Alberta’s first female lieutenant-governor, Helen Hunley, is being remembered in her native Rocky Mountain House as someone who loved nature as much as public service — and who helped others believe in themselves.
Hunley’s great-niece, Tammy Cote, said her aunt, who died Friday at the age of 90, never saw herself as a trailblazer for women, even though she was also the first female to hold a ministerial position in Alberta and the province’s inaugural solicitor general.
“She didn’t think about it at all,” said Cote, who believes Hunley lived with the expectation that she owed society some “rent” — or public service — for the privilege of spending time on this earth.
She started the payback by serving overseas during the Second World War as a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, earning the rank of lieutenant.
Her entry into politics became a matter of rising to meet expectations, said Cote, who recalled Hunley was approached and asked to run for office by business and community leaders. “Because someone had faith in her, she felt it was important to always look for the potential in other people.”
Cote, branch manager of ATB Financial in Rocky, said her aunt’s belief in her gave her confidence in herself.
“She was an amazing person in so many different ways,” said Cote, who knew Hunley as a West-Country-hiking nature-lover and life-long learner who, in her ‘70s, took university courses as a snowbird in Arizona to learn more about desert vegetation.
“She was never finished with her education.”
Hunley, who died in Rocky hospital, was remembered by her political friends as a fearless, intelligent leader, who called things as she saw them.
She started her public service as a Rocky town councillor and later mayor, then as a member of the provincial legislative assembly. In the 1970s she became the first woman to serve as a provincial minister under former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government. She oversaw Alberta’s Health Care Commission before becoming the province’s first solicitor general.
Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney suggested Hunley for the role of Alberta’s lieutenant governor in 1985, a post she held until 1991.
Flags were lowered to half-staff across the province this weekend as Premier Ed Stelmach remembered Hunley for being a role model. “She was admired and respected throughout all corners of Alberta and she will be dearly missed,” the premier said in a statement.
Rocky MLA Ty Lund stated that he feels privileged to have known Hunley, “a remarkable woman, who was extremely dedicated to her community, her province, and her country.”
Hunley was born in 1920 in Acme to farming parents with a large family. From 1933, she lived in Rocky, where she used to ride a horse to school.
She later became a Cub Scout leader, worked as a telephone operator, at a farm implement dealership, and as an insurance agent, eventually selling her insurance business upon entering politics.
While she never married, her good friend Catharine Arthur of Edmonton, remembers Hunley as being extremely fond of her young nieces.
“Helen was the most real person I ever met” — there was no facade, said Arthur, who was hired by Hunley as director of the Alberta Women’s Bureau and eventually became her executive assistant.
The outdoors formed her spirit, said Arthur.
Whenever Hunley would feel stressed from a day in political office, she would walk along Edmonton’s river valley trails. “She was good at her work, but she itched to get back out to convene with the birds, the bees and the trees.”
A public memorial service will be held for Hunley, but no details are yet available.