Formidable Foster

The Star celebrates Nelson’s first female city councillor on International Women’s Day.

Annie Garland Foster (1875-1974). Before moving to Nelson in 1908

Annie Garland Foster (1875-1974). Before moving to Nelson in 1908

She was a force to be reckoned with.

When Annie Garland Foster ran for a Nelson city council seat in 1920, she’d already been named the first female principal of Hume School and served overseas as a war nurse.

She had first moved to Nelson in 1908, arriving at the CPR station in Railtown and ultimately marrying the editor of the Nelson Daily News, William Garland Foster. Tragedy struck when both of them were called to England during the First World War, and she returned a widow.

But that didn’t stop her from blazing a lonely trail that would culminate in an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1922.

“She’s kind of a wild person, without being a sparkling personality,” Nelson author Frances Welwood told the Star.

“Annie’s the finest example we’ve got, even to this day, of a strong woman. She was not the most interesting character, and she was a bit of a loner, but she was certainly formidable. She sallied forth and she was very, very committed to women and social justice.”

Foster would ultimately become Nelson’s first female city councillor, and according to historian Greg Nesteroff, she accomplished this at a time when that was virtually unheard of.

“If you look at all the pictures of the mayors and councillors in city hall, she sticks out amongst them because on top of being the first woman elected, the second one isn’t for another 30 years.”

To mark International Women’s Day, Touchstones Museum is celebrating Foster and other female trailblazers with an exhibit that includes material drawn from 15 boxes of archival materials recently contributed to Touchstones by the Nelson and District Women’s Centre.

And there’s lots to learn about Foster. Welwood was so intrigued by her story that she committed two decades to researching and writing Passing Through Missing Pages, a 2011 biography that details her eventful life and celebrates her impact on the Nelson community. It was a project she embarked on while working as a part-time law librarian in town.

“When I first set out to learn about her, it was just as background for an exhibit,” Welwood said.

“Then she took over my life for about 20 years. She’s fascinating. I quickly learned she had a story other than the fact she was just the first elected councillor, but nobody had bothered to find out about her.”

Eventually Welwood realized she had enough material for a book, and the more she researched the more she was floored by her discoveries.

She interviewed people who remembered Foster and pored through newspaper archives, piecing together the details of her life.

Foster went on to become a magazine writer and to write a biography of Mohawk princess Pauline Johnson. She continued her education and taught at institutions across the country, at one point remarrying and taking on the last name Hanley, and ultimately lived to be 99 years old.

Foster was known as a mental health advocate, having experienced the effects of war-time trauma firsthand, and was passionate about education. That being said, she didn’t like being called a suffragette.

“She was not your typical woman,” said Welwood. “She was certainly not a suffragette and she made sure people didn’t call her that, yet she stood for everything they stood for mainly in terms of medical, educational and social rights for women.”

Her legacy is still felt today.

“She set a high bar,” said Nesteroff.

“It wasn’t that she scraped into office. She set a high standard, and had a memorable run. She did a lot of work to help the fiscal balances of the street car system, which was running at a deficit.

“She was given that portfolio and they said ‘fix this’ then she was quite successful in doing so.”

In addition to celebrating the history of women in Nelson in general, the Touchstones exhibit specifically marks the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in 1917.