“Most people know Banff as a tourism destination, and it is, and a great one – but if you look a little further into our town you discover a community.” (Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen)
How does that saying go? Behind every great town is a great woman. Banff is no exception. In fact, it has enjoyed the benefits of intelligent, determined women since Banff Ave was a dirt road. Pioneers such as Mary Schaffer Warren, mid-century community stalwarts like Catharine Whyte, and current Banff Boss, Karen Sorensen (my description, not hers) have been key builders of that sometimes hidden community.
Mary Schaffer Warren was a Banff “foremother” who advised others “to dare to be different.” It’s safe to say that she lived by her own rules. Born in 1861, this privileged American Quaker began visiting the Canadian Rockies first with her husband in 1904 and later as a young widow. Over the the early years of the 20th century, Mary found hard work to be the tonic for her grief. She was a writer and illustrator of guide books and a pioneering surveyor of such park gems as Maligne Lake. In fact, in 1915 Mary married Billy Warren – her outback guide, some twenty years her junior. They lived together in Banff in their lovely home, Tarry-a-while, that still stands today. “Dare to be different” indeed.
Similarly Catharine Whyte’s embrace of a unique path seems to have brought her to Banff. This well-heeled American, rumoured to have dated a Rockefeller back in the day, found herself in love with a fellow artist and Canadian, Peter Whyte. After marrying in 1930, the two became best known as artists, for landscape paintings of the Rockies. Even more importantly, at least in local circles, are their many and varied contributions to the town they loved. As founders of the Whyte Museum, they provided visitors with a venue to admire the world’s foremost collection of Rocky Mountain Art. But, Catharine was also honoured by the Stoney people, by being named a blood sister and granted the title “Princess White Shield” by them. Moreover, she was awarded the Order of Canada in 1978, and got her pilot’s licence at the age of 63. Check out these and other details regarding this high achieving Banffite at Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Mayor Sorensen’s bio is a little more familiar to me. To my knowledge she neither dated Rockefellers in her youth nor surveyed the backcountry full-length-skirted and on horseback. But, community builder she is. A proud Banffite for over 30 years, Karen served on the local school board and town council before being elected as mayor in 2010 and re-elected in 2013. She runs again this fall with a “3peat” in mind. One of the mayor’s proudest achievements to date is the town’s new affordable rental project, the 132 unit Deer Lane apartment building set to open late in 2018. That project is particularly important because it addresses the reality of the 56% of Banff residents who are under 35 and attempting to reconcile high rents with minimum wages. Furthermore, she is proud of the Banff transit system, Roam, providing public transportation in and beyond Banff. Karen explains, “We are working hard to get people out of their cars and onto our transit system. It’s environmentally the right thing to do and frankly, easier.” You can read all about it at Town of Banff.
These three wise and wonderful women of Banff are inspiring. Mary and Catharine strike me as women who fortified Banff because it was their chosen community –the home where they found love and adventure. Mayor Sorensen did too. She belongs in this trio of celebrated women who represent all of those who worked hard to show Banff, itself, and the world what a wonderful community it is. Want to learn more about fascinating Banffites? Great– take my walking food tour and hear all about them!