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Tribute to Jean Forsyth

Jean Forsyth has been described as a “clever musician, talented vocalist, and prominent society woman” and is credited with the establishment of The Winnipeg Humane Society — the first of its kind organized in Western Canada

by Gail Kreutzer

It was in reading award-winning Canadian biographer Elspeth Cameron’s most recent book, “Aunt Winnie,” where I first learned about Jean Forsyth and her participation in the formation of The Winnipeg Humane Society (WHS). I contacted the author to obtain further information that would assist in updating the historical records of The WHS. Thanks to Ms. Cameron, the material that she shared became the motivation for my continued research on the life of this fascinating woman (who incidentally, was Ms. Cameron’s great-great aunt). “Vitality, vivacity, and having the joy of living” is a true depiction of this genuinely amazing individual.

Miss Forsyth was born in Chatham, Ontario, attended school in Toronto, and studied abroad. She was a pupil at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England, trained in “classical and operatic singing in Paris,” and studied in New York with George Sweet, a well-known teacher who worked with most of the prominent singers of that city. For a time, she lived in Detroit and sang in one of the best ‘quartette’ choirs, and performed as a soloist for the Reformed Jewish Synagogue and the Detroit Musical and Harmonic Society. In 1893 she arrived in Winnipeg to take position of leading soprano soloist at Grace Church Choir, one of Canada’s foremost church singing organizations, under the leadership of James Tees.

Having an intense passion for an issue and the right connections are important components to develop a successful organization. Jean Forsyth had both. She was able to bring together like-minded individuals necessary to form the first Humane Society in Winnipeg, and as Elspeth Cameron makes reference to in her book – “Woe betide the person caught by her ill-treating a horse or dog” – it was clearly evident that she had a deep concern and affection for animals.

The Winnipeg Humane Society adopted its constitution in 1894. Memberships were set at one dollar for adults and 25 cents for children 15 and under. In the first year of operation, the Society had a total of 113 adults members and two juvenile members. Records indicate that a total of $51 was collected by Jean Forsyth and another board member in 1900 and $12 submitted by Jean Forsyth in 1903. Whether through donations, fundraising, or both, these contributions were a considerate sum of money for the times.

In reporting on the Society’s annual meetings, the Manitoba Free Press cites two occurrences where Jean Forsyth was given credit for its existence. While on the board of the Winnipeg Humane Society, she served in the capacity of Vice President and as Secretary, and was a member of the Executive Committee, Membership and Finance Committee, and the Committee on Cruelty. With her background in the performing arts, she recognized the importance of incorporating a social element as part of annual meetings of the Society. Thus, it was only natural that she organized the entertainment.

The Society, like the WHS of today, was interested in the humane treatment related to domestic animals. Concerns raised included: a greasy pig chase, the slaughter of 4,000 rabbits on Thanksgiving Day in Morden, and fowl being overcrowded in boxes. Reports on the inhumane treatment of dogs included people riding their bicycles too fast while their dogs were exhaustively chasing behind, reports of small dogs being left out in the cold, and in one instance a dog being set on fire. One account included checking up on thin, hungry and thirsty dogs at the city pound while the pound keeper was away on a “shoot.”

During this era, horses were a primary focus of concern for the Society as well. This is not surprising since they were used as beasts of burden and as a major form of transportation. The city used horses as a part of its transportation system including the pulling of street cats and fire engines. Common recurring issues included use of vile and profane language and brutal treatment during training of animals, the old and diseased being turned out to linger and die, overloading of horses and working while lame, excessive whipping, abuses such as being beaten and stabbed with a fork and horses tied to posts and left for lengthy periods of time during severe weather. The city was not immune to the Society’s scrutiny. Reports regularly included concerns about the poor condition of the horses owned and used by the city.

In 1895, the Society wanted to expand a program it had initiated called the “Humane Education of Mercy”, to children in city schools. One such school offered it as an option and board members were trying to make this available to all the schools in Winnipeg. However, a lack of funds prevented the Society from performing its educational work and its ability to circulate informative literature.

In addition to the prevention of cruelty to animals, the Society was at this time known for its protection of children. They questioned the use of young boys driving the delivery wagons. A report was provided on the case of a blind orphan where the father had died and the mother was placed in a “Home for the Incurables.” In one other instance, a three-year-old girl, living with her aunt and uncle, was badly beaten and bruised. Once her bruises had healed, she was sent back to live with her father. The Society took these occurrences very seriously and delved into these matters with great conviction.

Jean Forsyth was also part of Winnipeg’s social set, attending many prominent city balls and functions such as receptions at Government House. She frequently participated in teas, euchre parties (on two occasions winning first prize – and ebony and silver hairbrush at one event and a Crown Derby cup and saucer at another) and musicales that were hosted at private homes. These events were considered newsworthy and received coverage in the social pages of the Winnipeg Tribune and the Manitoba Free Press. The list of guests along with a description of women’s attire would be noted. For example, at one euchre tournament Jean Forsyth was described wearing “a dress of apple green silk with stripe of white satin and trimmed with green chiffon.” It was also newsworthy to report who the married attendees were at these social events – “all were unmarried guests with the exception of…”

Miss Forsyth participated both as a soloist and accompanist in many performances and benefit concerts. Venues included the Bijou Opera House, considered one of the most popular entertainment centres in the city, Hotel Manitoba, various churches throughout the city (most notably Holy Trinity Church), and a concert at Island Park in Portage la Prairie in celebration of the Queen’s birthday. She received many accolades for her talent with reviews often making mention of encores for her performances. One review by the Winnipeg Tribune stated, “No better accompanist than Miss Jean Forsyth can be found in this city; that is for sure.”

While living in Winnipeg she resided in an apartment in the beautiful Cauchon Block, renamed the Assiniboine Block, and later converted to the Empire Hotel. It was initially used for retail and office space. When many of the retail spaces became empty, a new use for the building needed to be found so it was changed into an apartment dwelling. It was at this apartment where Jean Forsyth offered vocal instruction classes. She also travelled weekly from her residence to Portage la Prairie to provide lessons in vocal culture. Of three fires that plagued this apartment dwelling, it was the second one in December of 1885 that became tragic, with three people losing their lives. Jean Forsyth was listed as one of the people who had successfully been evacuated. Despite these tragedies, the building was ultimately returned to its former splendor.

Reviews of her students’ recitals always praised her teaching ability. A review of one such recital stated that, “the pupils, one and all, acquitted themselves capitally, evidencing that they had been capably trained; indeed, no other vocal teacher in the city has made so excellent a showing as Miss Forsyth, several of those whom she trained being now the occupants of enviable positions in the vocal world.”

One of her students was the famous Manitoba-born contralto Miss Edith J. Miller. Later, as a result of this association, Jean Forsyth accompanied the Edith J. Miller Company on several of their performing tours. According to the Victoria Colonist paper, “Miss Jean Forsyth the accompanist with the Miller Company is certainly one of the best in Canada. Being a vocalist herself she is able to appreciate and interpret the aim of the composer and give the singer the proper support at the proper time.”

Despite the rigors of being on tour, the devotion to her pet dog was always evident. “Miss Forsyth is well, but I fear she misses her dog. She pets all the dogs she meets in the hotels,” reported musician and music critic, Charles Wheeler of Winnipeg. “Poor ‘Billy,’ he missed a great trip but I could not undertake to manage a dog even if he were musical.”

From Winnipeg, Jean Forsyth later moved to Edmonton where she was a founder of the Women’s Musical Club, a member of the Executive Committee of the Alberta Music Festival, and accepted the position of vocal teacher of Alberta College. She became involved with the Amateur Operative Society where she directed the Gilbert and Sullivan opera “Patience,” performed at the Edmonton Opera House, and also played the part of Lady Constance in the opera “The Geisha.” Just like she had in Winnipeg, she also played a prominent role in the work of the Edmonton Humane Society and served on its board of directors.

In 1910, she opened the Blue Moon Tea Room, a place where the social world of Edmonton evolved. The team room played host to many ‘dansants’ (informal and small dances), meetings and social functions of various city organizations, church services for the Unitarian Church and regular New Thought lectures. Nellie McClung (1917), social reformist responsible for getting women the vote, gave an address to women electors at the Blue Moon Tea Room on how she believed women electors would win the upcoming election for the Liberal party. Being the animal lover that Jean Forsyth was, all guests were welcome at the tea room. According to an Edmonton Journal article, “When Miss Forsyth came in to join friends at tea her devoted animals used to follow her in. Berry, a black collie from Dawson, Zip, a tan collie rescued from the street, Mischa, her famous black cat and a tamed parakeet.”

Culture also abounded in the many displays within the walls of the tea room, which included the towels to be sent as a convocation gift for Queen Mary, rareĀ  and seed pearl jewelry, an exhibition and sale of the Arts and Handicrafts Guild and a display and sale of fine linens and laces imported from Ireland.

Jean Forsyth was also known for her writing and journalistic talents. She served as a member of the Edmonton Women’s Press Club, which hosted functions such as luncheons for famous writers. For a time she was the editor of the ‘Milady’s Page,’ a social and personal page of the Edmonton Capital newspaper and she was loved for her work as “Celeste,” covering social and musical events in another local Edmonton newspaper.

Jean Forsyth died on New Year’s Day 1933 at the age of 82. In announcing her passing, The Edmonton Bulletin described her as “one of the most charming and talented women who ever came to Edmonton.” The same article goes on the say that, “Her great love of animals was one of her bets known characteristics, and she founded the Humane Society in Winnipeg. Until the time of her death she took the keenest interest in the activities of the branch in Edmonton, and her beautiful dogs were at one time the marvel and joy of Edmonton. No social function, no dramatic or musical comedy presentation was complete without her delightful spirit.”

When I think of Jean Forsyth, a quote by researcher Jane Goodall comes to mind – “You have the choice to use the gift of your life to make the world a better place. One cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decided what kind of difference you want to make.” The difference she made is clearly apparent. The Winnipeg Humane Society has a new $14 million state-of-the-art facility and continues to be a strong voice for animal welfare. This is possible through the financial support of its donors, and the dedication of approximately 120 employees and over 800 volunteers. Jean Forsyth strove to make the world a better place and she left a positive legacy that is still living on, 120 years later.

Gail Kreutzer is a former board member of The WHS. She presently serves as a member of the Farm Animal Compassion Committee of the Society.