The Madam Who Shot the Mountie: How a brothel-keeper in 1880s Edmonton crossed the law – and won

Woman’s Ensemble (Bodice, Skirt, and Hat), circa 1880. Public Domain Image. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

By Laurie Bertram

This piece was first published in the University of Toronto Magazine. 

On May 23, 1889, a packed courtroom in Edmonton watched as “Big Nelly” Webb, the most famous woman in town, answered to the charge of shooting a member of the North West Mounted Police. Several months earlier, Constable Thomas Cairney had been found seriously wounded on Big Nelly’s doorstep. He survived but was injured for life, and Webb faced serious prison time if convicted. Standing before a judge and jury, Big Nelly saw a host of familiar male faces. Was she nervous? Women like Webb did not always enjoy a good relationship with the law, but she was skilled at the art of persuasion. Big Nelly was the town madam.

Very few details about Big Nelly and her brothel have survived, but we know that most women who entered the sex trade did so because of the inequalities they faced in the 19th century. Religious leaders usually assumed that women were kidnapped and forced into sex work, but the reality is that the brothel was one of the best economic options for poor women, especially young widows and single mothers, women of colour, and queer and trans women. [1] It’s important not to romanticize sex work during this period, but it is clear that when survival was impossible in “respectable” settler society, brothels offered access to food, medicine and money. The Canadian North West could make a woman rich if she pursued this line of work. Dozens of Ontario and American madams and workers followed news of the fortunes being made out west and journeyed there in the 1870s and 1880s.

Big Nelly was a charming younger madam who counted some of the Edmonton elite among her clients and friends. On Oct. 24, 1888 – the night of the shooting – her brothel was probably busy. There had been a dance at the local barracks of the North West Mounted Police, and brothels were known for their “after parties.” She may have been welcoming guests or pulling liquor out of the cellar when she heard the arrival of two drunk and ornery off-duty constables: Cairney and Thomas Rogers. Big Nelly, like many other madams, knew that very drunk men were bad for business. They were often rude to staff and customers, bought fewer overpriced drinks (a major money-maker at brothels) and, if they passed out, took up valuable real estate on couches and beds. They were also prone to violence.

Continue reading this essay here.

Laurie K. Bertram is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. She teaches a seminar on the history of sex work and is working on a book about brothel economies and colonial expansion in 18th and 19th century North America.

The francophone community of Alberta and the First World War

By Rebecca Lazarenko

When Canadians consider the French-Canadian experience of the First World War, what most often comes to mind is the opposition of French Canadians in Québec to conscription, and the war itself more broadly. Very few Canadians consider that there were multiple francophone communities outside of Québec and that their experiences during the war varied. Even fewer consider the possibility that the experiences and perspectives of those in Québec do not represent all of French Canada. When I was in my second year of my bachelor’s degree, I undertook a research project for a Canadian history class hoping to learn more about the conscription crisis. I expected to learn about the French Canadians of Québec and how the francophone communities outside of Québec reacted to conscription. However, all I could uncover was literature on Québec. It was as if French Canadians did not exist outside of Québec and had no part to play in this controversy.

Of particular interest to me was the experience of Alberta’s growing francophone community. France Levasseur Ouimet[1], one of the few Canadian historians to have done significant work on the community, notes there were 24,286 francophones living in Alberta in 1916, primarily in Edmonton and Calgary and the surrounding area. The population was a mix of French Canadians who migrated from Québec, French Canadians who were born in the West, others who descended from Metis populations and recent immigrants from France and Belgium. This was a vibrant, diverse and thriving community with strong social bonds and multiple organizations, including a number of French newspapers. From this research, the general question of my master’s thesis was born – to what extent were the perspectives and reactions of the francophone community of Alberta similar or different to those of the French Canadians of Québec during the First World War?

Knowing that the various French school crises had an enormous impact on the perspectives of French Canadians in Québec, the second point of the study was to determine if the persecution of the French language had a similar effect on the francophone community in Alberta. This article  provides a general summary of my key discoveries and sheds some light on the francophone community of Alberta during the First World War.

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National Treasure

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National Treasure (2004): I Need More Galas

Claire Campbell

Dr. Abigail Chase in full-length ball gown at a gala.

I need more galas.

Scroll through reviews of National Treasure (2004) on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB and you’ll notice a lot of critics describing the movie as a kind of set-in-America Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Da Vinci Code (then in production for 2006). After all, it’s an adventure film that involves some really valuable old stuff. But those comparisons undersell just how American a movie this is, as the love child of their obsession with the American Revolution and Top Gun. I mean this literally: Jerry Bruckheimer produced both films. I remember Bruckheimer saying once that he felt badly that some kid had seen Top Gun, enlisted thinking he’d be Maverick, and now was stuck in a windowless room seven stories down on an aircraft carrier. I don’t think he’s said anything similar about National Treasure – which apparently did cause an uptick in visits to the National Archives – but for anyone about, oh, say, now about twenty-five, in grad school: I have not once been invited to a gala. Continue reading

Teaching Life and Death Stories in University Classrooms – Part 3

Today’s post is the third in a four part series that began as different conversations about teaching Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adele Perry’s Structures of Indifference, winner of The Indigenous History Book Prize, awarded by the Indigenous History Group of the Canadian Historical Association. Each week will will focus on one professor’s experiences teaching the book to undergraduate students and – in the final week – we conclude with a reflection on teaching the book to graduate nursing students. Because we were teaching students from different academic backgrounds and stages of career, we used different teaching strategies. But we shared the pedagogical goal of using an individual tragedy – Brian Sinclair’s death – to encourage students to grapple with the ongoing impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous communities and the structures that shape their lives.

By Nancy Janovicek

I taught this text to a first-year ‘post-confederation’ Canadian history class. The last time I taught this course, I asked students to write a response paper to Elder in the Making, a documentary that is part of the Making Treaty 7 project, an initiative that brings together Elders and Indigenous and settler actors. The documentary, directed and narrated by Chris Chung, a Chinese Canadian raised in Calgary, features Cowboy Smithx, a filmmaker and multimedia artist of Piikani and Kainai ancestry who speaks to Niitsitapi elders about the resilience of their cultures in the face of the history of dispossession of their lands. I asked students to think about how Indigenous understandings of the past were different from what they had been taught in high school. Continue reading

Eating History: An Experiential Examination of Pemmican

By Sophie Hicks

This is the second post in a summer series exploring societal, community, and familial connections to food and food history. See the series introduction post here. An earlier version of this post appeared on The Canadian Cooking Chronicles, as part of a final project for an Archives Practicum class.

When examining the history of Canadian food, the vast variety of choice in geographic region, era, dish, and cookbook – among other factors – can be overwhelming. When starting my investigation, I knew that I wanted to recreate archival recipes and use them as primary sources to see what could be learned about the history surrounding them. However, as a relative new-comer to this type of history, choosing where to start was a daunting task.

When I had the opportunity to look through a small selection of cookbooks held by they archives at Algoma University, I came across a cookbook titled Traditional Indian Recipes From Fort George, Quebec. As I read through the various recipes that had been contributed by Indigenous women in the late 1960s, there was one recipe that stood out as a food known for its interconnectedness to early Canadian history; a dish that has been regarded as one of Canada’s earliest known staple foods: pemmican. As soon as I saw the recipe, I knew that this was where I wanted to start.

Pemmican is a food made of protein, fat, and berries that originated with Indigenous tribes in North America. The nutritional density and long shelf life of this food made it ideal for hunters that wanted to travel light.

The name of the food comes from the Cree, Pimikan, which means fat/grease. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of pemmican, it is known that it has been a traditional food of many Indigenous communities in North America long before colonization. It was a useful source of nutrition after the hunting season ended because, if preserved properly, it would not spoil for months or even years after it was made. Post-colonization, Pemmican was introduced to fur traders and quickly became sold as a form of sustenance during travel, especially to the traders in the prairies. In Canadian writing, Pemmican was referenced as early as 1743, although it’s origins significantly predate this documentation.

The following recipe for Pemmican is from the cookbook, Traditional Indian Recipes From Fort George, Quebec, found in the Fort George Collection of the Shingwauk Residential School Centre archives at Algoma University. This book was published in 1967, with traditional recipes compiled from First Nation communities in the Fort George region.

Page from cookbook with recipe and drawing of bird

Pemmican, Traditional Indian Recipes From Fort George, Quebec, 1967.

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Appropriation vs. Incorporation: Indigenous Content in the Canadian History Classroom

Person sketching on paper with white mug

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

By Skylee-Storm Hogan and Krista McCracken with Andrea Eidinger 

This post is part of a Beyond the Lecture mini-series, dedicated to the issue of teaching Indigenous history and the inclusion of Indigenous content in the classroom. Our goal is to provide resources for educators at all levels to help navigate the often fraught terrain of teaching Indigenous content. 

Several studies have shown that while many settler educators want to include more content about Indigenous history and culture, they often lack the confidence and training to do so. As such, our first post in this mini-series focused on How and When to Invite Indigenous Speakers to the Classroom. This second post will focus on the broader approaches to including Indigenous content, authors, and readings in post-secondary classrooms. 

The 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) included numerous which related to post-secondary education practices. For example, call 63 calls on education to share “information and best practices on teaching curriculum related to residential schools and Aboriginal History” and to build “student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.” The TRC Final Report also included numerous references to the importance of history and all Canadians learning about Residential Schools and Indigenous history. This work is part of build right relations and correcting historical wrongs. 

Simply including a single article, by an Indigenous author, without any context, is not decolonizing your syllabus. Decolonization work takes time and effort. It needs to be done with intention and with respect for the Indigenous voices you are seeking to include in your classroom. 

What Indigenous content is appropriate to share?
Published sources by Indigenous authors are knowledges that have been offered to be shared. It is still important to ask local Indigenous knowledge keepers in your community about what knowledge is considered protected, even if it is in public published works. Ceremony, art processes, teachings, and even some stories are wrong to share if it is not done by a member of the community. Making sure to check with knowledge keepers and elders about protocol for asking and receiving knowledge is an important part of the process.

It is important to make sure there is context and reciprocity for the community to be understood and not stereotyped further. Sharing Indigenous knowledge from outside the community in which you are in can cause confusion and lack context on that territory, it is important to keep it relevant. Sharing materials from outside communities can create a divide, it can send a message to local communities that their knowledges aren’t a priority in being sought out. As intimidating as it may be, it is important to reach out locally first and foremost. Continue reading

Let’s Not Romanticize Opponents of the Winnipeg General Strike

By Tom Mitchell

Tumult was everywhere in 1919. In an autobiographical work published in 1966, Kingsley Martin, British journalist and long-time editor of The New Statesman, recalled that “the only time in my life when revolution in Britain seemed likely was in 1919.”  It is true that in Canada an influential current of labour radicalism celebrated the Russian revolution and called for the end of capitalist rule. In Winnipeg, during the famous (for some infamous) meeting at the Walker Theatre on 22 December 1918 – R.B. Russell among others on the stage – motions celebrating solidarity with the most radical currents of European Marxism were approved with unanimity. Labour radicalism had its advocates in Winnipeg and across western Canada, but when members of Winnipeg’s organized labour movement elected a new President to lead the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council in 1919, they chose labourite James Winning over R.B. Russell. And it was Winning, not Russell, who led Winnipeg workers into the general strike.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when the Winnipeg General Strike came, its opponents organized as the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand ignored the real causes of the strike and cast the walkout as a version of Bolshevism. In the centennial year of the strike, variations of the Citizens’ anti-labour polemic deployed to effect in 1919 have appeared. The most recent is an op ed by Jenny Motkaluk of the Frontier Center for Public Policy, “Let’s Not Romanticize the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike,” which was published in the National Post 26 June 2019. Motkaluk’s narrative echoes various (false) Citizen refrains: the Strike Committee “sought to usurp the authority of the government,” the strike was directed against the “British Constitution with its liberties and democracy,” the strikers were demanding a “dictatorship.” These claims made by the Citizens in 1919 and by Motkaluk in 2019 were and are pure polemic designed to distract attention from the real economic and social injustice in which the strike was rooted.

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Teaching Life and Death Stories in University Classrooms – Part 2

Today’s post is the second in a four part series that began as different conversations about teaching Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adele Perry’s Structures of Indifference, winner of The Indigenous History Book Prize, awarded by the Indigenous History Group of the Canadian Historical Association. Each week will will focus on one professor’s experiences teaching the book to undergraduate students and – in the final week – we conclude with a reflection on teaching the book to graduate nursing students. Because we were teaching students from different academic backgrounds and stages of career, we used different teaching strategies. But we shared the pedagogical goal of using an individual tragedy – Brian Sinclair’s death – to encourage students to grapple with the ongoing impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous communities and the structures that shape their lives.

By Rhonda Hinther

I taught Structures of Indifference in Western Canada Since 1885. It is a second-year course, with fourteen students. I used the book for several reasons – first, I was looking forward to reading it myself, and this gave me a teaching motivation to do so. I also thought the book, for the way it weaves the past throughout its analysis, demonstrating how it shapes our current present in Winnipeg and elsewhere through the lens of racialized health care, helped to coalesce the various histories we had been studying throughout the term. Finally, since I had opened the course with a book review assignment on Adele Perry’s Aqueduct, which we read together over several weeks in class, Structures of Indifference seemed like an ideal bookend. On the final exam, students were required to review the book. Continue reading

The Active Historian Action Figure

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By Alan MacEachern

As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford has come to embody the archaeologist on film. Why hasn’t he done the same for, or to, historians? In Patriot Games (1992), the actor plays Jack Ryan, a professor of naval history who thwarts an assassination attempt in London. The movie is based on Tom Clancy’s novel, an early entry in the – God help me – “Ryanverse” series of 29 books, including 12 written by other authors after Clancy’s death.

The reason we don’t think of Ford as a historian – besides the fact that he played Indiana Jones in a string of hits, and Indy is wicked cool – and the reason you didn’t even remember that his Patriot Games character was a historian, is that we hardly see him historying. No time in archives, no microfilm reading, no evidence of shame about an overdue manuscript. Just brief glimpses of him giving a lecture and holding a seminar, Samuel L. Jackson warning that he might “become part of history rather than a teacher of it,” and that’s it.[1]

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Civil Affairs in Caen

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This is the seventh of several posts marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the end of the Second World War as part of a partnership between Active History and the Juno Beach Centre. If you would like to contribute, contact series coordinator Alex Fitzgerald-Black at

By David Borys

After a series of hard-fought battles, the first Anglo-Canadian patrols stepped foot in the rubble-strewn streets of Caen on 9 July 1944. The ancient city of William the Conqueror was a post-apocalyptic disaster zone. Two-thirds of it was utterly demolished. Parts of the city were entirely cut off and isolated due to the heaping mounds of rubble. Out of a population of 60,000 people at the beginning of 1944, 25,000 were still residing within the city with approximately 13,000 of them living in makeshift shelters and caves. Nearly 3,000 civilians lay dead and 1,500 wounded. Hundreds of bodies lay scattered in the streets and buried under rubble. There was no running water, no sanitation, no electricity, barely any medical supplies, and food was running short. The civilian population was in dire need of help and this help would come from II Canadian Corps Civil Affairs.

Engineers Clearing Roads Through Caen by Captain Orville Norman Fisher. Canadian War Museum collection 19710261-6247

The men of Civil Affairs (CA) were an unusual bunch. Continue reading