– Kimberly A. Williams
First came the Northwest Mounted Police, sent to make way for the ranchers and the railmen. Then came the machinists, construction workers, miners, and loggers.
Settling a province. Building a city. A colonial project. For which is also needed politicians and police officers. To make laws and enforce them.
Later, came the soldiers and oilmen.
Between 1900 and 1914, Calgary’s settler population grew from around 4,000 to roughly 50,000. Men were everywhere, with more arriving every day.
Calgary: (still) the man capital of Canada.
Precious few settler women, most of Anglo descent, lived in Calgary back then. When they weren’t yet considered persons, but still had to make a living. Still had to live.
Why aren’t you married?
Why are you here, now?
Why are you walking alone?
Why are you dressed like that?
(Same shit, different century.)
To be a wife was preferable.
Teacher or housemaid would do.
Office clerk was acceptable, but best behave yourself.
And since back then (stereotype alert!), nurses were probably whores anyway…
Might as well sell sex to all those legions of men. Make more money and have far more autonomy than working for someone else.
But why let it go on? Why didn’t the police do something?
Not enough police officers.
Few jail cells for women.
Plus, it was a “necessary evil.”
Back then, Calgary was the “booze, brothel, and gambling capital of the Canadian west,” says journalist James Gray. Somebody had to manage things.
The working girls kept all those thousands of men, hot and sweaty and frustrated after a hard week’s work, calm and content and ready to face Monday again. On any given summer evening, you could hear the tinkling of pianos being played in parlours across the river. This was Calgary’s entertainment. Before Arts Commons. Before the Flames and the Hitmen. Before the Stampeders, and even before the Stampede. Calgary’s sex workers served up drinks and dancing, hosting and toasting their clients.
These women were arbiters, too, of public health, keeping morale up and STIs at bay in a growing city with few resident wives and barely one hospital. Make no mistake: they knew how to protect themselves. Still do.
They were also employers when “respectable” women couldn’t be, contributing to the growing city’s economy by hiring cooks, contractors, carpenters, and even other sex workers. And since they knew everyone, entertained the gamut from politicians and porters to lawyers and labourers, they were informants, formal and not, for the police (who were also their clients, by the way).
And speaking of clients…
They were the men, the mavericks, who founded our city. Supply can’t exist without demand.
But Calgary’s history has been His Story for far too long. As if there’d been no women here at all. Our city’s sex workers were (and still are) at the social, political, and economic heart of our city, integral to how we settlers came to be here, in this land where the Elbow meets the Bow. They were mavericks, too.
Kimberly A. Williams
Kimberly A. Williams directs the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at Mount Royal University. As part of her ongoing research on the history of Calgary’s adult consensual sex industry, she offers a walking tour entitled Booze, Broads & Brothels. Learn more at https://yycsexworkwalkingtour.weebly.com/.