Annie Gale, Canada’s First Female Alderman

Annie Gale and her son Bill, 1914.
Annie Gale and her son Bill, 1914.

Annie Gale was a monumental figure in both Calgary and Canada’s history. But it seems as though her achievements and accomplishments are unknown to many people, even in the city where she did her work.

Annie was born in 1879 in as Hannah Rolinson in Worcestshire England. In 1912, she moved with her husband William John Gale and two sons to Calgary. John was a civil engineer and worked for the city.

Nancy Janovicek, an associate professor of history at the University of Calgary, said that Annie had little interest in politics before coming to Canada but her mind was drastically changed upon her arrival. “Annie wasn’t interested in politics in England but she then saw the value of women in the vote and realized that they could influence these things day to day,” says Janovicek.

Annie saw the poor living conditions in Calgary as compared to England and decided to do something about it. “She was appalled by the high cost of living and poor quality of food and housing. That’s what brought her into action as volunteer, a municipal volunteer. She was tired of waiting for men to do this work so she took action.”

Annie became the first woman elected to municipal office in Canada as she was the first female alderman the country had ever seen. She was sworn in to office on Dec. 31 1917. 2018 is the centennial of her first year in office. Annie was very progressive in the types of policies and programs she introduced. Her compassion and empathy for people was the motivation for much of her work.

Annie’s First Moves

“Calgary merchants held contracts with British Columbia growers, and they would not sell vegetables produced by local farmers. Shipping vegetables over the Rocky Mountains resulted in expensive produce of poor quality, but local merchants did not want to break their established contracts,” writes local historian Harry Sanders in a piece for Calgary.ca.

“Annie was active in setting up farmers markets and community gardens, so wives could make ends meet instead of relying on merchants and the other poor-quality food that was being brought in,” says Janovicek.

Janovicek said that at that time health conditions were poor and there was little support for pregnant women. Annie became involved in the free hospital league to combat that. She was also responsible for the returning veterans of the first World War and finding appropriate care for them.

Annie did a great deal of financial work and was involved in financial leagues.

The Calgary female cricket club in 1922. Annie Gale, from the bottom, second row, fourth from the left.
The Calgary female cricket club in 1922. Annie Gale, from the bottom, second row, fourth from the left.

Her compassion for people led her to become involved in improving conditions for prisoners in jails. “She fought to move them out of dungeon type environments to upper levels with windows. She also fought for a matron to be there for the women,” says Janovicek.

Annie decided to attempt to take her political career a step further and ran provincially once but did not win. “She always ran as an independent and she refused to affiliate with a party because she thought women needed a voice.” Janovicek says that this is probably one of the reasons why she did not win provincially.

Annie completed three terms municipally but she did not run for a fourth term because there were elite people that did not approve of the things she was doing, especially merchants. “Some business elites put pressure on her family. They threatened that if she ran for a fourth term her husband, the city engineer, would lose his job,” says Janovicek.

Annie Leaves Calgary

“Before she left city council in 1923, Annie became the first woman in Canada to serve as an acting mayor,” writes Sanders. In May of 1925 she suddenly left Calgary and moved to Vancouver, due to the better climate, to take care of her husband whose health was failing.

“As she was leaving politics she was confident that in a few years the boards and councils would have gender parody but 100 years later there’s still this struggle for women’s equity on the political level,” says Janovicek.

Janovicek and various other Calgarian women have recently launched the Annie Gale Society. Because they’re such a new organization they haven’t spoken with the city yet, but their ultimate goal is to have a bronze monument built at City Hall in honor of the ever impactful and ambitious Annie Gale.