A Lover of Words and Storyteller: Jean Hembroff MacDonald
Updated: Jan 17
By Courtney Maxwell-Alves, Archive and Library Assistant
Archives, since their very origins in the ancient world, have systemically excluded records about or by women from their holdings and, as institutions, have been willing agents in the creation of patriarchy by supporting those in power against the marginalized. 
Traditionally in archives, women’s voices, deemed unimportant and uninteresting, were consciously left out of recorded history. As early as the 1940s and 1950s, archivists have been actively trying to preserve their records and tell their stories, beginning with the women’s suffrage movement. The Archives and Library team at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is also working hard to process women’s records and tell their stories. As I did with Dorothy Wardle in September 2019, I would now like to introduce you to Jean Hembroff MacDonald, a self-described “vagabond,” lover of words and professional lecturer, trail rider, and wife and mother.
Jean Alexandra (or Alexandria, a lifelong debate) Hembroff was born on April 5, 1908 to Walter and Sarah Hembroff in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Married in 1907, Walter was a conductor for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and Sarah, originally from Northern Ireland, was a seamstress for Eaton’s. They had three children, with Jean being the eldest and only daughter. In the mid-1920s, Jean attended the MacPhail School of Music and Dramatic Art at the University of Minnesota and graduated with a Diploma in Dramatic Art on June 23,1927. After returning to Winnipeg, Jean established a studio to teach public speaking and communication skills, deliver dramatic recitals with her students, and work with children with speech or hearing impairments – thus beginning a lifelong career as a teacher and professional public speaker.
While processing Jean’s records and reading notes provided by a family member, I found it surprising how much solo travel Jean did in the 1930s. For example: Jean travelled with five friends to Europe in 1931; in 1932, Jean and a few friends went on a road trip from Winnipeg to Los Angeles to see the Olympics; Jean travelled to Ireland and other places in Europe in 1935 – alone; and in 1936, Jean and some friends visited various places in the United States and Cuba. What is interesting to me is that all of her travel companions, when she had them, were also young women. Considering this took place not only during the Great Depression but also during a time when women were not often travelling independently, I think this speaks volumes of Jean’s interests and adventurous spirit, which inevitably brought her to Banff.
By the mid-1930s, Jean was hired by the CPR promotions manager to give presentations and broadcast interviews across Canada and the United States, allowing her to continue to travel for work. In 1937, Jean joined the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies and participated in their summer trail ride that year. For the 1937 issue of the Trail Rider’s Bulletin, Jean wrote an article about her experience, becoming the first woman to do so. This became material for a well-received lecture, titled “Trail Riding in the Rockies,” that Jean delivered many times, including at the Royal Alexandra Hotel on January 18, 1938.
A young Jack MacDonald was asked by a friend to attend this particular lecture and, thinking it would be boring, was begrudgingly in the audience. Needless to say, Jack enjoyed the lecture and more importantly, the fun and “sparkling” speaker, Jean. The two were married on June 18, 1938 and went on what they called a “Vagabond Honeymoon,” which became material for later lectures and articles published in the Winnipeg Tribune. Settling in Winnipeg, Jean and Jack welcomed their only child, Bruce, in 1946. In the 1950s, Jean became the adjudicator in spoken verse and public speech arts for the Music and Arts Festival circuit in Manitoba, for which Jean was required to travel around the province. Jean continued this work until at least 1971.
As she got older, Jean continued to accept speaking engagements when she was able to do so. For example, Jean delivered “Winter in Winnipeg” readings and other interviews and broadcasts for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), in part because staff would come to her apartment. Jean loved to skate (although not athletic), kept a personal collection of poems and tea cups, loved word play games on rainy days, was known for her cookies, and was an exceptional storyteller. At 102 years of age, Jean passed away on February 2, 2011 and is buried in Winnipeg. An intriguing woman with an exceptional story to tell. Visit the archives database to learn more about Jean, or do a general search and learn about the amazing women of the Rockies.
As already noted, Jean was a member of the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies and the Sky Line Trail Hikers of the Canadian Rockies. Of note, she participated in the 1937 Trail Riders official ride and the 1939 Sky Line official ride, for which she wrote articles and delivered talks while working for the CPR. To accompany her lectures, photographic lantern slides were sent to Jean by the CPR. Originating in the mid-seventeenth century, lantern slides were hand-painted illustrations on glass that were projected through a device, or a “magic lantern,” with light. With the invention of photography in the nineteenth century, black and white photographic lantern slides, sometimes later painstakingly hand-painted, were used. Lantern slides were used as a form of storytelling and were often accompanied by a script or other textual material. For the 1937 trail ride, Jean not only wrote articles and delivered talks, but also wrote a poem.
To view these photographs and related materials, and learn more about lantern slides and the collection at the Whyte Museum, check out the upcoming exhibitions, Danny Singer and Projecting Illusions, opening on January 31st at 7 p.m. The opening is a free event; if you can’t make it, the exhibit will be up until April 12, 2020. Hope to see you there!
I wish to express my gratitude to Marnie (Hembroff) Sholdice, Jean’s niece and donor of Jean’s archival records. Your extensive notes about your aunt and the lovely anecdotal stories and family lore made Jean come to life for not only me and the Whyte Museum, but for everyone who reads this article and accesses her records. Thank you.
 Cook, Terry and Schwartz, Joan M. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science, 2:1-19, 2002.