A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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The Reluctant Politician: The Story of Irene Parlby

Director's Diary - David Adkin
on "The Reluctant Politician - The Story of Irene Parlby"

In searching for stories for A Scattering of Seeds, I have been struck by the fact that so many of Canada's prominent women leaders in the early 20th century hailed from western Canada. Was it something in the soil or water, or the fortitude required by those brisk winters on the northern plains? I suspect that frontier society in some ways created favourable conditions for women with leadership ability to rise to their true potential. Irene Parlby was one of these. In her own words, she 'revelled in the sense of freedom and the absence of so many conventions of the old country.'

An educated English immigrant, Parlby was Alberta's first woman cabinet minister and a leader of the co-operative farmers' movement. I knew something of this movement, having grown up in Saskatchewan. My father edited the newspaper for Federated Cooperatives, and on our many vacations driving across the west we would drop in at Co-op gas stations and grocery stores so my dad could say hi to the local owner or manager.

It was in the early 1900's when farmers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta banded together against exploitation by large Eastern business interests and formed co-ops to market their own grain and produce. For ordinary farm families it was simply an issue of economic common sense, and survival. Parlby's views about the benefits of co-operation, quoted in the film, still have much to say to us in this age of increasing corporate control over our lives.

I had always viewed Alberta as a bastion of populist conservatism. What a revelation it was to discover, through Irene Parlby's story, that before the Social Credit regime. Albertans had elected a progressive rural reform government, the United Farmers of Alberta, which ruled Alberta for fifteen years (1921 -1935). This was a fascinating chapter in Canadian social and political history which I felt viewers might find interesting.

In making this film it was fortuitous that 1999 marked the 70th anniversary of the 'Persons Case' in which Parlby and the other members of the 'Famous Five' (Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise McKinney) fought to have women recognized as persons in the Canadian constitution. Historian and author, Nancy Millar contributed valuable insights into Parlby's life and public work, both on and off screen. I was also fortunate that Irene Parlby's descendants - grandchildren Geoffrey, Gerry, and Susan, and grandniece, Eve - were willing to share their memories and photographs of Irene in the film. They were able to put a human face on this extraordinary woman, who was so shy about public life and yet made such a remarkable difference to the lives of so many farm families, and to women's rights. How lucky, too, that Dartmoor - the original Parlby homestead near Alix, Alberta - is still in family hands, allowing us to film the family interview in front of Irene's beloved fieldstone hearth.

Irene's life has been documented. But so much more of our Canadian history still lies buried in archives, family photo albums, and personal recollections which are rapidly disappearing with time. This contribution to A Scattering of Seeds is a small effort towards bringing forgotten history to light, in hopes that it will speak to the present.

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