Sutherlands River sisters help shape British Columbia


Published on August 10, 2014
Jessie and Annie McQueen

Nation building is defined as creating a strong sense of national identity and the unification of its people. Pictou County has had its fair share of individuals who could easily be considered “nation builders.”

Men, women and children of all walks of life have dedicated themselves to make our nation of Canada one of the best countries in the world to live. While many historians generally attribute nation building achievements to men, “women’s roles although sometime subtle, were equally important in creating our nation.”

Annie and Jessie McQueen of Sutherlands River were called nation builders. Their “experiences as teachers played a critical role in domesticating the British Columbia frontier and making that province a part of Canada. Young women, like the McQueens, were particularly important in familiarizing B.C. with the accepted outlooks and practices in places in longer-established areas of the country.”

The province of British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871 and was just 16 years old when Annie received an invitation from the Rev. John Chisholm about a teaching job in the Nicola Valley. Rev. Chisholm was from Nova Scotia and a very good friend of the McQueen family. Annie was interested, especially the money offered in British Columbia. In her native province of Nova Scotia, wages were slow in progressing, she would earn about $45-$75 per term. In B.C. the salary offered was considerably more at $50-$60 per month. As many Maritimers of this time period found, the offer was too good to pass up.

British Columbia history merits much of its 19th century success to the large number of Nova Scotians in the religious and education professions. “No occupations played more pivotal roles during these years, by virtue of possessing bases of authority, to their settings, than did teaching and preaching.”

By the late 1880s statistics show that one in 12 non-aboriginal British Columbians were born in the Maritime Provinces. From the mid-1860s to early 1900s, Maritimers were leaving in droves for other parts of United States and Canada. “Out-migration was strongly motivated by economic reasons.” Many from Nova Scotia and Pictou County took their honesty, talents and hard work ethic with them and became very successful. The McQueens were brought up with a strong Presbyterian background where religion, responsibility and morality took centre stage in everyday life.

Miss Annie McQueen left Pictou County and arrived in the Nicola Valley in 1887. This interior of British Columbia was booming: ranchers, loggers, prospectors, merchants and business people were settling the district and increasing the population daily. Schools had been established in most populated frontier regions and rural areas of the province since the Public Schools Act was passed in 1872. Its objective was “to give every child in the province such knowledge as will fit him to become a useful and intelligent citizen in after years.”

Annie fit this purpose very well, coming from the small rural community of Sutherlands River – so much so she enticed her older sister Jessie to “sojourn” out to the Nicola Valley and start teaching in a neighbouring school nine months later. The two sisters had every intention just to stay a couple of years, enough to make some money because “at various times they were called upon to supplement the family coffers with their earnings.”

Their everyday experiences as teachers and community members were reported by letter writing to their parents and siblings back in Nova Scotia. In the beginning of their British Columbia adventures, they were scribing four to five letters a week describing everything from “male courting procedures” to the First Nations people of the area. Nothing was missed or went unreported.

The two sisters eventually would find their own separate lives. Annie would marry James Gordon of Kamloops and have three children and live out her life in British Columbia. She would leave teaching, enter “public life as a reformer, and, in 1919, became the provincial director of the Home Branch of the Soldiers Settlement Board.”

Jessie would return home to Pictou County and care for her “aging parents and mentally ill sister.”

The lives of Annie, Jessie and the McQueen family are fantastically kept by archives, books, plays, university papers, documents, websites and historical articles. Jean Barman’s, 2003 book, Sojourning Sisters: The Lives and Letters of Jessie and Annie McQueen, “is a vivid biographical portrait of their lives. It documents and analyzes lives of “common Canadians” and teaches historians about our country, its people, and its ideological perspective.” (Can be accessed online)

Another publication about the McQueen family of Sutherlands River is Simple Annals – The Story of the McQueens of Sutherlands River, written by Relief Williams McKay, grandniece of Annie and Jessie.

Both of these publications can be borrowed from our local Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library.

The McQueen Family Letters is a well designed and easy-to-manoeuvre web site. This collection of historical correspondences and learning resources is presented by Atlantic Canada Virtual Archives. The presentation is a joint initiative of Margaret Conrad, Canada Research Chair of Atlantic Canada Studies and University of New Brunswick.



John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.