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"First Lady" of the Yukon

For the week of Monday October 25, 1999

On October 31, 1957, Martha Louise Black died at the age of 91. Raised according to conventions of the time, Martha's adventurous spirit made her life anything but traditional.

Martha Louise Black c.1931

Martha Louise Black c.1931
© LAC / C-81812

In 1898, word reached Chicago of the Klondike gold rush. Martha Louise Purdy, a prosperous socialite yearning for excitement, could not resist its pull. Leaving her two sons behind, she travelled to Dawson with her brother, undaunted by either her husband's desertion or the dangers of the journey. Martha persevered throughout the winter, giving birth to another son all alone and surviving an avalanche, to emerge in the spring a true Yukon "Sourdough"!

Falling in love with Yukon, she chose to remain, supporting herself and her children by working at her family's lumber mill. In 1904, Martha married a politically aspiring Canadian lawyer, becoming "Mrs. George Black." Changing from a patriotic Daughter of the Revolution into a devoted Daughter of the Empire, Martha threw herself into her new role as a British subject.

Martha enjoyed being provocative. As wife of Yukon's Commissioner, Martha defied tradition, welcoming not just the elite, but all Yukoners to Government House, even miners and former dance hall girls! In 1917, Martha refused to let her gender prevent her from accompanying her husband and sons to war, bullying officials into letting her travel aboard the SS Canada, the only woman among 3500 servicemen! In England, Martha comforted Yukon soldiers, becoming a substitute mother. She also gave lectures on her beloved Yukon, earning a Fellowship to the Royal Geographical Society.

Black's Residence, Dawson City

Black's Residence, Dawson City
© Parks Canada

Following the war, George became Yukon's MP, a position he held for 15 years before he resigned in 1935 due to illness. It was a longstanding joke that in the Yukon there were only "two political parties — the Liberals and the Blacks." Thus, her husband ill, Martha became his "political pinch-hitter." Nearly 70 years old, Martha was elected, becoming Canada's second woman in Parliament. In office, Martha spoke on behalf of women and the common Yukoner. She retired in 1940, when George had recovered enough to be re-elected.

A renowned amateur botanist, Martha's work illustrated the beauty of Yukon. She gathered and displayed 464 varieties of flowers, winning awards, and publishing the book Yukon Wild Flowers. In 1948, Martha Louise Black was awarded an Order of the British Empire for "cultural and social contributions to the Yukon." A person of national historic significance, she is recognized by a plaque in Dawson, Yukon.

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