Alberta ends scholarship commemorating Famous Five

The Alberta government is ending a scholarship set up 40 years ago to commemorate a pivotal case that advanced the rights of Canadian women.

Government will create new scholarship to help women in the trades

Clockwise from top left: The Famous Five are Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, group shot, Irene Parlby and Emily Murphy. (Glenbow Archives)

The Alberta government is ending a scholarship set up 40 years ago to commemorate a pivotal case that advanced the rights of  Canadian women. 

The Persons Case Scholarship was launched in 1979, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Persons Case when Albertans Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards won their fight for some women to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. The women became known as the Famous Five.

The scholarship awarded $2,500 grants to 40 post-secondary male and female students who were either working to advance gender equality through their academic work or training for a field that was traditionally under-represented by their gender.

The Alberta government says money allocated for the Persons Case Scholarships will be "re-purposed" into a new scholarship for Women Building Futures, an organization that helps women enter the building trades.

"Women Building Futures is working to finalize the details of the new scholarship that will include an additional $100,000 in scholarships for their participants," Eliza Snider, press secretary for Advanced Education minister Demetrios Nicolaides, wrote in an email to CBC News. 

"In the spirit of the Famous Five, the re-purposed funding will maintain its core mission of enhancing gender equality by focusing on skills development and creating job and career opportunities for women."

Michelle Meagher, chair of the department of women's and gender studies at the University of Alberta, agrees it is important to support women in non-traditional occupations.

But she worries the government wants to erase the second part of the Persons Case Scholarship mandate — to support students working to advance gender equality, regardless of their academic discipline. 

"Absolutely, equality in Alberta looks like hiring women electricians and women plumbers," Meagher said. 

"But equality in Alberta has to be bigger than that. It has to be about policy. It has to be about cultural perspective. It has to be about valuing a wide variety of ways of being, working and living in this province."

Meagher, who sat on the Persons Case Scholarship evaluating committee in three of the last eight years, said the scholarship attracted a wide range of applicants whose fields included midwifery, public health and even brewing, a field overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Scholarships weren't awarded exclusively to women, Meagher said. Men who were studying to work in traditionally female-dominated fields like nursing could apply, as could people who had a non-binary gender identity, she said. 

'A devaluing of arts education'

The government would not explain why it was dropping the Persons Case Scholarships. 

Nicolaides was not made available for an interview. Neither was Leela Aheer, minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women.

Nicolaides has been focused on revamping Alberta's system of colleges and universities. In June, the government hired a consultant to review the post-secondary system.

The government has frequently cited Women Building Futures when answering questions about its economic recovery plan, which is dominated by a focus on construction and road work, creating jobs traditionally dominated by male workers.

Critics are concerned the province plans to marginalize the humanities and the arts in a quest to bolster studies in engineering, science, mathematics and the trades.

Like Meagher, Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood MLA Janis Irwin, NDP Opposition Critic for women and LGBTQ issues, believes in supports for women in non-traditional occupations.

The Persons Case Scholarship supported students in political science, English, music in history, in addition to women in trades and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). 

Irwin said she thinks the end of the scholarship is a sign the United Conservative government is placing a priority on some academic streams over others.

"We're seeing a devaluing of arts education generally," Irwin said. "I worry very much about the message that this sends to folks studying in some of those fields if they no longer have these opportunities."

Meagher said work in areas that benefit gender equality in society at large, like policy studies and public health, will be shut out under the narrower scope of the new scholarship.

"Those are students whose work needs to be supported because it benefits not just an individual woman and a career but the entire social fabric," she said.

Last week, Premier Jason Kenney criticized the federal throne speech for including "kooky academic theories like intersectionality."

Irwin argues the government should base its policy decisions on how they could affect people with overlapping racial, economic, and gender identities.

"You've got a premier who is essentially devaluing the experiences of anyone who is not a white cisgender man," she said. "And intersectionality is a model that we should all be applying to our everyday decisions if we're going to advance as a society."

Last week, the Alberta government announced a new scholarship for women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM. Each award is worth $2,500 and will be granted to 50 Alberta students.


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