Delia celebrates first female mayor in Canada

A rare portrait of Violet McCully Barss taken circa late 1920’s. Photo courtesy of the Delia and District Dawson Museum, donated by Barss’ great nephews Al and Doug McCully.
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The Delia and District Historical Society and the Alberta Historic Resources Branch will soon be unveiling a sign at the Delia Museum in honour of a woman who set the stage for women’s power in office.

The sign, sponsored by the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, recognizes Violet McCully Barss who was Reeve (the title used for mayors of villages at the time) of Delia from 1920-1922.

Mrs. Barss was the first woman to head a municipality in Canada. She was one of three councillors elected in December 1919 and was chosen as Reeve at the first meeting of the new council in January 1920.

A rare portrait of Violet McCully Barss taken circa late 1920’s. Photo courtesy of the Delia
and District Dawson Museum, donated by Barss’ great-nephews Al and Doug McCully.

Most women in Alberta had attained the right to vote in 1916 and members of the Delia Women’s Institute were determined to have a woman run for council.

Not only one, but two women ran for council: Barss and a lady with the last name of Omang.

“This was close enough to the time when women got to vote,” said Tim Schowalter of the Delia Historical Society. “It was still somewhat quite controversial to have women running. Remarkably there was two women running.”

Schowalter explained that even Barss’ husband wasn’t a fan of the recent changes by nominating someone else to run for council.

“Obviously I wasn’t there but how one understands that is a bit of challenge but mostly it was that women weren’t taken seriously yet.”

Mrs. Barss was successful in being elected, a result that caused an impromptu parade of women supporters on the streets of Delia.

Violet Barss was a human dynamo and became an influential person in Alberta.

She sat on the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta from 1923 to 1940, was Convenor of the Immigration Committee of the Provincial Women’s’ institutes, and sat on an advisory committee on immigrant women’s issues to the Minister of Agriculture.

She is mentioned in several editions of Who’s Who in Alberta. The historical society were given a number of old photos and other belongings as Barss’ nephews were cleaning out her home after she passed away.

Seeing this moved the society to come up with something in her honour.

“Al McCully and his brother were cleaning out the McCully household had some of Violet’s stuff there and that motivated him to approach us about ‘Hey, we got this stuff of hers’ and of course we were aware of this kind of stuff and that got us motivated to say ‘No this is actually a kind of a neat, big deal here in the village’. It’s a little more important than just local history,” said Schowalter.

The society proceeded to search for grants that could be used to put something in place for the late pioneer. They eventually found the Alberta Historic Resources Branch to purchase a sign. Barss was an active member of the community.

She was trained as a registered nurse and served informally as local health nurse for most of her life.

Many residents recall getting vaccinated by her with the very large needles used. Some have questioned if the needles had not dulled over time.

Violet continued her commitment to the Women’s Institutes and made presentations about health issues at meetings of the Women’s Institutes in the region.

She also was active in supporting CGIT, speaking contests for young people, her church, and volunteered for many charitable fund-raising campaigns.

In 1936 at the height of the Depression, Violet Barss was presented with a silver cup from the community for her selfless service.

She was born in 1885 and passed away in 1971 at the age of 86.

In today’s world, Starland County councillor Jacqueline Watts is the first woman elected to sit on this specific council.

She will be giving a speech presenting the sign in memory of Barss as another in-depth layer of the unveiling.

“This is sort of a tip of the hat to them. I think our local elected people do a lot of good work and it’s following in her tradition. We are pretty proud of it. I think it all ties in together somehow,” said Schowalter.


Terri Huxley

ECA Review

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