It was a female voice, which firmly responded to the roll call of Saint-Lambert’s city clerk, to confirm the presence of the alderman for seat number one. It was May 5, 1947 and the voice belonged to Gertrude Émard, the newly elected city councillor, only the second woman in the province of Quebec to do so. She would serve two terms, first with Mayor C.A. Comeau and then with Mayor N.H. Simms. But these tenures turned out to be no smooth sailing, for a woman, through hitherto unchartered political waters.
The honour of being the trailblazing politician falls to Kathleen Fisher, who won a seat on Montreal’s City Council as early as December 1940. This is a rather remarkable fact, considering that the right to exercise their franchise was given to women in Quebec only in the spring of that same year. Although women could vote and stand for office in federal elections, a right won nationally in 1918, la Belle Province clung stubbornly to the old ways and treated them as nonpersons, on the same level as chattel, children and imbeciles. It would take another twenty-two year struggle to achieve feminine suffrage.
Gertrude Émard, who was born in 1899 into a Longueuil family, seemed to have been very emancipated and determined from an early age on. The second eldest daughter, in a family of two boys and four girls, was adamant in receiving a formal education. After secondary schooling at the local convent, and subsequent advanced courses in bookkeeping in Montreal, she continued her studies in the States at the International School of Accounting of Chicago. After having successfully completed her diploma Gertrude travelled extensively throughout Europe, a customary practice at the times … for young men.
After returning to Saint-Lambert to assist her recently widowed mother, Gertrude took a position in the municipal administration. Miss Emard, how she liked to be addressed her whole life, would serve for nineteen years consecutively as bookkeeper in the Water and Electricity Department, as cashier and chief accountant, as well as clerk of the Recorder’s Court. Furthermore, the seemingly indefatigable woman stood in as secretary-treasurer for six years. When she eventually applied for official recognition in that post, she was denied.
Miss Émard showed her indignation by resigning from all her duties. She could well afford this step, since she had recently come into an inheritance through a cousin on her mother’s side, Joseph Levi Achim. Residing comfortably with her two spinster sisters in the historic field-stone house known as Maison Mercille at 505 Riverside Drive, she nevertheless took on a new position with a local realtor. To everyone’s surprise she also announced her candidacy for a council seat at the upcoming election of April 21, 1947, which she would win with a majority of 363 votes.
Everything augured well for the forty-eight year old administratrix, a slim and apparent no-nonsense person. At her first public appearance she was gallantly escorted to her seat by her defeated opponent, the outgoing councillor H.G. Gonthier and warmly welcomed by Mayor Comeau. By going through the minutes from that time, research shows that soon afterward all was not well. Very often her interventions fell on deaf ears; she received no seconding for proposals and repeatedly had to point out that her remarks were incorrectly recorded. A laconic entry reads: “Alderman G. Emard also spoke.”
Acting on a petition signed by twenty prominent Saint-Lambert residents, she was instrumental in bringing charges against Police Chief J. R. Macdonald and his department for illegal use of police cars, drinking on the job and collecting sums of money without proper accounting. An ad hoc committee was formed, which after months of deliberation, exonerated the chief of all wrongdoing in Mai 1948. The findings, solely contested by Miss Émard, took on a comical turn when the defense pleaded that the police pot, which was split among members of the force, did not belong to the City and that the chief had only made a technical error in one instance. With typical aplomb she replied that if a by-law, forbidding all police to accept gratuities, tips or liquor, would have been in existence, the lengthy and expensive inquiry would never have occurred. No immediate action was taken to enforce her suggestions.
With the arrival of a new mayor, Norman H. Simms, and some new councillors in 1949, the political life for Miss Émard became even more difficult. Her fellow alderman, J. Darius Robitaille, openly became her nemesis. She locked horns with him over many issues. She went on record by asking publicly “why council took the right to enfringe (sic) on existing Building By-Laws,” the question was brushed aside by him with the comment that matter had been discussed in caucus. When she wanted a legal opinion on her assumption that “all business being dealt with in Committee and not made public afterward was illegal” the answer was to take her off all committees. The men on council had closed ranks.
1952 was an election year in Saint-Lambert. On March 31, Gertrude Émard resigned her seat on council and announced shortly afterwards her intention of becoming the first woman mayor in the province. This wish was denied her by none other than J. Darius Robitaille, who became her opponent. He campaigned on promises for new modern sports facilities, she appealed for controlled spending. After a short, but bitter election campaign the pioneer alderwoman was defeated on April 21.
Very little is known of Gertrude Émard after she withdrew from public life. She might have taken up travelling again because a short notice in the Montreal Gazette of December 15, 1965 announces her death at age 66 in a New York hospital.