Finally getting her due
City’s youngest elected official will finally have her name on a little piece of Edmonton
Simons: An extraordinary Edmontonian will finally be honoured by the city.
“As a young girl in my teens, I found myself rather addicted to spasms of conviction. Like all adolescent youth, I was given to the projection of desperate ideals of personal and social perfection. The fact is that I really believed that I had a mission to save the world, and what is worse, I knew exactly how the thing was to be done. I was out to mould the world in conformity with the heart’s desire.” — Margaret Crang, “Where My Convictions Have Led Me”
Lawyer, journalist, teacher, politician, social activist. The youngest person ever to serve on Edmonton city council. A beautiful woman who turned down three marriage proposals, and who was rumoured, by some of her younger relatives, to have been Dr. Norman Bethune’s lover. An eccentric aunt who grew marijuana on her windowsill, hoarded books and magazines, and spent her days in a ratty housecoat.
Margaret Crang, who died in 1992 at the age of 82, dedicated her life to causes she believed in, from women’s rights to labour rights to anti-fascism. Whether in the courtrooms of Edmonton or the battlefields of Civil War Spain, she never hesitated to fight for her principles — even when her idealism was her political undoing.
She was one of the most intriguing, exasperating, and ultimately tragic public figures Edmonton has ever produced. Yet Edmonton has no memorial of her extraordinary life and adventures.
That could soon change. Last month, the city’s naming committee approved a plan to name a road for Crang in the new southwest subdivision of Cavanagh. They also propose to name a park in the new district, south of Ellerslie Road and west of Calgary Trail, in her honour.
“Her story just seemed really fascinating,” says Jeff Nachtigall, who chairs the committee. “She was a very unique individual who had a major influence here.”
Crang first entered public life in 1933, when she ran for Edmonton city council.
It was a typically bold decision.
Although several prominent women had run for and won seats in the Alberta legislature, only one had ever been on Edmonton city council before; Izena Ross, elected in 1921, served a one-year term.
Crang was just 23, an accomplished track star, swimmer and competitive diver. She’d already earned a bachelor of arts and a teaching degree, and she was a fresh graduate of the University of Alberta law school, so fresh she’d not yet been called to the bar.
She’d grown up Garneau, in a political family, one of the six children of Dr. Frank Crang and his wife Margaret Bowen.
Dr. Crang, a former bricklayer who went back to school to train as a physician, encouraged his daughter’s interest in social justice.
please turn here and h “While accompanying my father on his rounds, I saw the distress among the poor people,” she later told the Toronto Star.
The politics of equal opportunity for all, she said, “were our family topics of conversation, morning, noon and night.”
Father and daughter ran in the 1933 election on the same Labor slate, she for city council, and he for school board.
Crang’s election handouts featured a photograph of a young lady in her graduation gown. Despite her three university degrees, she scarcely looks old enough to be out of high school.
“With thousands of women and children vitally interested in the action of the city council, it is essential to have a woman on the Council,” read the flyer. “Miss Crang is peculiarly well fitted to fill this position.”
On Nov. 8, 1933, in the depths of the Depression, Crang was elected, still the youngest person ever to have served on Edmonton city council.
The Edmonton Journal was well-pleased with her victory.
“Extremely quiet in personality, Miss Crang articulates her ideas with amazing clarity and swiftness and a remarkable singleness of purpose concerning her ideas which augers well for balanced action,” said the paper.
Dan Knott, elected mayor that same night, was asked by the Journal whether he would “treat his girl alderman nicely.”
That he promised to do — although he bemoaned the fact that councillors would have to stop smoking during their meetings.
No one was more shocked by her unexpected victory than Crang herself.
“I can scarcely believe it,” she told the paper. “It makes me feel very serious. I will try to do my utmost to stand up for the principles for which I think I was elected.”
That she did. Over the next decades, Crang dedicated herself to fighting for her principles — even when her idealism was to her political disadvantage.
She ran successfully for reelection in 1935, and served on council until 1937.
She ran three times — always unsuccessfully — for the Alberta legislature. She advocated fiercely for the rights of Chinese and Sikh immigrants, fought to raise the “relief” rates, fought to maintain Edmonton’s streetcar system, and championed the rights of women, including advocating more liberal divorce laws. She took legal cases pro bono for clients would couldn’t pay.
She wrote passionate newspaper articles and delivered thundering radio addresses and public lectures on the dangers of fascism and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
And she criss-crossed the province, making speeches to high school classes, union meetings, service clubs and political rallies.
“I campaigned all over Alberta in the provincial elections in August for the Labor Party,” she wrote to a cousin in Saskatchewan in late 1935. “No sooner was I through with this work than the Federal Election was upon us. I spoke and worked hard for the CCF candidates in and around Edmonton. This was no sooner through than I began a strenuous Civic campaign for re-election to the aldermanic board. Many times I was about to write to you at my office, when the phone would ring or a visitor arrive to talk CCF or a legal client would be waiting for me.”
In September 1936, while still an alderman, she travelled to Spain to witness first-hand the impact of the Civil War between the loyalist Republicans and Francisco Franco’s fascist rebels. Four months after the war began, and a year before the famous Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was formed, “Margarita” Crang travelled to Barcelona, Madrid and Toledo, dodging sniper bullets and enrolling as a member of the Battalion of Young Guards, writing a series of articles for the Edmonton Journal when she returned about the atrocities she had witnessed.
She outraged many across Canada when she boasted of firing a gun “in the general direction” of the rebel forces. The Vancouver Sun called her “beastly” and “unwomanly.” The Montreal Gazette dubbed her a Communist. The Toronto Star pointed out that Crang had originally gone to Europe as a peace activist, a delegate to a conference in Brussels on war prevention.
“What justification could there be for a peace delegate’s participation in a civil war?” the Star asked.
Though Crang always insisted she hadn’t shot at any actual people, the resulting controversy may have contributed to her loss at the polls when she ran again for council the following year. Then again, it was a bad election for Labor candidates: no incumbents won their seats, and even Crang’s father, a 25-year trustee, lost his own re-election campaign.
While family legend suggests that Crang and Norman Bethune began their rumoured relationship in Spain, that can’t be true. Bethune, the radical leftist doctor, didn’t arrive in Spain as a volunteer with the International Brigade until November 1936, by which time Crang was already back in Canada, writing and speaking about the Loyalist cause. But the two did finally meet when Bethune came on a western Canadian fundraising trip in July 1937, six months before he left to join the Communist cause in China. They travelled together to Medicine Hat and Swift Current, on a joint speaking tour. Bethune was divorced and it was certainly a dramatic breach of 1930s etiquette for a single lady and gentleman to travel together. But whether the two shared anything more than a podium is unclear.
Despite the communist label, Crang’s actual political allegiances weren’t always easy to pin down. While she was prescient when she used her speeches and articles to warn Canadians about the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and the links between Spanish fascism and that in Germany and Italy, some of her other political ideas were much murkier. She decried anti-Semitism — yet didn’t hesitate to blame Canada’s economic woes on a cabal of evil bankers. She flirted with communism, was an active member of the CCF, then later became enamoured of William “Bible Bill” Aberhart and his Social Credit monetary policies.
When she ran for a seat in the legislature, that lack of rigid ideology came back to haunt her. She attempted to run as a compromise candidate, appealing to both CCF and Social Credit voters. Instead, she ended up splitting the left-wing vote, and disillusioning labour supporters
She advocated fiercely for the rights of Chinese and Sikh immigrants, fought to raise the “relief ” rates, fought to maintain Edmonton’s streetcar system, and championed the rights of women, including advocating more liberal divorce laws.
who were baffled by her new Socred leanings.
Frustrated politically, she left Edmonton and worked as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. Privately, she was fighting a very different battle. In her 1930s, she was diagnosed with a severe case of Cushing’s syndrome, which affected her pituitary and adrenal glands. The condition sapped her energy, and led to depression. According to Crang’s nephew, Edgar Allin, a retired doctor, it also caused severe osteoarthritis, hunching her spine. From a height of five-foot-seven, she shrunk to less than five feet.
“She went from being quite an attractive woman to a much modified, less attractive individual,” he says.
The condition became so severe, Crang’s family feared for her life. They finally took her to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, where George Thorn, the world’s leading authority on diseases of the adrenal gland, was physician-in-chief. There, Crang bravely became a pioneer of a different sort. Allin says his aunt became the first person to survive a bilateral adrenalectomy — the removal of both glands. The surgery saved her life, but she never truly regained her health or energy — or as she later complained, her libido.
For a time, she lived with her older sister, Florence, and her family back in Garneau.
“She was hard to live with and rather messy,” her niece Shirley Moen recalls. “She lived in her housecoat. We’d be having guests over and she’d come downstairs to join us in her ratty old dressing gown, even though my mother had given her nice dressing gowns.”
But Edgar Allin, Moen’s brother, has fonder memories of their aunt and the stories she told about her love affairs and her Spanish adventures.
“Margaret had a rather bad temper and I don’t think she was very fond of children. But I had some very interesting conversations with her when I was a teenager. She was very uninhibited in what she would talk about.”
Crang spent her later years in Vancouver, where she remained passionately interested in politics, especially the politics of China. And she never quite lost her ability to shock. In about 1973, Moen remembers taking her own children to Vancouver to visit their greataunt. Crang offered Moen’s 14-year-old son a beer. When the startled teen declined, the mischievous Crang offered him some pot, from the marijuana plants she was growing on her kitchen windowsill.
But despite such flashes of puckish humour, the beautiful athletic woman, the unstoppable firebrand, was gone forever.
“Once, she told me, she went for a walk in Vancouver. She looked over on her right and saw this odd, gnome-like little person walking beside her. Then she realized it was her reflection,” says Allin.
Yet the real reflection of Crang’s life is the society she helped to shape. Today, there are four strong women on Edmonton city council. The premier and the leader of opposition are women. Female law students outnumber their male classmates. And many of the radical policies Crang championed — welfare, universal health care, equal rights for Asian immigrants — have become core Canadian values. Some of her political enthusiasms, to be sure, have not withstood the test of history. Yet without Crang, and her generation of social revolutionaries, we would not have the country we have today.
Still, her family is surprised and pleased to learn the city is proposing to name a park for their remarkable aunt and cousin.
“I think she would have been delighted. And so am I,” says nephew Edgar Allin.
It will be some time before Margaret Crang Park comes to be. Its location still needs to be approved by city council, the subdivision still has to be built. In the meantime, Nachtigall, chair of the city’s naming committee, is delighted to see Crang’s story being told.
“We in Edmonton need to know our characters. It’s good when people dig into things and find out these stories. It’s good to dig into our past. These stories are little treasures, that help us to understand more about our history.”
Certainly, with a new civic election season upon us, it’s a perfect time to remember the importance of city councillors with convictions, who fight with passion to make this a better city. psimons@edmontonjournal. com Twitter.com/Paulatics Paula Simons is on Facebook. To join the conversation, go to www. facebook.com/ EJPaulaSimons or visit her blog at edmontonjournal. com/Paulatics edmontonjournal. com To see more archival photos and to read the original text of Margaret Crang’s fiery 1934 radio address, courtesy the Provincial Archives of Alberta, go to edmontonjournal.com/insight