TALES AND LEGENDS OF THE MOUNTAIN KINGDOM: The life and times of Phyllis Gregory
I think by now we’re very familiar with the big male names in Rossland’s history–Ross Thompson and John Kirkup, for instance–but there seems to be not very much said in local histories about important women from Rossland. Sure, we know about Mrs. Allen and her famous hotel, and there are the dancers and saloon girls and prostitutes that made up part of the social fabric of early Rossland, but did you know that the Mountain Kingdom was long the home of one trail-blazing woman who went on to be very influential in the federal government during WWII and eventually went on to hold the highest position a woman could hold in the Canadian Civil Service? She was also a single mother to boot. Her name was Phyllis Gregory.
At one time she was Phyllis Turner, and finally, she was Phyllis Ross, and she has a great story indeed. In 1896, a young Nova Scotian couple arrived in Rossland as the town was beginning its mining boom. Jimmy Gregory, from Stellarton, NS, and his wife Mary Margaret Macdonald, of Mulgrave, NS, came to the Mountain Kingdom with two young children, Marcella and Gladys. Jimmy was a mining hoist operator, and in 1898 the couple had a son born in Rossland named Howard. In 1903, Phyllis was born.
I couldn’t find a lot about Phyllis’s childhood in Rossland on the internet. It might be safe to assume that she attended Central School at the corner of St. Paul and Fourth Avenue (which I previously wrote about here), and which was two or three blocks from her home at 2418 Washington St., right across from the front doors of RSS (the house is still there). Central School was too small for its population, wasn’t hooked up to the sewer system, and it burned down by a suspected arson in 1917 during a heated debate about whether or not to build a new, bigger school on the same lot or to build a new, bigger school on the lot where Maclean currently sits.
By 1917, Phyllis would have been 14 years old. In between that fire and the opening of the new Maclean School at St. Paul and Second Avenue, Phyllis might have been one of the students who attended one of the temporary school locations at the Armouries or the Methodist Church. We might assume, then, that Phyllis, at the age of 15, attended the new Maclean School, where she completed high school.
Who knows for sure?
What is known is that Phyllis was a bit of an academic star, because she went on to graduate from the University of British Columbia in 1925 with an honours BA in Economics and Political Science. She was then awarded with the Susan B. Anthony Fellowship to Bryn Mawr College at the London School of Economics, where she graduated with a MA in 1927, and she eventually went on to earn a PhD at the University of Marburg in Germany.
According to one site, it was at Marburg that Phyllis met her future husband, Leonard Turner, a gunsmith and journalist. Once married, they had three children in three years: John, Michael, and Brenda. Michael died in infancy, and in 1932, with two tiny children, Phyllis was tragically widowed when Leonard died. I can find two theories about Leonard’s death: one was that he died of malaria complicated by a large goitre, and one says that he died of hyperthyroidism (which would explain the goitre). Whichever the case, Phyllis was now unemployed, a single mother, and had no money. She did what a lot of women in similar circumstances have done since the beginning of time: she moved back in with her parents.
Arriving in Rossland via Halifax in 1932, it didn’t take long for Phyllis to start on her remarkable career path. In 1934, she packed up her kids and left the Mountain Kingdom again, this time for Ottawa, where she had landed a job on the Canadian Tariff Board as an economist. She lived in a small downtown apartment and made not very much money. Three years later, in 1937, she was the Tariff Board’s Chief Economist.
Her star continued to ascend. While WWII was difficult for so many, it was great for Phyllis’s career. She moved over to the War Time Prices and Trade Board as an economic advisor, and eventually became the Fats and Oils Administrator.
The War Time Prices and Trade Board was established by the federal government on September 3, 1939, and its job was to manage inflation during the war, since the inflation rate during WWI was so extreme. By and large, the Board was successful despite some struggles, and inflation only rose 2.8% between October 1941 and April 1945. Phyllis was a part of that.
The Board was also in charge of the rationing program Canadian citizens had to endure during the war.
As Fats and Oils Administrator, Phyllis probably had a lot to do with the nationwide rationing of, well, fats and oils. During WWII, fats such as butter, margarine and shortening were rationed, as was fuel oil and oil products. As you can imagine, this was a vitally important part of Canada’s war effort and as Fats and Oils Administrator, Phyllis would have had a very influential job. Her service during the war didn’t go unrecognized: she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In 1945, Phyllis, as Chief Economist of the Tariff Board, had achieved the highest office a woman could hold in the Canadian Civil Service, but even as such, she only received two thirds the salary a man in the same position would make.
After 11 years working for the federal government, Phyllis found love again, marrying Frank Mackenzie Ross in 1945. An industrialist, Frank became the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia in 1955, a post he held for 5 years. During this time, Phyllis didn’t exactly retire. From 1951-1954, she became a member of UBC’s senate, and was appointed as the the university’s first female chancellor in 1961. Not only was she UBC’s first female chancellor, she was the Commonwealth’s first female chancellor.
In 1967 she was made a Member of the Order of Canada, recognizing her years of public service to the country.
As the wife of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, Phyllis made two official trips to her hometown of Rossland. One was in 1958, and the other was as honourary chairperson of the Rossland Historical Museum Association where she turned the first sod for our museum building. She came again in 1967 and cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the museum.
Alzheimer’s Disease eventually took Phyllis’s life in 1988. This woman had one full life indeed, never seeming to stop despite personal tragedies and never shrinking back from ambition in her career despite the gender inequalities of the time.
And perhaps her most well-known legacy is her son, John Napier Turner, who in 1972 became Minister of Finance under Pierre Trudeau, and had a brief, three-month stint as Prime Minister of Canada in 1984.
Memory BC: The British Columbia Archival Information Network,
CBC Digital Archives,
Maturing in Hard Times: Canada’s Department of Finance Through the Great Depression, by Robert Broughton Bryce, found on Google Books
UBC Archives Senate Tributes,
Discovering the Kootenays website,