COUTTS, RACHEL JEFFREY, teacher and social reformer; b. 10 Oct. 1863 in Tilbury East Township, Upper Canada, (Chatham-Kent, Ont.), daughter of John Coutts and Rachel Young; d. unmarried 1 Aug. 1940 in Calgary and was buried there in Burnsland Cemetery.
The families of Rachel Coutts’s parents emigrated from Scotland to Kent County, Upper Canada – the Coutts clan in the early 1830s and the Youngs the following decade. Her father, John, taught school but left the profession to marry his student Rachel Young, who was from an influential family in the area. The couple operated a prosperous farm, and John served the county as treasurer and school trustee. Rachel Jeffrey, the sixth in a family of five girls and six boys, grew up in a closely knit Presbyterian household supported by many Scottish-Canadian relatives. Her father, described in a family history as “shrewd, practical, frugal and thrifty,” impressed upon his children the values of industry and fair dealing. Their mother focused attention on the family’s “moral and spiritual welfare,” demonstrating “piety, unselfishness, generosity and sincerity.” No beggar who came to their door was turned away without receiving a meal or lodging. “If there was a lack of room in the house, horse rugs were provided in the hayloft. Friendless women were kept in the house for months.”
Rachel learned the importance of education, women’s work, Christian service, advocacy, and democracy. Quiet and studious, she attended the schoolhouse on her father’s property and then continued her education in nearby Chatham as well as Galt (Cambridge). Upon graduation from the Ottawa Normal School, she returned home to teach in Chatham. After her widowed father’s death in 1888, she left for Winnipeg to further her career. She boarded with her sister and brother-in-law, Marion Young and William A. Carson, until they relocated in 1898 to the rapidly growing town of Calgary [see James Walker], where William would run a flour-milling operation and become a prominent businessman. Coutts was offered a job at Calgary’s Central School in 1900, the 13th person to be hired for the city’s teaching staff, and lived with the Carsons and their children. She later moved with them to their elegant residence at 526 4th Avenue West (4th Avenue South West), where she would remain, surrounded by members of her extended family, for the rest of her life.
For 33 years Rachel Coutts devoted herself to education, instructing primarily sixth-grade pupils and developing a special interest in art and girls’ sports. During her first decade in Calgary, its rapid expansion continued and the student population grew elevenfold. In 1907 she transferred from Central School to South Ward School, soon renamed Haultain in honour of politician Frederick William Gordon Haultain*. In 1917 she would accept a position at Stanley Jones School, where she later became vice-principal. Coutts expressed her belief that, for some children, book learning was too abstract and strenuous, leading to high dropout rates. “Still year after year we persist in setting out the same bill of fare for their mental nourishment,” she wrote. “This hardly seems reasonable.… All children cannot be put through the same educational mill.” She proposed that the self-respect and potential contribution of some might be better developed if they were given opportunities for “using their hands in constructing and working with ‘real things,’” as had once been the case in homes, on farms, and through apprenticeships.
Coutts was considered conscientious and hard-working. In a 1918 report to the superintendent, her principal noted that she “takes a profound interest in humanity and is entirely devoid of selfishness,” a comment that reflected her orientation outside the classroom as well as within it. She served as the founding president of the Calgary Woman Teachers’ Association, which had been organized in 1913 to assist with Annie Graham Foote*’s campaign to become Calgary’s first female school trustee; she was elected the following year. Coutts also joined the executive of the Calgary Teachers’ Alliance, set up in October 1914 to safeguard teachers’ interests. She brought her viewpoint to the Calgary Public Teachers Local of the Alberta Teachers’ Alliance [see John Walker Barnett*] and was on the first elected executive of the provincial body from 1918 to 1919. As well, she participated in the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation in 1920, the first World Conference of Educationalists in the Netherlands, and in 1927 and 1931 she attended the sessions of the World Federation of Education Associations (WFEA), held respectively in Toronto and Denver, Colo. In a detailed report published in the September 1927 issue of ATA Magazine (Edmonton), she enthusiastically described the WFEA gathering as a “valiant and well-co-ordinated attempt of leading spirits” from several nations to collaborate on educating for peace. By introducing to their classrooms facts and stories about different cultures, its members hoped to “develop in their pupils a feeling of good-will for the people of other countries.” For Coutts there was an urgency: “National danger now lies in the fear each nation has of the others. It, therefore, behoves us to look for security in friendships rather than in war-ships; in world courts, not armaments; in international good-will, not in poison gas; not in planes bearing explosives, but in bridges of peace over which we can extend the hand of friendship.”
In 1906 her sister Marion Carson and her fellow teacher Alpha Maude Riley [Keen*], with assistance from Coutts and others, founded the Anti-Tuberculosis Society and built Alberta’s first tuberculosis sanitarium, completed in 1911. With Marion, Coutts championed reforms, especially those of concern to women, in municipal politics and community organizations. Both passionate readers, the sisters became lifelong members of the Calgary branch of the Women’s Literary Club, which first met in 1906, and they sat on the Calgary Public Library’s building committee. As part of the Civic Committee set up by the Local Council of Women, in December 1912 Coutts helped launch a forum for women’s right to vote and joined the Calgary Suffrage Society, giving a lecture on “Equal work for equal value.” The society’s contributions, along with those of more than 20 other philanthropic, educational, and patriotic women’s institutions, were noted by the local branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club [see Katherine Angelina Hughes*] in its 1913 publication promoting Calgary.
Calgary’s labour movement and events leading up to World War I spurred Coutts’s commitment to socialism and pacifism. In 1913 she and Marion left Knox Presbyterian Church for the recently established First Unitarian Church of Calgary, which had a progressive women’s alliance. Three years later socialist William Irvine* became the minister and he soon found able partners in Coutts and Carson. As champions of disadvantaged groups, they lent their organizational, networking, and writing skills to his projects, including the Nutcracker, Calgary’s first labour paper, established in late 1916. Serving as secretary of the Unity Club, set up to further Unitarianism locally, Coutts submitted a resolution published in the Voice (Winnipeg) on 27 July 1917. It announced opposition to Ottawa’s passing of a bill to conscript men rather than wealth, which for returning soldiers would mean “the injustice of bearing the double burden of fighting the foe on the battlefield and paying for the war, including interest on war bonds.” The Unity Club therefore endorsed a general strike “to make [the government] realize that the producer [i.e., the worker] is the all-important factor in any country, and that his opinion should receive consideration.” When Irvine launched the Calgary People’s Forum, which was modelled on James Shaver Woodsworth*’s Winnipeg People’s Forum and which had the support of the Calgary Trades and Labor Council led by Elmer Ernest Roper*, Coutts became its president for 1917–18. As she wrote in the Western Independent, “The Forum is a working class movement which … stands emphatically for freedom of speech and expression,” a principle followed in the 35 lectures she would organize. During a meeting at the Carsons’ home, Irvine, stonemason Alexander Ross, Coutts, her sister and brother-in-law, and others created the Labour Representation League (LRL) to contest the 1917 Alberta provincial election, Irvine being their candidate. The LRL advocated sweeping reforms based on socialist ideals, covering issues that ranged from the franchise to pensions for returned soldiers. Irvine lost to Thomas Henry Blow, who took the seat for Calgary South.
The sisters called themselves pacifists, and although they were never blacklisted for anti-war activities, many friends and colleagues shunned them. To decry the federal government’s conscription policy, which was upheld by Alberta politicians Arthur Lewis Watkins Sifton* and his brother, Sir Clifford*, and to demand economic justice for veterans and their wives and widows, the two women worked with Ann Jane McWilliam [Blaney*] and others to set up the Next-of-Kin Association. As Coutts emphasized in a letter to the editor of the Voice (7 Sept. 1917), the “charity stigma that selling tags and like methods of raising funds for patriotic purposes brings is an odium that no soldier or soldier’s dependent should be allowed to endure.” The newspaper reprinted the association’s petition to Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden, in which he was urged to conscript wealth in order to pay for the war and assist those who had sacrificed so much. Within weeks the sisters mourned the death of the Carsons’ son James McDonald, who was killed at the battle of Passchendaele [see Sir Arthur William Currie]. After the war they contributed to the formation of the Calgary Peace Society, aligned themselves with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and continued to call for a new social and economic order.
In April 1919 Coutts and teaching colleague Edith Patterson were welcomed to the executive of the Calgary-based Dominion Labor Party (DLP), which had evolved from the LRL and would form the nucleus of the Canadian Labour Party. During the general strike that began in Winnipeg [see Mike Sokolowiski*] and spread to Calgary, Coutts assisted with the organization of the Calgary Defence League and the Women’s Labor Council (soon renamed the Women’s Labor League). She was also among those who helped Irvine start the People’s Labour Church in April 1920, shortly after he had resigned from First Unitarian Church. She gave addresses to the DLP’s Women’s Branch, wrote articles for publication, and worked in the background to support the political aspirations of Patterson and Amelia Turner*. She herself never ran for public office.
Rachel Coutts retired from teaching in August 1933 at age 69, after which she continued her commitment to social progress as a promoter of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. She remained a liberal Christian; following the collapse of Calgary’s Unitarian church, she returned to Knox, which had become part of the United Church of Canada in 1925 [see Clarence Dunlop Mackinnon]. Few portraits of Coutts exist, but in a family history her great-nephew recalled his tall, slender, and well-groomed aunt, who wore “a purple choker ribbon around her neck instead of a necklace.” For her exceptional service to the teaching profession and Calgarians, Rachel Coutts received the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in May 1935, an award she richly deserved for her years of dedication.
The author wishes to thank Richard Staples Carson for making available family documents: the genealogy “Descendants of John Coutts” (n.p., n.d.) and an unpublished manuscript titled “Richard David Coutts: born March 27th, 1869 – died Sept. 3rd, 1934” (n.p., n.d.).
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