Bertha Clark-Jones (née Houle), OC, Cree-Métis advocate for the rights of Indigenous women and children (born 6 November 1922 in Clear Hills, AB; died 21 October 2014 in Bonnyville, AB). A veteran of the Second World War, Clark-Jones joined the Aboriginal Veterans Society and advocated for the fair treatment of Indigenous ex-service people. She was co-founder and first president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Clark-Jones devoted her life to seeking equality and greater power for women in Canada.
Early Life and Education
The fifth of 14 children in a Cree-Métis family, Bertha Clark-Jones grew up northwest of Peace River in the Athabasca region of Alberta. Her family was one of the first to settle in the small community of Clear Hills. They were not financially well off, particularly during the Depression of the 1930s, and Clark-Jones helped on the farm to make ends meet.
As a child, she never hesitated to speak up if she felt someone had received unjust treatment. “Having been raised in a large family,” she said, “I learned how to be a caring person who was always concerned for the people I lived or worked with.”
An athletic tomboy, she excelled at sports. Her parents and grandparents taught her the value of determination and a strong work ethic, which she later applied to her advocacy campaigns. She attended school to grade nine before starting to work at a nearby hospital, performing general duties. Although she hoped to become a nurse, Clark-Jones did not want to leave home to get an education. Before the Second World War broke out in 1939, she went to Grande Prairie, Alberta, to live with her sister and brother-in-law and worked locally until joining the war effort.
Fiercely patriotic, Bertha Clark-Jones joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at age 18 in 1940. (See also RCAF Women’s Division.) After finishing her physical training course, Clark-Jones achieved the rank of corporal and was put in charge of a squadron as drill instructor. She travelled the country in this role, working at various military bases. However, Clark-Jones remained disappointed in never having served overseas. After the war, she used her military experience to advocate for the fair treatment of Indigenous veterans and later joined the Aboriginal Veterans Society. (See Indigenous Peoples and the World Wars.)
While some Indigenous peoples faced discrimination both during and after the war, Clark-Jones recalled in a 2003 memoir that there was an atmosphere of camaraderie in the Armed Forces: “I never once felt any discrimination in the air force; it did not seem to matter that I was young, Aboriginal or a woman.… there was no time or place for discriminatory practices.”
After leaving the air force, Clark-Jones intended to live close to her family in the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta. While the Canadian government provided ex-service personnel loans to buy and farm land, as per the Veterans’ Land Act, Clark-Jones could not own land on the Métis settlement because she was a woman.
Clark-Jones was also aware that “First Nations peoples lost their Status when they left the reserves to join up, and this in turn meant that they did not have any land or houses when they returned.” This was due to provision of the Indian Act, which specified that First Nations soldiers who were absent from their reserves for four years lost their Indian Status. Witnessing this level of discrimination launched Clark-Jones’s advocacy for human rights and Indigenous women’s rights.
Did You Know?
In 2002, Bertha Clark-Jones was one of 20 Métis veterans who received a Golden Jubilee Medal from the Métis National Council in Edmonton. This honour recognized her role in Canada’s Armed Forces and her tireless advocacy for the rights of Indigenous women and children. The Governor General of Canada provided the medals to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
While serving in the Armed Forces, Bertha Clark-Jones had fallen for an Australian sergeant she affectionately called “Curly.” After the war ended, he returned to Australia, leaving her alone and pregnant in Canada, without the land she had hoped to live on. Unable to care for the child on her own, Clark gave her daughter up for adoption. In the 1990s, 50 years after the adoption, that daughter, Linda Graham Jasper, sought out and eventually met her biological mother.
Left to settle on land in Hawk Hills, Alberta, after the war, Bertha reunited with George Clark, a war veteran she had known from her teens. The two married and had children. They owned and operated a small farm with no modern equipment, working it for years. When their farmhouse burned down in the 1960s, the couple lost everything. Despite such hardships, Clark-Jones’s daughter Lynn says her parents showed great resiliency and maintained a happy marriage.
After the disastrous fire, Clark-Jones’s family moved to Fort McMurray, where Bertha began advocacy work in the community. She helped create Nistawoyou, an Indigenous Friendship Centre, which became a hub for Indigenous men and women looking for work who had come from Canada’s north. She also worked on the centre’s housing committees, before helping at NewStart, an educational upgrading program.
Campaigning to lessen the marginalization of Indigenous women and to make more educational resources available for them, Clark-Jones co-founded the Voice of Alberta Native Women’s Society in 1968. The Society represented both Status and Non-Status Indian women, helping them to achieve, among other things, equal rights under the Indian Act. (See also Indigenous Women and the Franchise.) In the early 1970s, Clark-Jones also helped the Society fight for the rights of Indigenous foster children. The group received grants from the Alberta government to help recruit foster parents within Indigenous communities. (See also Sixties Scoop.)
Clark-Jones continued her advocacy work as the Society became the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). She served as its first president in 1974, striving to help overcome many of the barriers and obstacles faced by Indigenous children in Canada’s social services system.
Did You Know?
Bertha Clark-Jones served on the Métis Judiciary Council, an organization of the Métis Nation of Alberta that reviews and decides on matters mostly concerning its members.
After retirement in the late 1980s, Bertha Clark-Jones continued to defend and promote Indigenous ancestral laws, spiritual beliefs, language and traditions. She served on the steering committee of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women to produce the book Our Women in Uniform: Honouring Aboriginal Women Veterans of Alberta, published in 2003. She is also recognized as an elder in the Alberta Métis community.
Death and Legacy
While on her deathbed, Bertha Clark-Jones encouraged her son George to file petitions with the lieutenant-governor of Alberta, requesting plebiscites on a proposed provincial carbon tax and the controversial Bill 6, which would apply new workplace safety regulations and compensation coverage to farm and ranch workers. George said that three days before his mother died at 91 of a stroke on 21 October 2014, Clark-Jones told him: “They need to hear what you have to say.” Despite widespread opposition, Bill 6 passed in December 2015.
She is remembered by many in the community as a strong and compassionate advocate for Indigenous women. As NWAC president Michèle Taïna Audette recalled, “Bertha Clark-Jones remains a model for empowered Aboriginal women, and her life is a testimony to the incredible changes we can achieve for society.” Thelma J. Chalifoux, the first female Indigenous senator in Canada, echoed Audette’s sentiment, saying, “She was always a class act and she led by example — her kind ways and generous heart were an inspiration… to us all.”
On 27 September 2022, Athabasca University opened the Bertha Clark-Jones O.C. Art Gallery and the Linda Bull Memorial Garden to honour the legacies of these influential Indigenous women.