A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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EPISODE 38: The Reluctant Politician: The Story of Irene Parlby
Directed by David Adkin


Irene Parlby was a child of privilege. Born in 1868, in London, England, her father was a Colonel in the British army. Hers was a world of governesses, garden parties and polo. An invitation from a girlfriend brought her to frontier Alberta in 1896. Falling in love with a neighbouring Oxford University educated bachelor, caused her to stay. Irene Parlby, much to her credit, pulled up her shirt-sleeves, and became a farmer's wife.

Both Irene and Walter joined the United Farmer Workers of Alberta, determined to improve the social conditions for Alberta farmers. Articulate and educated, Irene was urged to take on the responsibility of president of the United Farm Women of Alberta. Through this forum, she urged for hospitals to be built, travelling medical and dental clinics to be initiated, and the creation of education systems which ensured that the children of Alberta would have the opportunity to get an education until at least the age of sixteen. From this forum, Irene was asked, and reluctantly agreed, to seek a seat in the provincial legislature.

With her election in 1921, Irene Parlby became only the second women in the British Empire to be appointed to the cabinet. She is perhaps best known as one of the "Alberta Five", a group of five prominent Alberta Women, who challenged the Canadian Government all the way to the Privy Council in London, England, to have women declared "Persons" under the British North American Act. In October of 1929, this was accomplished.
In 1930, Irene Parlby was asked by Prime Minister Bennett to represent Canada at the League of Nations. Parlby retired from formal public life in 1935, although she continued to be a popular speaker on the radio and in person. With every opportunity, she delivered her message of cooperation to improve the living conditions of every Canadian.


  • Hardships faced by the homesteaders in Alberta.
  • Exploring the class system of Victorian England.
  • Equality for women in Canada.


  • Homesteader;
  • Alberta Five;
  • League of Nations;
  • United Farm Women of Alberta;
  • Privy Council.


  • To understand some of the hardships faced by Alberta's homesteaders.
  • To explore the battles which women had to fight in order to be considered "Persons" under Canadian law.
  • To explore Canada's coming of age following World War I. Attention to The League of Nations.
  • Examine what Irene Parlby meant by cooperation to improve the rights for everybody.


  1. The "Alberta Five" were five Alberta women of distinction. Who were they and what were they fighting for? Write an essay on any five women you think should be called "The Canada Five" because of their strong voices and concern for their communities. They can be people in your own family, community, city, etc. or people you have read or heard about.

  2. Irene Parlby was appointed to the League of Nations, which later became the United Nations. Set up a mock United Nations in your classroom. The nations you will be representing are "Eastern Canada," "Quebec," "Ontario" and "the West." Discuss national unity and how each "country" can get what it needs and wants from staying in Canada, or why they have to separate and form their own country.

  3. Canada's small, family-run farms are in a state of crisis. Visit a local farm, or research farmers' lives to find out what the problems are they are facing Then, pretending you are Irene Parlby, write a letter to your government explaining (or demanding!) what you want them to do to help your local farmers.

  4. Canada is known as a multicultural country, but our British roots are strong. Plan an English High Tea (tea, scones, whipped cream, strawberry jam, little finger sandwiches) in your classroom and have a feast to celebrate our English heritage.

  5. Pretend you have just left your family, possessions and conveniences behind in England, and have arrived in your new home - an isolated, rural farm in Northern Alberta. Write a letter home to your family telling them what it is like there, how you plan to "make it" in your new home, and what it is you miss most.

  6. Like in Irene Parlby's days, isolation is still a big problem for many women today, particularly stay-at-home mothers in small towns and in the country. Pretend you are a farm-wife in a rural community and are worried about the problems facing other farm wives. Pull a group of them together (organize!) and see what ideas and plans you can come up with to improve your lot.