention to the lives of Alberta farm women and children, many of whom were suffering from terrible isolation, lack of decent health and dental care, as well as schooling - which was virtually non-existent in most rural areas.
Driven by a sense of duty, Irene Parlby reluctantly put her name forward as a candidate in the 1921 provincial election. Much to her surprise, she was elected. She became a Minister without Portfolio, only the second women in the British Empire to be appointed to Cabinet. In this capacity, she continued to fight to end the brutal isolation which faced many of Alberta's farmers.

Irene Parlby joined four other prominent Alberta women, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, and Louise McKinney in pushing for Section 24 of the British North American Act to recognize women as "Persons." The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not persons under that Act and therefore, could not vote, among other things. These women, who became known as the "Alberta Five," appealed this decision in 1927 to the Privy Council in England. On October 18, 1929, a new decision was reached - women were now "Persons" under the Act, entitled to the same privileges as their male counterparts, including the vote and appointment to the Senate.

Thereafter, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett appointed Irene Parlby as one of three delegates Canada could appoint to the League of Nations in Geneva, where she served between 1930-34. Physically exhausted, she returned to Alberta and finished her term in the provincial legislature. She did not seek re election in 1935.

In recognition of the contribution she made to the province of Alberta, Irene Parlby became the first woman to receive an Honourary Doctorate from the University of Alberta in 1935.

Although retired from elected politics, Parlby continued to be a popular speaker on radio and in person, where she continued with her message of cooperation and her vision of a better world.


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