Faith Fenton aka Alice Freeman (c. 1885) [Source: LAC]
October is Women’s History Month in Canada and instead of writing about the usual suspects, I thought I would take a look at the life of a lesser known female figure in Canadian history. Alice Freeman (1857-1936), better known as “Faith Fenton,” was a schoolteacher turned popular investigative journalist. Her life was pretty remarkable not just because Alice was one of Canada’s first female journalists but because she was one of the thousands who headed up to the Klondike in 1898–except she was looking for stories, not gold.
“Stories in this world tell themselves by halves. There is always a silent side, and none may know the life of another.” – Alice Freeman
Alice Matilda Freeman was born in Bowmanville, Ontario, in 1857. She was the third of twelve children and at the age of 10 she was sent away to live with a minister and his wife. Alice ended up thriving during the four years she spent living with the childless couple, who doted on her and made sure she got a good education. She continued with her studies afterwards and at the age of 18, became a teacher for the Toronto School Board and held this position for almost 20 years.
Since Alice only earned less than $300 a year (half of what male teachers were paid) she eventually decided in 1886 to turn her passion for writing into a second job to stay afloat financially. She wrote for Barrie’s Northern Advance and Toronto’s Empire. The latter newspaper is where Alice, or rather “Faith Fenton” made a name for herself. She wrote about everything: court cases, fashion, travel, to pieces on sexual discrimination and harassment, child abuse, wage disparity, politics, and suffrage. An early feminist, her articles captured the attention of female readers far and wide. Alice went on to interview famous figures such as Susan B, Anthony, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Catherine Parr Traill, and Pauline Johnson. She travelled during the summer months to research and cover stories outside of Toronto. Alice was also an active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance movement and the National Council of Women of Canada.
Fun Fact: The Empire was founded by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in 1887 to counter The Globe, the newspaper founded by his arch-rival, the late George Brown. In the previous year, the Toronto Mail declared itself independent of any political party and with The Globe always railing against him and his party, Macdonald wanted there to be a conservative paper in Toronto.
Despite HER popularity and the fact SHE socialized with people like John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, and Lady Aberdeen, Alice somehow managed kept her true identity a secret. Female teachers faced heavy scrutiny and were held to repressive high standards. If the Toronto School Board had caught wind of Alice’s moonlighting activities and the taboo topics she explored, she would have been fired. In the end though, Alice decided to leave teaching behind and in 1894 she became a full-time journalist. She kept her pen name though. During this time, Alice became the editor of Canadian Home Journal. Although she lost her job when the paper merged and became The Mail and Empire, she became a correspondent for The Globe.
“Victorian Order of Nurses Scott, Powell, Hannah and Payson with Toronto Globe reporter Faith Fenton (2nd from right)” (c. 1898). [Source: BC Archives]
Faith Fenton and H.J. Woodside, 2 correspondents with Yukon Field Force. Teslin Trail, BC. (It’s kind of hard to see, but she’s holding a kitten in the photo). (June 1898). [Source: LAC]
When gold was found in the Klondike in 1896, “Faith Fenton” hitched up her skirts and went north as well. She joined the Yukon Field Force (200 solders strong) and the Victoria Order of Nurses and traveled from Toronto to Vancouver, then up the Stikine River in northern British Columbia. From there they took the difficult all-Canadian land route from Telegraph Creek to Teslin Lake, went down the Teslin River to the Yukon River. From there they then made the final 200 mile journey to their destination: Dawson City. Alice wrote extensively about her journey into the northern wilderness and the Klondikers she met along the way. She described the human chain of over 5000 men who also made the dangerous, exhausting trek and the many fights that broke out on the trail.
Klondikers carry their supplies on their backs as they make their way up the Chikoot Pass (c. 1898).
Getting her stories back to Eastern Canada was no quick task since Alice had to send her articles to her employers via mail. The Globe considered them to be worth the wait though, her stories were always featured on the front page. Her articles cover triumphs and also losses, such as the great fire that consumed much of Dawson City in December 1898.
One time Alice jumped the gun when writing about a trial where four men were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. Mail runs only happened every so often, so she sent in her story as is—only for the hanging to be postponed. Not wanting an incorrect story to be published, Alice got some of her friends who were in Royal Northwest Mounted Police (the forerunner of the RCMP) to track down the mail carrier and retrieve the story. Alice sent a story about the difficulties of writing stories up north in its place.
Faith Fenton (c. 1898). I haven’t the faintest idea what she’s wearing on her head. Any suggestions? [Source: LAC]
While she was up in the Klondike, Alice met and fell in love with Dr. John Brown, a doctor originally from Toronto as well and who was serving as the Yukon Medical Officer of Health and Territorial Secretary. The couple became acquainted with Sam Steele. the famous Northwest Mounted Police officer who strove to maintain law and order during the gold rush. When Steele announced his departure from the Yukon, Alice was one of many who wrote him a farewell letter. Alice and John decided to start off the new century in a romantic way and got married on January 1, 1900. When they moved back to Toronto in 1904, although Alice continued to write freelance every now and then, she gave up her career to focus on her marriage. She passed away in 1936 at the age of 79.
Alice with a group of Klondikers (Stikine River Canyon, British Columbia, 1898). [Source: LAC]
Although she isn’t well-known today, Alice Freeman/Faith Fenton was a pioneer in Canadian journalism and she blazed a trail for future female journalists in Canada.
Downie, Jill. A Passionate Pen: The Life and Times of Faith Fenton. Toronto: HarperCollins Canada (1996).
Forster, Merna. 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. Toronto: Dundurn. (2004).
McLaughlin, Les. Faith Fenton, Journalist. CKRW Yukon Nugget. (n.d.). Accessed from http://hougengroup.com/yukon-history/yukon-nuggets/faith-fenton-journalist/