Margaret (Todd) Emmett
Life and Work
Margaret Evelyn Todd, better known as Peggy, was born to Alfred Angus Edward Todd and Teresa Loretta McGreevy on 23 March 1927. Alfred, a proud Metis man, farmed near the small Manitoba community of Starbuck, located southwest of Winnipeg. The Todd family has a long tradition of farming and fur trading, and Peggy’s great-great-grandfather had served as head of Fort Vancouver. Her Francophone grandmother, Cleophe Lavalee, was even related to Louis Riel.
Peggy’s mother, Teresa, was from Illinois. Her father had moved the family to Canada after a successful career with the Chicago Police Force. Like many Americans, Jack McGreevy was enticed by the promise of grassland in southern Manitoba which was being sold for five dollars per acre. Peggy remembers attending school with the grandchildren of American settlers; however, her own relatives had returned to the U.S. by the time she was two years old.
In those early days on the farm, the Todd’s lived without electricity and running water. As the eldest child with five younger sisters—Beatrice, Dorothy, Teresa, Kay, and Lucille—Peggy spent much of her time helping her father. She recalls milking cows, driving horses, raising pigs and chickens, and stooking by hand because her dad never owned a combine. To this day, it’s apparent that Peggy’s father had a lasting impact upon her. When asked for her memories of him, Peggy replies:
My dad really taught me all about life. He wasn’t a learned man, but what he knew were the basics. He loved his religion, his country, and his family… As we were working together, he taught me so many things.
Peggy thinks the biggest challenge that her father faced was the struggle to make enough to pay the bills and feed his family—something he always managed to accomplish. And this resilient determination is a part of Peggy, too. She frequently states that “hard work never killed anybody.”
For Grade 1, Peggy stayed with her grandparents during the week, walking one mile to the small country schoolhouse with her aunt, who worked as a teacher. In subsequent years she would live at home and attend school in Starbuck, but she remained inspired by her aunt. Peggy also dreamed of a marriage like her parents had, saying “I had to do something until Mr. Right came along.” She adds, with a laugh, “There wasn’t anybody around Starbuck that interested me.”
Following Grade 12, Peggy attended Normal School, earning university credit that allowed her to begin teaching. Her first schoolhouse was located north of Winnipeg in the community of Blackdale, located near the Stoney Mountain Penitentiary.
As it happened, Blackdale was also one of the locations where German prisoners-of-war were being held by the Canadian military, and Peggy recalls hearing classical pieces at night, apparently being played by the musically-inclined prisoners. World War II had just ended, and one of the Canadian guards at the POW camp was a young man named Norman Emmett. One night, while attending a barn dance hosted by a local farmer prior to haying season, Peggy met the man she would marry six months later.
The couple was wed on 22 October 1946. Norman had been discharged from the military around Easter, and during the summer he had moved back to his family’s farm at Halkirk, Alberta, to help his father with planting and harvesting the crops. He came back to Manitoba just two days before the wedding! Thinking back on the whirlwind romance, Peggy recalls being engaged and not even knowing Norman’s last name. She fondly remembers thinking “Dumb and Dumber! He could’ve had a wife somewhere in Alberta!”
A week after the wedding, Norman and Peggy moved west to Alberta. They lived on the Emmett farm at Halkirk for one year. The farm had a herd of 20 wild range cows, and Norman and Peggy worked to tame the cattle so they could be milked. They earned money from shipping cream, while Norman also used horses to haul coal from a nearby mine. Both of them were used to strenuous physical labour, but Peggy says it was difficult being so far away from her family.
With the birth of their first child, Ann, in 1947, Norman thought it was time to do something different. The young family moved to Rocky Mountain House, where Norman began delivering milk. It was not long, however, before he began feeling ill. The local doctor could not make a diagnosis, so the Catholic priest drove Norman and Peggy to Red Deer one day. Upon examination, the doctors in Red Deer concluded that Norman was suffering from tuberculosis.
Peggy, expecting her second child, was terrified when doctors informed her that Norman had only six weeks to live. She was a young mother, far from her family, suddenly forced to make ends meet while her husband lay on his deathbed at the “San” Hospital in Calgary. But with characteristic determination, Peggy began working again. She was hired as a teacher for a school at Caroline. Unfortunately, Peggy developed a health problem of her own, was admitted to hospital, and nearly lost her unborn child.
Upon her recovery, the superintendent of schools summoned Peggy to his office. He informed her that she would be required to stop teaching by Christmas. “You’ll start to show by then,” he continued, “and we don’t need somebody like that at the head of a class in a schoolhouse for the children to see.” While his comments were hardly appropriate, his next question would infuriate Peggy. “Have you ever thought of an abortion?” asked the superintendent. Peggy jumped up, inadvertently sending Ann flying off her knee. “I am a Catholic, a practicing Catholic; we Catholics don’t kill our babies,” she replied before storming out of the office.
Peggy’s teaching career was over, but in characteristic fashion, Peggy had stood up for her principles and beliefs, no matter what the consequences might be. Fortunately, the Emmett family invited Peggy back to their home in Halkirk to await the birth of Jack in 1949. Looking back, Peggy says, “Norman’s folks were just like my own people. They were so good to me.”
Every two months, Peggy would take the train to Calgary, visiting Norman daily at the hospital. Eventually, the Department of Veterans Affairs offered Peggy a home in Calgary so she could be closer to Norman. Ultimately, Norman would require a spinal fusion to replace five vertebrae, but after 23 months in a full body cast he was finally able to leave hospital. A miracle drug, Streptomycin, had saved Norman’s life, but no one warned the Emmett’s about possible side effects. Less than a year after Norman returned home, the couple’s third child, Pat, was born with an underdeveloped brain.
The story of Pat is a big part of the story of Peggy Emmett. She describes him as a “great big, six-foot, easy-going guy,” but he functions at the level of a child, and is largely unable to read or write. Since Pat’s birth, Peggy has devoted her time and energy to fighting on behalf of mentally challenged people in Alberta.
She began by serving on the first board of Calgary’s Association for the Mentally Retarded, alongside pioneering parents and advocates Christine Meikle and Emily Follensbee. In 1964, Peggy co-chaired the Flowers of Hope Campaign, which worked to establish volunteer support services for families with developmentally disabled children. From 1981-83, Peggy served as Chair of the Wetaskiwin & District Association for Community Services (WDACS) during a tumultuous period of reorganization. Her involvement with the Interagency Parent Advisory Group during the 1990’s focused on guardian rights and responsibilities in relation to funded services. She also served with the Goldeye Planning Committee, the Battle River Council, and as President of the Handi-Van Society. In 1997, the Government of Alberta appointed Peggy to a three-year term on the Persons with Developmental Disabilities Central Region Community Board—a role in which she helped oversee thirty-six agencies in central Alberta.
Even today, she continues her decades of involvement with Wetaskiwin’s Horizons Training Centre Society—an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. Betty Kovacs, who has long been involved with several community organizations, calls Peggy a “fantastic woman who has worked hard all her life for persons with disabilities.” Peggy’s involvement is even more remarkable considering that she raised a family of nine children! Tim, Fran, Kathy, Michael, Sheila, and Joan were born between 1952 and 1960.
Peggy’s inspiration comes largely from her Catholic faith. Prior to their marriage, Norman converted to Catholicism but Peggy says she did not ask him to do so. “I was going to marry this guy no matter what he was, ‘cause I knew I was strong enough in my faith that it wasn’t going to take me away from it,” she says. They raised their children in the Catholic Church, and Peggy maintains that her faith helped her get through many trying times, including Norman’s death in 1995. Regarding people who do not believe in a higher power, Peggy asks, “If hard times come, what are they going to have to hang on to?”
The importance of her faith has encouraged Peggy to give back to the Catholic Church. For over forty years, she’s been a member of the Third Order of St. Francis—a Catholic lay organization—and has been extensively involved with Wetaskiwin’s Sacred Heart Catholic Parish. Since 1995, she has led the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults—an intensive course for people planning to convert to Catholicism or interesting in learning more about the religion. “Angel Peggy,” as Parish secretary Pauline Thoben refers to her, continues to attend church daily, often arriving one hour prior to Mass to ensure that preparations for the service have been completed.
Peggy has also served on the Parish Council and the Finance Committee, and her involvement with the Catholic Women’s League (CWL) was recognized with an Honourary Lifetime Membership. Anna Fonteyne, who has come to know Peggy through the CWL, describes her as a strong but gentle lady. Fonteyne adds that “Peggy is a leader because she’s not wishy-washy; she voices her opinion and is never afraid to take a position.”
Ingrid Bieganek, another member of the CWL, further describes Peggy’s personality. “She is effervescent,” says Bieganek, “very affable, very friendly, outgoing, and personable.” According to Bieganek, Father Jim Corrigan even referred to Peggy as “the mainstay of the Church” in recognition of her involvement.
Regarding her volunteer duties at the Church, Peggy says “for a while there, I was doing everything…but now we have lots of volunteers, good volunteers.” And on a day-to-day basis, Peggy continues to coordinate the Masses. “The big joke now is that I know where everybody in the church sits,” she says. When asked where she sits, Peggy responds, “At the back, so I can kind of keep an eye on all of them!” But that’s only when Peggy isn’t playing piano—something she does for most weekday masses. “I’m there anyway,” Peggy says, adding, “I can do almost anything, except say Mass of course!”
Her frequent performances are a testament to Peggy’s love for music. She’s been playing with dance bands since she was fifteen, but remarkably Peggy is unable to read music; everything she plays is by ear and memory! In addition to church services, Peggy has played with The Jammers Band, The Good Time Music Band, and for the local CIHS radio station. When she’s not volunteering or playing music, Peggy loves to read histories and biographies. Cross-word puzzles, however, are perhaps her favourite hobby. “I just love cross-word puzzles,” she says with irrepressible glee.
Today, Peggy maintains her active lifestyle. She’s known for walking everywhere she needs to go, and remains involved with the organizations with which she has long been associated. When asked what her goals and dreams are today, Peggy has just one reply. Without hesitation she says, “I just want to keep doing for other people.”
Compiled by: Dakin McDonald and Carrie-Ann Lunde
Sources: Ingrid Bieganek, Peggy Emmett, Anna Fonteyne, Betty Kovacs, Sheena McDermott, Pauline Thoben, Francis Ganske