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Last Modified: April 22, 2024
A bird's eye view photographof Medicine Hat, Alberta. Below the photo is the text, "Four Famous Poets Who Visited Early Alberta"
Four Famous Poets Who Visited Early Alberta

Albertans have welcomed many poets over the years. A few of those visitors in the province’s first decades made a lasting impression.

When the British poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) travelled to Medicine Hat in 1907, he famously described the young city as a place that “seems to have All Hell for a basement.” Three years later, Kipling helped defeat a plebiscite to update the city’s name. In a letter published in the Medicine Hat News, he urged citizens to honour “the old Cree and Blackfoot traditions of . . . mystery and romance that once filled the prairies.” They kept the name and, thanks to a celebrity poet, they garnered what a Calgary newspaper called “some of the very best publicity that [the city] could hope to get.”

Like Kipling, E. Pauline Johnson aka Tekahionwake (1861–1913) was another poet who loved Alberta, and whom Albertans loved back. Between 1894 and 1905, the Mohawk poet-performer from Brantford, Ontario, visited communities around the province on five of her cross-country tours. As one observer recalled in 1949, Albertans “drove miles in all sorts of weather to hear her and did it year after year. They remember her still and treasure some photo or poem she autographed for them.”

Ad for Johnson performance, Calgary 1907
Ad for E. Pauline Johnson performance in Calgary, 1907 (Image credit: Calgary Herald December 13, 1907, accessed via

While Kipling had a fondness for Medicine Hat, Johnson had a special relationship with another Alberta city. “I have always loved Calgary,” she wrote in a letter to the local Women’s Canadian Club in 1912. When the poet died the following spring, her literary executor sent a previously unpublished poem to the Calgary Herald. The paper promptly featured “Calgary of the Plains” on its front page. Inspired by one of Johnson’s visits during the frontier era, the poem spoke to Calgary’s bright promise. “Not of the buried yesterday, but of the days to be, / The glory and the gateway of the yellow west is she.”

In the spring of 1913 when Calgarians first read the poem, that promise was delivering by way of a real-estate boom; a few months later, the economy crashed, dampening the glory and compromising the gateway. In the 1920s, as the city struggled to regain its economic footing, citizens and civic boosters would invoke Johnson’s poem as a way to lift local spirits and keep the Calgary dream alive.

Almost a century after Johnson toured the province, Alberta’s Joan Crate considered the beloved poet through a contemporary lens in the critically acclaimed book Pale as Real Ladies: Poems for Pauline Johnson. In “I Am a Prophet,” Crate conjures Johnson during one of her stage performances in a poem that has been called “a striptease of Canada’s history.” Much like its subject, Crate’s collection has travelled widely: the book is in its seventh printing. “I Am a Prophet” was featured by the band U2 in a multimedia pre-show display during its 2017 Joshua Tree Tour.

Photo: Wilson MacDonald recital ad
Wilson MacDonald recital in Edmonton, 1923. Note the reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Newspaper article (Image credit: Edmonton Bulletin, Nov 17, 1923, accessed via

Another touring poet made a messier impression in 1920s Alberta. Ontario’s Wilson MacDonald (1880–1967) was a literary star known to possess a challenging personality. As Toronto editor Lorne Pierce once noted: “dealing with MacDonald was like being caught in a train wreck.”

In November 1923, MacDonald arrived in Calgary to perform his poems and promote his self-published books on a cross-country tour. One of the city’s pre-eminent writers, Winnifred Eaton Reeve, hosted a welcome dinner at her Calgary home. Among her guests was Laura Goodman Salverson, new to the city and an emerging writer celebrating the publication of her first novel, The Viking Heart. A few days before the party, Reeve had championed both MacDonald’s visit and Salverson’s novel in her local newspaper column.

Making conversation that night with MacDonald, Salverson asked about his recent stop in Regina. Had he had crossed paths with her mentor, the esteemed literary man named Austin Bothwell? Indeed he had and his impression was unfavourable. MacDonald told Salverson that when he had asked to be introduced to a Regina audience as a poet in the same league as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bothwell refused. Salverson, shaken by MacDonald’s vitriol, defended her Regina friend; Winnifred Reeve took the side of her famous guest.

Weeks after MacDonald left town and in the aftermath of the party, Reeve turned on her young protégée. In the pages of Canadian Bookman, a national industry magazine, Reeve accused Salverson of paying her Regina mentor to review her new novel positively in the pages of an influential American literary review. Salverson would prove the accusation false but it tarnished the launch of her literary career, embarrassed Calgary’s small literary community on the national stage, and provided Winnifred Reeve with one more reason to leave town in the wake of Wilson MacDonald.

Photo: Shumiatcher/Hirshbein banquet ad, 1931
Esther Shumiatcher and Peretz Hirsbein banquet in Calgary (Image credit: Calgary Herald, February 23, 1931, accessed via

The visit of a Yiddish poet to Calgary in 1930 was calmer than MacDonald’s and her influence more lasting. Esther Shumiatcher (1899?–1985) spent her adolescence in the city, part of a large Jewish family who had emigrated from what is now Belarus. In 1918, her life changed when she met the well-known Yiddish playwright Peretz Hirshbein, who arrived in Calgary on a speaking tour. When he contracted influenza, she helped nurse him back to health in her family’s home, and the pair fell in love. After they married in Calgary, Shumiatcher and Hirshbein travelled to New York City before embarking on an extended world tour. In Warsaw, Shumiatcher launched herself as writer, publishing three books of poetry.

In 1930, the accomplished poet returned to Calgary with her husband for an extended stay. According to historian Agnes Romer Segal, over the course of their ten-month visit “the couple became the toast of the Yiddish cultural scene,” participating in literary readings, talks and other events held at the brand-new I. L. Peretz Institute, a centre of Yiddish language and culture in the city’s Beltline neighbourhood. On subsequent visits over the years, the pair would continue “to invigorate the local Jewish community.”

On that extended visit in 1930, Shumiatcher also lent her literary fame in support of the city’s first Jewish day school which opened the previous year. A few decades later, at least two students at the Peretz School, Norman Ravvin and Douglas Century would go on to become prolific and well-regarded writers.

On the occasion of National Poetry Month, here’s to four visiting poets who left their footprints in Alberta’s history.


About the Author

Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. Her map of Calgary’s 1920s literary scene is part of the Calgary Atlas Project. You can find Shaun at

Feature image credit: “Bird’s eye view, Medicine Hat, Alberta,” [ca. 1910] by Unknown. (Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.)