Crowds always rose to give Shirley McClellan a round of applause when she entered the room, whether she was delivering a government speech or opening a bull sale.
The accolades were often a surprise to the former Alberta agriculture minister, who served during the height of the BSE crisis in 2003.
“Something like that might be a shock to me, but at that time … people thought, ‘she is our leader,’ ” she said after speaking at the Advancing Women conference held in Calgary April 28-29.
More than 350 women heard the former deputy premier describe her journey from growing up near Hanna, Alta., to becoming a rural politician. Most recently, she has been chancellor of the University of Lethbridge and the scholar in residence with the University of Alberta’s agriculture and rural economy faculties.
She and her husband, Lloyd, farmed near New Brigden. Their son, Mitchell, works with them now, and daughter Tami is a teacher.
McClellan was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1987 and won her seat six times. She held key cabinet posts first under premier Don Getty and then Ralph Klein.
McClellan looks back at people like her grandmother, who possessed a strong spirit and work ethic. She praised pioneers who fought for women’s legal rights in Canada, paved the way for women today to take on the world.
“These journeys that these young women will embark on, the world is wide open to them,” she said.
McClellan admired how the Famous Five fought in court to have women recognized as persons in 1929.
Life was difficult for those early pathfinders, but McClellan never felt gender was an issue as she travelled the world on trade missions.
As deputy premier, she had a specific task.
“My job was to ensure that rural issues, rural concerns, rural interests were at our table. I took that to heart and was very proud to carry that role.”
She said she worked hard to remind her city based cabinet colleagues that the wealth seen in downtown Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary came from the oil and gas, mines, forests and farms in rural Alberta.
McClellan appreciates the legacy of the past, but she said she has encountered other women over the years who also had a profound influence on her life, including Lois Hole, Anne McLellan and Indira Samarasekera.
“I never felt being a woman mattered. They were always respectful. People out in my area take you for what you are.”