Memories of the Women’s Branch

You might be surprised to learn that in the early postwar period there were two branches of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs (CIIA, now the Canadian International Council) in Ottawa: a Men’s Branch and a Women’s Branch. The Toronto CIIA was similarly divided by gender. Recently two stalwart members of the Ottawa Women’s Branch, Sheila Nelles and Helen Small, sat down to reminisce about the role it played in their lives when they were young public servants in Ottawa.

Helen, fresh from studying History at Queen’s and the University of Toronto, was hired by the legendary Robert Bryce to be the Treasury Board’s first woman officer (at a salary of $2400 a year!) in 1950. Somewhat later Sheila, a law graduate from the University of British Columbia, became a Foreign Service officer. She would be posted to Poland and then to the International Control Commission in Vietnam. Helen was at one time treasurer of the Branch; Sheila served as president. It is noteworthy that they belonged to the first generation of women officers not strictly required to resign from government when they were married, though marriage and children eventually took them away from Branch activities. (As one said, “You had to think twice about the expense of hiring a babysitter.”) Helen accompanied her Foreign Service husband to various posts abroad and later worked for the Parliamentary Centre for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade and the Applebaum-Hébert Commission on federal cultural policy. Sheila, while attending to her growing family, accompanied her husband on his posting to London and later, having returned to government, was herself posted to London as a policy advisor to the delegation to the International Maritime Organization and as counsellor to the High Commission.

In the fifties Canadians were becoming conscious of their independent role in the world. There were new international organizations, pre-eminently the United Nations, with exciting potential. At the same time, the Iron Curtain divided the Soviet Union and its satellites from the West, each side possessing a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. Members of the Women’s Branch were particularly concerned about the Korean War, in which Canadian troops were fighting, and by the prospect that China, having recently installed Mao Zedong in power, might support the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia. The Branch attracted members with a serious intent to broaden and deepen their understanding of these questions. They were mostly professional women and, interestingly, they came from all over the government, not just from the Department of External Affairs.

Helen and Sheila recall that the Branch numbered 30-35 members. They met five or six times a year, with a usual attendance in the neighbourhood of twenty. Members might also participate in the annual CIIA conference, which was held as part of the Learned Societies gathering every spring.

Visiting speakers were usually given dinner before the meetings, which were held under Chatham House Rules. The women did periodically join forces with the Men’s Branch. (On one such occasion a minor crisis was caused when Claude Isbister, a deputy minister in several departments, ordained that the menu for the pre-meeting dinner would feature brains!) In those days Ottawa did not offer a plethora of meeting venues, much less decent restaurants. Meetings were held sometimes at the Rideau Club (then on Wellington Street, opposite the Parliament Buildings), sometimes at the old Chelsea Club, occasionally even in the premises of a construction association. A dashing Duke of Devonshire, then a junior minister in Harold Macmillan’s UK government, is one speaker who sticks in the mind.

Of course, it was the personalities that made it so worthwhile to participate in the Women’s Branch. It must have been stimulating to listen to shrewd, incisive interventions from members such as Sylva Gelber, a veteran of Zionist struggles in newly born Israel and a future director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labour, and Beryl Plumptre, long-time president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada and later chair of the Food Prices Review Board (and national chair of the CIIA). Other members whose names would be familiar to Ottawa citizens of that era were Beth Bertram (National Film Board), Dorothy Bishop (a Lisgar Collegiate teacher), Mary Q. Dench (External Affairs), O. Mary Hill (historian of the Department of Trade and Commerce), Pauline Jewett (later a university president and M.P.) and Kate Lawson.

Neither Helen nor Sheila was on the scene when the Men’s and Women’s Branches amalgamated to form what is now the CIC’s National Capital Branch. Neither recalls discussions characterized by aggressive feminism and it is likely that the merger was approached as a strictly practical matter. The women had exhibited considerable seriousness of purpose, shorn of stridency and axes to grind, in sustaining an organization devoted to thinking about international affairs. Doubtless they viewed combining the two branches as a means of doing this more effectively.

Sheila Nelles and Helen Small were interviewed by David Dyment and Gerald Wright, both past presidents of the National Capital Branch of the CIC.