Frances E. Wright BA, BJ, LLD (hon)
Frances Wright is a tireless ambassador for grass-roots social justice and nation building. She approaches each new challenge with a contagious passion for strengthening democracy and a determination to bring a voice to those not often heard.
“One of the successes of the Famous 5 Foundation is that it has energized Canadians about our history. It has helped us realize that when we make major strides in terms of social justice, those strides affect not only us, but also other countries. As a result, people look at Canada as a beacon. That’s why we have to be stronger and more progressive and kinder and serve as an example for the rest of the world.”
Frances Elizabeth Wright was born in East London, South Africa. Her mother, a Canadian, wanted to return to Canada, so in 1953 when Frances was six, the family left South Africa under the guise of vacationing in England. But when South African authorities learned the truth, the family’s assets were frozen and turned over to the state to discourage other white families from leaving. After first visiting the Niagara region, and then Regina, the family ultimately chose Calgary. All the while, Frances’ parents taught their children the importance of being good citizens and good neighbours.
Frances remembers kids in school calling her a “DP” — displaced person, immigrant, not a true Canadian. As a result, she learned quickly how to fit in, including adopting a Canadian accent. The experience convinced Frances to be grateful to Canada and to assume her responsibility to help make it better for others.
After attending the University of Calgary for her Bachelor of Arts and Carleton University for a Bachelor of Journalism (with honours), Frances tried her hand at various careers, including journalist, stockbroker, communications consultant and entrepreneur. Along with her husband Richard Pootmans, she owned and operated six successful PORTS International clothing stores for 10 years.
In 1996, Frances and friends established the Famous 5 Foundation (F5F), an organization that drove a movement to finally recognize the five democratic champions from Alberta who worked tirelessly to ensure that women were enfranchised and legally recognized as persons.
Frances and the F5F launched a number of projects to raise awareness about the Famous 5 and the role they played in building Canada. In tribute to the 70th Anniversary of the ‘Persons’ Case, F5F installed larger-than-life bronze monuments — called Women Are Persons! — in Olympic Plaza in Calgary on October 18, 1999, and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on October 18, 2000. Together, the monuments are the largest art installation in Canada.
Recognizing that most Canadians knew little about the Famous 5’s role in Canadian history, F5F also partnered with the Girl Guides of Canada to promote the 70th Anniversary of the ‘Persons’ Case. In each provincial legislature, Girl Guides spoke in front of the Speaker of the House, the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, and other dignitaries and guests, raising awareness among lawmakers and the public alike.
Frances persuaded Canada Post to create a Famous 5 stamp and the Bank of Canada to issue a $50 banknote featuring the Famous 5, making it the first time identifiable Canadian women would appear on Canadian banknotes. To celebrate the 80th Anniversary of the ‘Persons’ Case, she convinced the Senate of Canada to declare the Famous 5 as Honourary Senators, the first and only time such a declaration has been made. More than two decades after it was established, the F5F’s mandate remains to educate, advocate and celebrate women’s successes, and to inspire Canadian youth to become nation builders.
Later, Frances found herself remembering a request made at the launch of the F5F and comments she’d heard during the partnership with the Girl Guides. Fathers who’d heard their daughters speak eloquently in the legislatures observed that the anthem they’d sung together did not include their daughters. It did not encourage the girls to be nation builders, to be politicians, to be citizens engaged in helping to make their nation better. Why? Because of these lyrics: “True patriot love, in all thy sons command.”
Ever the feminist, Frances’ commitment to Canadian values led her to another successful campaign: to restore O Canada to its original inclusive lyrics. Written in the early 1900s, the initial O Canada lyrics were, "True patriot love, thou dost in us command,” but they were changed to encourage military recruitment with the advent of World War I. It took 22 years of negotiation, advocacy and patience, but Frances and a team of supporters succeeded on January 31, 2018. Thanks to her leadership, Canada’s girls and women are now included in the national anthem as we sing, “True patriot love in all of us command.”
“We just changed two little words,” says Frances. “I think it heralds a whole new era of men and women building Canada together.”
The F5F and the anthem debate reveal the depth of Frances’ commitment to a cause. Knowing that many factors contribute to building healthy, equal and just communities, she has dedicated her time and talents to more than 25 boards and committees over the past four decades, all focused on building community through everything from health to politics, business and advancing the role of women. Just a few of those organizations include the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research, Equal Voice Alberta South, the Mount Royal Village Merchants Association and the International Women’s Forum Calgary.
Most recently, Frances has been moved to act by a startling statistic: at least one in six men has been sexually assaulted before the age of 18 and there are only three dedicated treatment centres in Canada. In response, Frances launched the Canadian Centre for Male Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse in 2012. The centre’s vision is to create a world-class treatment centre in Calgary to address the complex issues faced by abused, traumatized men who have been underserved and stigmatized in society.
Frances believes the most important messages for these men to hear are that they are not alone, they will be believed and healing is possible.
Given her profound achievements and life-long dedication to community service, Frances is the grateful recipient of a number of awards, including the Governor General’s Award for the Commemoration of the Persons Case and the Rotary Integrity Award, as well as the Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, and the Alberta Centennial Medal. She has been recognized by the Women’s Executive Network as one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women, and in 2014, the University of Calgary bestowed her with an Honourary Doctor of Laws degree.
Frances maintains that any success she has had relies directly on people who have joined her in working together to make a difference, including her wonderful family and friends. “The word ‘Frances’ no longer means just ‘Frances.’ It means ‘Frances and friends,’” she laughs.
“I've wanted to show my gratitude to Canada for letting us live in Calgary and to do what we wanted to do. It’s important, though, that we not think only about ourselves. We must consider the bigger issues. And we must particularly be aware of those who don't have a voice or who can't speak freely. We need to move their agendas forward, too.”
Frances has said, “I want to build a better nation.” Armed with her tenacity, her leadership, her commitment to social justice and a contact list decades in the making, she has inspired a new generation of trailblazers and courageous leaders who are working toward a more equal society — together. Like the Famous 5 pledge, she has “felt equal to high and splendid braveries!”
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