Homegrown heroines: 6 Montrealers to honour on International Women's Day

On this International Women's Day, get to know more about several Montreal women who were trailblazers in their respective fields.

The list includes trailblazers in medicine, sports, Indigenous rights and music

Six Montreal women who broke barriers: Daisy Peterson Sweeney, Mary "Two-Axe" Earley, Adeline Magloire Chancy, Maude Abbott, Rhoda and Rhona Wurtele (Images: Library and Archives Canada/Michel Chancy/Rhona and Rhoda Wurtele/Radio-Canada Graphic/CBC)

On this International Women's Day, get to know more about several Montreal women who were trailblazers in their respective fields.

From medicine to sports to Indigenous rights and music, these six women changed history and shaped their communities.

Adeline Magloire Chancy

Adeline Magloire Chancy is a pillar of the Haitian community in Montreal (Michel Chancy)

Adeline Magloire Chancy made Montreal a welcoming city for hundreds of newcomers.

Intellectuals living under a totalitarian regime, Adeline and her husband were forced out of Haiti in 1965. They settled in Outremont.

Their home soon became an informal landmark for Haitian exiles, as well as a haven for all newcomers to Montreal during the 1960s and 70s.

In their home, recent arrivals to the city would find a friendly face, some guidance and aid. Through her generosity,  Adeline Chancy shaped the lives of hundreds of immigrants while also building the foundations of the Haitian community in Montreal.

Today her legacy lives on at the Maison d'Haiti, the community and cultural organization that she helped found which is dedicated to the education and integration of new immigrants.

Daisy Peterson Sweeney

Daisy Peterson Sweeney with her brother, Oscar Peterson. He was one of Sweeney's first students in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood. (Library and Archives Canada)

Through the countless hours she devoted to teaching piano to children at the historic Montreal Negro Community Centre, Daisy Peterson Sweeney helped put Montreal's Little Burgundy neighbourhood on the map — and brought a lot of jazz to the city.

Born in Montreal on May 7, 1920, the gifted piano teacher and musician also founded the Montreal Black Community youth choir, which later became the world-renowned Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir.

Peterson Sweeney is also notable for having taught some of the greatest jazz musicians in Canada, including her little brother Oscar Peterson and famed jazz pianist Oliver Jones.

In 2018, her memory was enshrined in a mural in the neighbourhood where she made her mark. Her contributions were also recognized by the City of Montreal, which is naming a park in Little Burgundy in her honour.

Mary Two-Axe Earley

Mary Two-Axe Earley received the Governor General's Persons Case Award on Oct. 17, 1979 for contributing to equality for women and girls in Canada. (Library and Archives Canada)

Mary Two-Axe Earley challenged laws discriminating against First Nations women, fighting for the rights of all Indigenous women in Canada.

Born in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake in 1910, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 18. There, she met an Irish-American man and married him.

But when she came back to her community after the death of her husband, she discovered she had lost her Indian status because she had married a non-Indigenous man. That meant she lost property rights and voting rights in Kahnawake and could not pass down Indian status to her children.

The same did not hold true for a First Nations man who married a non-Indigenous woman: Under the Indian Act, that woman acquired Indian status, and that status was passed down to their children.

Mary Two-Axe Early campaigned for 20 years to have that law changed.

In 1985, she was successful. She became the first woman to have her status reinstated. Her efforts changed the lives of thousands of First Nations women in Canada and their descendants.

Maude Abbott

Maude Abbott's research on heart deformities laid the foundations of modern heart surgery. (Maude Abbott Medical Museum)

Even though she was barred from studying medicine at McGill University because of her gender, Maude Abbott beat the odds to become a world-famous pathologist.

Born in Saint-André-Est, Que., in 1869, she was one of the first women to graduate with a BA from McGill.

But when she was refused admission to McGill's medical school, Abbott did not admit defeat. She was accepted at Bishop's College, graduating as a doctor of medicine in 1894.

Her expertise in congenital heart disease and her work as a medical archivist were so lauded that McGill, which had rejected her medical school application, hired her to be the assistant curator at its Medical Museum.

Abbott did more than just curate. She conducted popular demonstrations of the museum's specimen to medical students and conducted her own research on heart defects.

McGill awarded her an honorary medical degree and offered her a lectureship in its medical school in 1910 — eight years before the school finally admitted its first female medical student.

Her research into heart disease laid the foundations of modern heart surgery.

Soon, Maude Abbott's name will also be on a map. The Quebec Toponymy Commission marked International Women's Day 2019 with an announcement Friday morning that a small island in the heart of Abbott's birthplace, Saint-André-Est, will be named in her honour. 

Rhoda and Rhona Wurtele

Both Rhona and Rhoda Wurtele competed in the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. They were the only two members of the Canadian Olympic women’s alpine ski team. (Canadian Ski Hall of Fame)

Twin sisters and ski pioneers Rhoda and Rhona Wurtele were Canada's first female Olympic alpine skiers.

Born in 1922 in Saint-Lambert, Que., and raised in Westmount, the siblings began skiing at a young age.

The duo made up Canada's first official women's Olympic Alpine Ski team at the Olympic games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

And though they were both injured while training for the competition in Switzerland, Rhona managed to cross the finish line with a broken ankle.

The sisters inspired generations of women to compete in sports, through their perseverance and daring.

In December 2018, the Wurtele twins were inducted into the Order of Canada at age 96.

Rhoda Wurtele, left, stands with her twin sister Rhona Wurtele. Last December, just before their 97th birthday, the two were appointed to the Order of Canada. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)


Jennifer Yoon is a journalist at CBC Montreal.


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