Book celebrates women

Merna Foster knows the intimate details of more than 200 famous and not-so-famous Canadian women

Merna Foster knows the intimate details of more than 200 famous and not-so-famous Canadian women and Jennie Butchart is among them.

Foster grew up in a small town where never really heard of any great women. She knew of Nelly McLung, only because of a family connection and a small collection of first-edition McLung books.

“When I went to school I didn’t learn about any notable women, and even when I went to university … really I didn’t learn much about women,” Foster explained. Her interest piqued she sought out her own heroines, story-by-story she learned about vital women in our nation’s history.

“I thought I should create a website,” she explained. At the stories and photos became so prolific Forster couldn’t stand it anymore. Her one-woman website is so busy, she gets the occasional job application from those expecting the site’s run by a larger organization.

Then came a push. Forster, living in Ontario at the time, realized how few women were on the CBC’s 2004 survey of the 100 greatest Canadians.

She had to write a book.

Forster created the ultimate guide to cool Canadian women from every corner of the country in 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces with tales of remarkable women in Canadian history, from the adventurous Gudridur the Viking to murdered Mi’kmaq activist Anna Mae Aquash.

Forster went on speaking engagements that literally engaged the audience. The public actively participated sending emails and traditional mail full of tales, suggestions, documentation and photos.

“Unfortunately I couldn’t include all of the suggestions,” Forster said. So prolific were the ideas, alongside traditional research and women she stumbled across in her travels, Forster released the second installment, 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces earlier this month.

One of those heroines is Jennie Butchart.

“I found out really she was the mover and shaker behind the gardens. Some local people here are aware of that, I suspect most people across Canada aren’t,” Forster said. “She was an environmentalist before such a thing became popular.”

A Legacy of Blooms goes beyond the little details. Butchart was orphaned as a teen, earned an art scholarship to Paris, had a certificate in chemistry and worked in the cement plant laboratory. Then came the garden.

“I think it’s sort of fun to know a bit more of the background about her,” Forster said.

Others in the book will be even lesser known to Vancouver Islanders.

“In this last book, I was able to connect with a number of relatives of the people in the book,” Forster said. That included Trevor Bennet, son of Myra Bennet, pioneer nurse in Newfoundland.

“For decades she offered the only medical help in this really remote coastal area of Newfoundland,” the author explained.

Through the internet, Forster connected with the son, now in his 80s.

“He was a wonderful source of information for the book,” Forster said. “He has an incredible memory and he remembers every detail from such a long time ago.

The past history is augmented with women from modern history, including Sindi Hawkins. The first Indo-Canadian woman to hold a cabinet post in provincial government, Satinder Hawkins, Trailblazer is plumped with information from the late MLA’s family.

In both books, Forster strove to feature famous and forgotten faces across the board, in science, sport, politics, war and peace, arts and entertainment, and many other fields.

“I hope that the stories are inspirational to people and will help ensure that these people are remembered,” Forster said. “It saddens me that a number of people were buried in unmarked graves.”

Her hopes are to see Canadian women rank higher, should anyone opt to do another poll of greatest Canadians in history.

“It’s just one book but I hope that one small book might make a difference,” she said. “I continue to give presentations and do my bit.”


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