Discover four influential women on a Beechwood historical tour

A journalist, writer and playwright from the early 19th century who contributed greatly to Canada’s literary activities. A 1913-born composer and creator of more than 120 pieces of work, including a symphony and other orchestral compositions, as well as various solo, trio and quartet pieces for the piano, organ, strings and more. The litigant who, in the late 1980s, led a class-action lawsuit against Ottawa over its discriminatory Chinese head tax. And a philanthropist who captivated Ottawa Citizen readers by documenting her adventures when she and her family set out to sail the world in 1997.

On the 11th of September, Beechwood Cemetery will honour these four women who impacted the world around them during their lifetime and beyond. Their stories will come to life when Canada’s national cemetery stages its Annual Historical Tour. “

Writer Madge Hamilton Macbeth, composer Violet Archer, the justice-seeking Chow Quen Lee and traveller Diane Stuemer are all revolutionary pioneers in their own right,” says Nick McCarthy, Beechwood’s director of marketing, communications and community outreach. “They should be known. We are honoured to tell their stories.”

For the past 27 years, the Annual Historical Tour has been a themed guided walking tour, complete with costumed actors who perform vignettes about some of the featured individuals. The 2022 tour will be a bit different, performed on a stage at the cemetery’s Mausoleum, near the Beechwood National Memorial Centre. A singer will also perform 30 minutes before each show. The new format, a COVID measure, is being implemented to ensure attendees are safe.

Erika Wagner is Beechwood’s programming and fundraising co-ordinator. She says Beechwood will also use the free event to unveil two new Great Canadian Profiles plaques. These bright green plaques bear a brief biography of a person of historical interest who is buried at Beechwood. Since it started in the late 1990s, the plaque program has resulted in over 70 plaques, with more being added each year.

“We will be unveiling plaques for Diane Stuemer and Chow Quen Lee,” says Wagner. “We are always looking to increase the diversity in the plaque program, and it’s been several years since we had an all-women event. Lee was an obvious choice, for example. While the lawsuit she was involved in was dismissed, it led to the Canadian government issuing an official apology at the House of Commons and issuing redress to those who paid the head tax. We worked with her family to create the biography that will be on the plaque.”

Adds McCarthy, “We look at plaque unveilings as something that should be community-based, so this was a wonderful opportunity. The plaque program is a distinct feature of Beechwood that allows you to discover incredible stories as you walk around the cemetery. You can even plan your own tour by the subject matter that interests you.” Narrowing down the four women to highlight this year from the 85,000 people laid to rest in Beechwood wasn’t easy, says McCarthy.

But the Annual Historical Tour ultimately focuses on figures that Canadians may not, but should, know. The cemetery’s public events also strive to ensure visitors discover parts of Canada’s history that strengthen their connection to Beechwood as a space to spend time in and engage with.

“We hope creating that connection to these women sparks an interest in people doing their own research to learn more,” says Wagner. “We hope someone says, ‘I want to know who came after Macbeth,’ who wrote during an era when journalism was male-dominated. We bring history to life and kids, for example, are wrapped up in the actors but at the same time, they are learning about people who impacted and changed Canada.”

The Annual Historical Tour sets the stage for Beechwood’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2023. Leading up to the milestone, McCarthy says people can expect many activities and events. He also encourages people to share the stories of their loves ones who are buried at the cemetery.

“We have 85,000 people at Beechwood and that means we have 85,000 stories to share,” he says. “We want a story for every person buried here. We are so privileged to know some of them, and we are honoured to gather and tell the stories of those we may not yet know.” The 2022 Annual Historical Tour will have two showings.

The first, in English, will be at 2 p.m. on the 11th of September. The second, in French, will be at 3:30 p.m. The event, as well as parking, is free.