By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist
Born on April 23, 1888, Verna Conant (nee Smith), was delivered by one of the first women doctors in Canada, Elizabeth Smith Shortt, who was one of her father’s sisters. Verna was the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs E. D. Smith, the same family which is associated with the company that produces a wide range of fruits, jams and other products. The Smith family was very active in their local community. For example, her mother was the first president of the Women’s Institute of Canada and her father was a MP in Ottawa. Verna followed in their footsteps and became involved in a variety of local groups.
In 1912 Verna married Gordon Conant. In a newspaper article published in the Oshawa Times, Verna recounted a fascinating story from their courtship. When they began dating, she used to drive from her home in Winona to Hamilton to pick up her then boyfriend, Gordon, at the train station. What made this trip to the train station unusual is that the train would often arrive very late at night, generally after midnight. It was not considered proper for a young lady to be out by herself at that time of night, so she would wear male attire so that her actions would be less conspicuous. Concerning her late night travels, Mrs. Conant stated: “My parents allowed me to go meet Gordon, but I sometimes wondered what they thought of me going out like that”.
While raising a family, Verna became active in a large number of organizations in Oshawa, including the Oshawa General Hospital, where she became honorary president of the women’s auxiliary, the Women’s Institute, the Oshawa Historical Society, and the Girl Guides. In addition to serving the community in a voluntary way, Verna spent the year of 1937 as the township tax collector when her husband became Ontario’s attorney general. Unfortunately she resigned after one year when the obligatory social events from a MP’s wife began to take up too much time.
After her husband’s death, Verna continued with her interest in the community, particularly with the St. John Ambulance, which she served in many capacities and which in 1978, invested her with the title Dame of St. John. She died in 1992 in her 104th year.
During her long life, Verna maintained a collection of scrapbooks highlighting the achievements of the many organizations she was heavily involved with. Many of these scrapbooks can be found in the archival collection at the Oshawa Community Museum.
The month of March is celebrated as Women’s History Month in the US, UK, and Australia. Canada celebrated Women’s History Month in October to coincide with the anniversary of the Persons Case.
In honour of the international celebrations of Women’s History Month, we are proud to share the story of Verna Conant, a true force in Oshawa’s history.