This is one of a series of articles, as part of the feature called "Helpers", which focuses on people and organizations that help make our community better.
If you missed the headline The Eva Wardlaw Conservation Area was badly damaged by flooding in 2019 and now there is work being done to improve the shoreline and reduce erosion in the future.
One BayToday commenter asked, “Just curious; Who is the person this area was named after and why would her name be used?”
To sum it up in one-word Eva Wardlaw was a "trailblazer." A big advocate for women’s rights in the 1950s and beyond. She served as a city councillor, a board member for Nipissing University, Canadore College, the North Bay Mattawa Conservation Authority, and more.
By profession, Wardlaw was a teacher and eventually a principal at Paul Davoud School at the North Bay Canadian Forces Base. This is where her daughter Cindy McGuinty says her mother made her biggest contribution.
“When she died, I got messages from well over 100 of her ex-students,” says McGuinty. “Even though she was a principal she would get to that school every morning at 7:30, get all of her paperwork and stuff done, and through the day she was constantly in the classrooms.”
McGuinty says her mother wanted to make those kids feel they were embraced and accepted at the school. She says, “I can remember going to the school and she walked down the hall and she knew almost every single kid's name that we passed by, which is tough enough for a principal at a grade 1-8 school in North Bay, but this was a military school where the kids changed every two years, which is why she went so out of her way to make sure that they got extra attention because she wanted to give them that sense of welcoming and having a place they enjoyed being a part of. She got close with her students and that was a big part of her legacy.”
Wardlaw came to North Bay in the 1930s from Greece and it would be the place she would spend almost her entire life.
“She was about five years old when the family immigrated here,” says McGuinty.
“She taught in Barrie for a year and then they lived in St. Catharines (where Cindy was born) for two years for my father’s work. His name was Everett McGuinty and the family immediately moved back to North Bay as he was part of the McGuinty Funeral Home group. So, she basically lived her whole life in North Bay, and she loved the city and she loved to be active.”
It wasn’t an easy life for Wardlaw as a young immigrant in 1930s Canada.
“My mother didn’t know any English when she first came over here and had to start school immediately in grade one and just had to learn by being in school. She changed her name to Mitchell from Mihelakos because the kids were pretty cruel to immigrants. We got made fun of for eating yogurt and feta cheese. We had to go to Toronto to even get yogurt and people thought it was weird that we ate it. But right from a young age, she was bound and determined that she was going to teach people that even though she was an immigrant she was going to be an upstanding Canadian and an advocate for women’s rights.”
McGuinty recalls that her mother being a principal was a big accomplishment just due to her gender. She says, “I don’t know if she was the first female principal of the school but definitely her work circle was all men.”
And it was something she worked hard to achieve.
“She left the house every morning at 7:30 to go to school. She was on the board of Directors for Nipissing University, Canadore College, Children’s Aid Society. I can’t even count how many boards she sat on, but she was also taking classes constantly. During my high school years, there were two or three summers where she wasn’t here because she left to go to school in Ottawa for her master’s degree. She was basically in school or taking classes until her 40s,” says McGuinty.
City Councillor Dave Mendicino calls Wardlaw a mentor for him as she was the one who encouraged him to get involved in local politics.
“She was a trailblazer. She got things done and she could hold her own in discussions with anybody. That part of her personality and wanting to get things done is something that helped her in those early days, especially when you didn’t see a lot of women running for city council.”
“The thing that stands out the most about her days on council was that her phone would ring nonstop,” says McGuinty.
The public had more respect for council members back then.
“There wasn’t internet back then and her number was in the phone book, so people would constantly call her. Complaints about whether the garbage was picked up or just everyday business. The stuff the councillors get today on social media was basically all done by the phone when she was a councillor. But at the same time, there was a whole lot more respect for the councillors than there is now. She was constantly being stopped by citizens when we were out shopping and the residents were always saying thanks for this, thanks for that. They were very much more appreciative back then than they are now it seems. With my mother, it was a lot of positivity in person. And she really was a people person.”
“I don’t know how she would feel about these zoom council meetings we’re having,” says Mendicino with a laugh. Then he adds, “Actually, I know for sure she wouldn’t like them. She was always about the face to face interactions because she was such a people person. You would see it every time you met with her in person. More often than not, we couldn’t have an entire conversation in a public place without someone interrupting us to thank her for something she had done for them, or just wanting to catch up on family. She was deeply engrained in the community.”
Mendicino has been a sitting member of the North Bay Mattawa Conservation Authority Board since 2003 and says even at that time, Wardlaw was still very active in community issues even if she was no longer a sitting board member.
“She joined the board in 1979 and was there for 18 years,” says Mendicino. “She helped shape a lot of the flood erosion plans and the watershed management studies that remain a big part of our mandate today. All this work not only protects bodies of water in the area but our drinking water as well.”
Another example of something she spearheaded that continues to have an impact today is the revitalization of Chippewa Creek.
“During the spring thaw, the water levels in that creek can get pretty high sometimes. Over the years the creek had eroded and was starting to cause a lot of damage,” says Mendicino. “Wardlaw led the charge in looking into studies on erosion in Chippewa Creek and what the city could do about it. These plans that she put together are what helped restore the creek and to this day we have programs in place, such as Restore the Shore, which is all connected to the work she did.”
The Eva Wardlaw Conservation Area was dedicated in 1997 to Wardlaw and McGuinty says the actual dedication has a funny story behind it.
“She and Mike Harris were really good friends. He was Premier during the time they were going to have the ceremony to name it after my mother and he wanted to be there. They ended up having to cancel it because there were busloads of people coming up from Toronto to protest against Mike Harris. So, they had to postpone it by two weeks, and it became an event that you could only attend by invitation.”
Mendicino says “She took a lot of pride in that park. A number of trees that are planted there were because of donations she made in memory of someone who passed. She took that as a big honour because that really became her park, she referred to it that way. It was a sense of pride for her and her family. I know how much it meant to them that it was dedicated to her and after her passing, they donated a tree in her memory and she’s certainly there in spirit watching over that park.”
McGuinty says, “She was thrilled with the park, but one of the biggest thrills was that she was one of the first women in North Bay to have something named after her while she was still alive. She was very excited about that and because out of all the stuff she did, aside from teaching and children her biggest thing was conservation and leaving a nice clean earth for her grandchildren.”
Wardlaw passed away in 2016 at the age of 87 but on December 31, 2019, her grandson Alex O’Hare married Stephanie Stripe in a beautiful (but cold) outdoor ceremony which took place on the frozen, snow-covered lawn of the Eva Wardlaw Conservation Area with Eva truly there in spirit.
If you have a story suggestion for the “helpers” series, send Matt an email at email@example.com