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NICHOLAS MERCER: Tracking the daughters of empire

Bonnie White is a history professor at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. She is working on tracking the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire on the west coast of Newfoundland in the 1950s.
Bonnie White is a history professor at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. She is working on tracking the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire on the west coast of Newfoundland in the 1950s. - Nicholas Mercer

The yellow sheets of looseleaf taking up space on the desk are more akin to puzzle pieces than a space for essays.

They contain notes that try to answer questions about the west of the province and its involvement with a women’s group dedicated to the pursuits of imperialism in the early part of the century.

As separate pieces they don’t make much sense. Together, they’re all a part of helping Dr. Bonnie White discern the roots of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of Empire in Corner Brook and Deer Lake.

Inside her office in the middle of a hallway on the third floor of the Arts and Science Building at Grenfell Campus, White is doing her best to make sure those puzzles fit in a way that makes sense.

“The information about Newfoundland’s involvement is limited and at worse, incorrect,” said White, in front of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a United States service member passionately kissing a woman in the middle Times Square at the conclusion of the Second World War hanging on the wall just behind her right shoulder. “I’m on a fishing expedition looking for information.”

In the last couple of months, the Grenfell Campus history professor has been digging through old newspaper archives and other records in hopes of finding information on the west coast chapters of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.

The order’s Canadian website indicates the Elizabethan Chapter started in 1984, but White isn’t sure if that is fact or simply a clerical error.

Perhaps the chapters closed and another one re-opened in 1984, causing the discrepancy. She doesn’t have the answer, but she’s hoping to find out.

She’s been working with George French at the Corner Brook Museum and Archives, however, there are no tangible records of the order there. Neither are there any records of it at The Rooms in St. John’s.

White is hoping private collections hold the key to what she is looking for. That means people whose mothers or relatives would have served with the order from 1950 up until whenever they closed their doors.

This order is a women’s charitable organization that was established in 1900 in New Brunswick and designed to encourage imperialism. Chapters opened in Newfoundland shortly after the conclusion of the Boer War in 1899 and they last until 1930 when it disbands.

It opened again after Confederation in 1949 when several chapters open in St. John’s.

That’s when we start to see the island chapters move away from the national direction. Where the national group worked to combat communism, the Newfoundland chapters started inching closer to a British, and by extension an imperial, identity.

Canada heads towards the United States and Newfoundland continues on a path of British heritage.

White is a First World War historian. Taking a look at her office, that fact wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

The walls of her Grenfell Campus space are filled with memorabilia that are linked to that conflict and others.

Behind her door there is a corkboard with various items tacked to it. There are some pieces of war propaganda from the period and an animated cell from a Second World War propaganda cartoon scattered among pictures of family.

There is even a replica newspaper from the November 22, 1963 edition of The Dallas Morning News. It is from a trip Dr. White and her husband made to Dallas several years ago.

Coincidentally, it was in a newspaper that she found the first instance that the official records may be wrong.

She found a newspaper clipping from The Western Star in 1959 that shows a member of the local Elizabethan order laying a wreath during a ceremony at a local war memorial.

That lead all her to some new avenues via the paper’s archives that show a larger connection in the area.

“This is often the way these things go,” said White. “The official records show one thing, but the newspapers, which capture the time, show a different story and a very different relationship with this national group.”

We have a fascination with orders like the Daughters of the Empire. We love stories about mysterious groups we like to think meet under cover of darkness or have members in key parts of the society that drive things.

Call it the Illuminati effect. It seems we’re drawn to stories of societies who hid King Solomon’s immense treasure because it lets our imagination play on if they exist today.

Of course, the Illuminati is a conspiracy theory; no one has ever found the king’s treasure and the Daughters of the Empire isn’t that secret. We know they worked within the community in an attempt to help with things.

Groups like the Free Masons, The Orange Order and others also come to mind.

So, what is the good doctor hoping to accomplish?

Well, she is hoping to connect with enough people who have physical records of the order with hopes of publishing a paper and presenting it.

“To actually do a history that’s focused on Corner Brook and western Newfoundland, we need to reach people who may have been involved,” said White.

Nicholas Mercer is the online editor with The Western Star. He lives in Corner Brook and can be reached at nicholas.mercer@thewesternstar.com.

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