New Brunswick

A name of one's own: Heritage plaque celebrating Fredericton writer will finally identify her

The plaque on a historically significant house in downtown Fredericton is finally being updated to include the name of the woman who lived there more than a century ago.

For years, Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald went unidentified on a historic home's plaque. That's about to change

Brittany MacKenzie stands on the porch of her heritage home, Little Glencoe House. (Jon Collicott)

When Brittany MacKenzie and her partner, Matthew Coffey, first viewed Little Glencoe House in Fredericton's St. Anne's Point heritage district with thoughts of purchasing it, something immediately caught their attention.

It wasn't the Scottish dormers. It wasn't the emerald green door.

It was the heritage plaque.

"It's just interesting to see plaques on houses," MacKenzie said. "We had a look at it and it was really clear that something was missing."

The plaque read: 

LITTLE GLENCOE 1847
This house with its Scottish dormers was occupied by the sister of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, herself a respected writer. 

That "respected writer" was Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald. But her name was nowhere to be found on the plaque.

"Immediately, it stuck out as sexist," MacKenzie said.

The original plaque at Little Glencoe. (Jon Collicott)

Often overshadowed by the male writers in her family

Roberts MacDonald wrote poetry and fiction and was involved in the women's suffrage movement, but she was often overshadowed by the male writers in her family. 

Little Glencoe House once belonged to the Roberts family, which produced some of Fredericton's greatest literary titans,  including Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman. 

Roberts MacDonald lived there for several years in the early 1900s. 

MacKenzie and her partner quickly set about setting things right on the plaque.

They decided that once they had an accepted offer and the deal was closed, they would contact the Fredericton Heritage Trust and "try to get that changed."

MacKenzie emailed the Heritage Trust in October. 

"They were fantastic," she said. "They were really responsive, immediately agreed and recognized the problem, worked together to come up with some new wording and were very, very receptive to changing it."

Ian Robertson, a board member with the Heritage Trust, said it wasn't the first time the wording of the plaque had raised questions. 

Heritage plaque celebrating Fredericton writer will finally name her

7 months ago
1:29
A plaque on a historically significant house in Fredericton is finally being updated to include the name of the woman who lived there more than a century ago. 1:29

"Although it did acknowledge the Roberts connection, it was a bit exclusive," Robertson said.

A new plaque was drawn up, one that included Roberts MacDonald's name and accomplishments. 

The new plaque will read:

LITTLE GLENCOE 1847

This house with its Scottish dormers was occupied by Elizabeth (Roberts) MacDonald, poet, fiction writer, feminist & sister of writer Sir Charles G.D. Roberts.

Seeing the mockup of the new plaque was an emotional moment, MacKenzie said.

"It's something so small – obviously, this is not the biggest or most pressing issue that our world is facing right now – but it matters. And so to see her finally named on that plaque was really special." 

Roberts MacDonald wrote extensively in her poetry and fiction about the lives of women in late 19th- and early 20th-century Canada.

But she was outshone and overshadowed by the famous men in her family, according to Carrie MacMillan, professor emeritus in literature at Mount Allison University. 

"As a woman and as a woman who wrote in a womanly way, that is, that she eventually celebrates the domestic and home and family and so on, those kinds of themes weren't necessarily recognized as the important ones," said MacMillan. 

Roberts left Fredericton and Little Glencoe House with her husband and two children in 1912 and moved to Nelson, B.C., where she became active in the women's suffrage movement.

She wrote papers and essays arguing for it and attended conferences at the Women's Institute. 

"There's one description where she delivered a plea to support suffrage and criticized those who describe suffragists as given to hysterical outbursts, and she praised men who supported suffrage," said MacMillan. 

Eventually she left Nelson, and her husband. She died impoverished in Ottawa in 1922. 

During her research, MacMillan said she went looking for Roberts MacDonald's grave in Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery, where many of the Roberts family women are buried. 

But the graves aren't marked by any memorial.

"There was grass, there was no stone, there was nothing," MacMillan said. "I was shocked … I searched, but nothing." 

That struck MacMillan as especially poignant when compared with the memorials for Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman in Fredericton.

"Representation in our history matters," MacKenzie said. "It's important for people to hear and see women named for their accomplishments in our history, instead of just their association to the men in their lives."

The new plaque, bearing Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald's name, is expected to be hung on Little Glencoe House in the summer. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lauren Bird is a journalist at CBC New Brunswick. You can contact her at lauren.bird@cbc.ca

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