Alice Belanger was the first woman to win a seat on council in the 1950s, and Darlene Swiderski was the first First Nations woman to be elected councillor in 1995.
Darlene Swiderski was a quiet individual who began working at Safeway in 1972. It was during the Safeway Strike of 1978, that she joined the local United Food and commercial Workers Union. Following the strike, she became more politically involved in groups such as the Manitoba Federation of Labor, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Human Rights Aboriginal Group and the Selkirk and District Labour Council.
In 1995, Darlene was elected to serve on the Selkirk town council. At first, she found it intimidating because everyone that she was working with had been born in, had grown up in, and had strong family roots in Selkirk whereas she had grown up in Matheson Island. Darlene recalls, her and Chris Pawley were deemed the ‘new kids on the block’ and it was intimidating at first because they did not know anyone. However, Bud Oliver and Dawn MacFarlane became their mentors, and they found their footing quickly. Darlene’s efforts soon paid off as she was re-elected twice and then in 2005 she was selected as Deputy Mayor.
In 2006, Darlene ran for mayor but lost and had to give up her seat on council. At that stage, she decided to get involved in community-driven initiatives. She became the Community Facilitator for Neighbourhoods Alive!, a government initiative to spark redevelopment in communities across the province. She then became Executive Director of Selkirk Community Renewal Corporation in 2008. In 2010 she found her way back to council and has been re-elected because of her achievements every election since.
Darlene commented that as an Indigenous woman she has not faced any challenges on town council. Any issues that arose were not related to her background or for being a woman. Her advice for young women looking to get into politics is, “Firstly, if you are running, make sure you are running for the right reason and not to be a ‘one issue’ candidate. Secondly, you should never be afraid to ask questions or to give your opinions. It can be very challenging to speak your mind and there will always be people who disagree with you, so agree to disagree and move on. Lastly, always remember that you are working as a team which is working for the good of the community. Always have the interest of the community at heart.”
Alice Belanger was born on October 30, 1923, in Ste. Anne, Manitoba. She left home at the young age of 17 and went to McMunn, Manitoba. There she became a teacher and taught in a one room schoolhouse. When World War II started her teaching position was frozen. To obtain her teaching certificate she attended Winnipeg’s Normal School Institute. After graduating she taught in Giroux, Manitoba and then came to Selkirk to teach at the old Junior High.
On May 23, 1958, Alice Belanger became the first women elected to town council with 167 votes against her opponent Joseph Starodub. She was re-elected again in 1961. Alice’s father had been a councillor and reeve in St. Anne’s, so she was familiar with the work and some of the challenges that she might face.
Alice was 34 years old at the time and had six children, however, she remained present for all her children. Noel, Belanger’s second eldest son remembers his mother as being an excellent multitasker as she balanced motherhood, the busyness of elections, monthly council meetings, and a day-job as a teacher. Eldest daughter, Noella, shares the same sentiment, that they never suffered from her absence. In fact, Noella recalls herself helping her mother with paperwork during her early teen years.
“My mom loved being involved, whether it was fundraising, doing research for her books, or helping at our church. She was a born organizer.” – Noella. Alice helped renovate the St. Mary’s ward at the Selkirk General Hospital and ran the canteen there; she was the secretary for the Ladies of St. Anne and was active in the St. Clements and St. Andrews Agriculture Societies and in Notre Dame Church; she was the chairwoman of the Health and Welfare committee, and served on the Finance and Building Committees. Alice became a citizen member of the Town Planning Commission; became the President of the local chapter of the Catholic Women’s League serving multiple terms; she was a gold leaf member and received the Bellelle Geurin Award in 2017. In 2008, she was honoured as the Citizen of the Year by the City of Selkirk.
While Alice Belanger’s time on council ended decades ago, Darlene Swiderski still serves today. Both women have been ground-breakers while on Selkirk Council. Alice proved that a woman could do the job as well as a man, and Darlene brought an Indigenous perspective to council decisions. The sacrifices of time and energy that they have committed to the job of councillor deserves our respect and admiration.
Unfortunately, Alice Belanger passed away on May 30, 2023, but as the first woman to be elected to council, she will be remembered for her courage and her dedication. Darlene continues to serve as a City of Selkirk councillor with a long list of successful projects to her credit.
We thank these women for their hard work and dedication to the City of Selkirk.