Community Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Mormons/Brigham Y. Card

Community life in Canada in the 1990s ranges from the original “Mormon country” in southwestern Alberta, where members of the church form the majority, to other cities and towns across the country, where they are in the minority in relation to the general population. In a nationwide survey of active Mormons outside southern Alberta in 1993, it was found that 63 percent perceived themselves as at the centre of Mormon life in Canada, 14 percent believed that they were on the periphery, and 16 percent described themselves as in between. In relation to the places where they lived as a religious minority, 48 percent saw themselves at the centre of community life, 20 percent at the periphery, and 22 per cent in between. These findings suggest a greater sense of integration in the church than in the non-church, residential community, but a substantial proportion of those surveyed were only partially integrated in either community, church or non-church.

Historically, Mormon settlements were part of three community networks. The first linked them to other ethnic settlements in western Canada, notably the Mennonites, Doukhobors, francophones, and German Catholics. In southwestern Alberta, Mormons also interacted with natives, Hutterites, Japanese Canadians, and others. The second network was the Mormon community itself, at first an extension of Great Basin settlements, from which colonies in Canada derived economic, religious, and cultural support. Networks established among the early settlements in Alberta added to their recognition as the focus of the Mormon presence in Canada. More recently, Mormon congregations in the major cities have helped to create a community of faith and culture in urban areas, the best example being the community in Calgary, which was involved in the city’s support for the 1988 Winter Olympics.

At a third level are networks created within the community according to function, particularly in the west. Thus, within the western economy, Cardston functioned as a prairie farm city and Magrath, Raymond, and Stirling as home towns, all linked to the centre in Lethbridge. Beginning in the 1950s, partly as a response to the expansion of irrigation and population growth, Mormon communities became connected more closely to other southwestern Alberta communities through the Old Man River Region Planning Commission. Promotion and tourism introduced still other linkages, reflecting changing community aspirations, as Cardston became the “temple city,” Magrath, the “garden city,” and Raymond, the “sugar city” and more recently the “rodeo city.” In 1992 Stirling, built at a railway junction, acquired two designations: as the “reunion centre” of Alberta and as a national historic site for its significance as a pioneer Mormon village. The opening of the Remington-Alberta Carriage Centre in Cardston in 1993 to interpret Alberta’s past as a horse-based culture symbolized the town’s importance in the region.

In Mormon communities in Alberta there is little open acknowledgement of social class. Members share the view prevalent in western Canada and the Mormon Church that each is classless or ought to be so. However, social ranking has been an element in Mormon community life from the beginning. The date of arrival in a given settlement conveyed a status that was passed on through family tradition. The immigrants’ status in Utah, initially important to social rank, receded with the passage of time and the building of a reputation in Canada, though in recent years it has been revived among some women with Utah ancestry through the International Society of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, based in Salt Lake City. Being the descendant of a Mormon pioneer who arrived in the Salt Lake valley before the coming of the railway in 1869 is a requirement for membership. Originally established as the Sons and Daughters of Utah Pioneers in 1898, the organization later split into two separate groups. The male association has not taken root in Canada, but the female organization formed its first camp in Cardston in 1976. By 1994 it numbered 320 members in Alberta, organized into companies and camps. There are a few members-at-large in British Columbia, but camps have not been formed in other provinces. In addition to holding monthly meetings, the groups collect pioneer histories and artifacts and set up displays and documentary collections in cooperation with local historical societies, as in Raymond and Cardston, or in space provided in the church’s family-history building in Lethbridge.

Location was an intrusive way of ranking in the settlement period and continues to be so. Individuals were town people or country people whose different access to amenities and opportunities was a source of strained relations. Each settlement also had better and poorer districts by which residents were rated, usually in conjunction with their occupation. Cardston’s better homes were to be found near Main Street and on the principal roads leading to it. Raymond had a better district near the church and school; the poorer homes were in “Frog Bottom” north of the tracks. As well, males and females were ranked by appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. Cooking, sewing, dress, good grooming, and careful speech added to female rank, while the use of intoxicants and tobacco, gambling, idleness, or swearing lowered rank among males, reducing their prospects for marriage.

Within the church, social ranking has been a dynamic factor in community leadership. People were assessed not only on their faithfulness, intensity of commitment, and church office but also on their potential for leadership in the church and the community. Such ranking is reflected in calls to the priesthood, the selection of officeholders, and reprimands for aberrant behaviour. Informal discrimination against families and groups has led some Mormons to transfer their allegiance from church circles to non-church groups, such as those formed for sports or business. The in- and out-groups associated with social ranking in one settlement in Alberta are vividly described in Herbert Harker’s novel Circle of Fire.

Social mobility and leadership in Mormon communities are correlated with ranking within the church through the selection of lay leadership and service assignments in a structure that has remained essentially unchanged since the church was founded. Any individual may be called by a stake president, bishop, or other presiding officer to a position of responsibility appropriate to his or her age and gender. All members are continuously being prepared to take up such duties. Accepting a call is voluntary, but lobbying for a position is not encouraged. Since one is called to serve without pay until released, acquiring status or power by holding a position indefinitely is not possible. A bishop, stake president, or other officer who has been released becomes simply a member, though a succession of calls to leadership positions can amount to a career of church service. The only exceptions are the individuals who compose the church’s Council of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles; they hold office for life.

The leadership process balances authority, power, ability, and motivation and negates the seeking of personal power, politicking, or the emulation of business practice. In Mormon communities in Alberta there have been a succession of male and female leaders who have combined family, community, and church roles. Foremost among these were Charles O. Card and his wife, Zina, and other early settlers and the long-term presidents of the Alberta and Taylor stakes, Heber Simeon Allen and Edward J. Wood, and their wives. Their influence has extended throughout Alberta and many parts of Canada because of the hundreds of Mormons whom they helped to prepare for leadership in the church and the community.

From the first settlement, associations have been an intrinsic part of Mormon community life. Within the church a Sunday School Union met each Sunday to teach individuals of all ages. For younger adults and youth, the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Associations, each with its own officers, provided recreation and personal development in the evening. On weekday afternoons a children’s Primary Association meeting was held, led by mothers and older girls. Adult women had their own influential organization, the Relief Society, whose members visited homes in the community to assess needs and provide instruction. In each ward there were also priesthood quorums for males aged twelve and over, supervised by an adult. Each stake had a president and a supervisory board, whose members travelled to each branch and ward to provide training and met with the membership in a quarterly conference.

As many as a quarter to a half of church members were actively involved in one or more of these associations, holding office and donating large amounts of their time to fill community needs. This associational pattern lasted until the 1970s, when it began to be simplified in order to put less demand on members’ time. The strengthening of the family was a major goal as the church adapted to increased urbanization, expansion, and the larger proportion of women in the workforce. By the 1980s most meetings were scheduled in a three-hour period on Sundays, so that associational activity was more adapted to contemporary life.

In the Mormon community there has been a long-standing pattern of regular visits to each household by pairs of priesthood-home teachers and by members of the Relief Society. They bring encouragement and assistance to families in need. This pattern worked well in Mormon towns and villages, but less well among isolated farms or ranches; today, it is being adapted to urban communities across Canada. Heads of households are consulted about the nature and desirability of regular visits. To supplement these personal contacts and the efforts of relatives, a bishop may refer a person to professional Mormon counsellors and social workers, who are in contact with non-Mormon community services.

The associational dynamics in Mormon communities reflects an organizational completeness within the church, together with an openness to innovation and cooperation with the larger society. This combination was reflected in 1910 when Alberta’s Mormons in Aetna and Cardston formed boy scout troops three years before the Mormon Church officially adopted scouting for its male youth and four years before the Boy Scouts Association of Canada was established. Scouting is vigorously supported in Mormon communities because of its outdoor emphasis and character-building qualities and because of the links that it provides with other communities. Women became involved in the Women’s Institute in Alberta in 1912, but the organization diminished in importance during the 1930s as service clubs began to appear. Lethbridge Rotarians helped to organize the Cardston Rotary Club in 1929, and a Lions Club was established in 1940. These two service organizations, together with Kiwanis clubs, have both Mormon and non-Mormon members in southwestern Alberta, as elsewhere in Canada. After World War II the Canadian Legion also brought communities together. But conflicting loyalties and cultural differences continue to hamper the development of goodwill, acceptance, and neighbourliness in interactions between Mormons and other groups.

In contemporary Canadian society the role of Mormon women is extended through participation in pro-family organizations, such as the Alberta Federation of Women United for Families. Some women take time from family, church, and employment to serve as in leaders in a variety of community and other organizations, including the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) and the International Council of Women (ICW). Australian-born June Carter, past president of the Edmonton Council on Women, has twice been vice-president of the NCWC and has also been a delegate to the ICW. All Mormon women are indirectly involved in these associations since the Relief Society is an organizational member of the NCWC.

In community health, the earliest Mormon practitioners were midwives and practical nurses. Cardston had its first dentist in 1887, its first medical doctor in 1898, a pharmacy a year later, a private hospital in 1911, and a municipal one in 1920. In Raymond the first doctor set up practice in 1902, and the municipal hospital was opened in 1944. Lethbridge provided some visiting doctors and dentists and the only major hospital in the region.

A debate on state medicine in a meeting involving the Mormon Mutual Improvement Association and the Cardston Debating Society in 1931 led to the formation the following year of an organization, later called the Cardston Health Society, that sold medical coverage for a family for $25 a year. The society recruited and paid the doctors, who were able to practise without worrying about collecting their fees, a serious problem in the 1930s. David Osborne Wight, editor of the Cardston News, was the prime mover behind this early experiment with group health insurance, which was adopted in other Mormon communities. The scheme was carried on successfully until 1968, when it was dissolved to make way for provincial health care. Many Mormons and their doctors still favour the collective approach to medicine, but others lean towards private and competitive models based on a profit motive.

The sale of alcohol had been prohibited in the North-West Territories in 1873, before the arrival of the first settlers. The North-West Mounted Police established a major detachment at Fort Macleod to deal with American whisky traders who demoralized the natives and contributed to lawlessness in the area. In their opposition to alcohol, Mormons found common cause with native leaders, the Protestant clergy, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and concerned citizens. They waged a constant crusade against its use in their homes, churches, and civic and business groups and voted by a strong majority against legalizing the sale of liquor in plebiscites in 1898, 1915, 1920, and 1923. The prohibition against the sale of alcohol in the area has continued to the mid-1990s, though at times it has been jeopardized by dissident Mormon hoteliers and other business people who cater to tourists, bootleggers who sell liquor to natives and non-natives, and groups of Mormons and others who drink locally or in nearby “wet” communities. A major threat has come from efforts by some politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists to standardize access to liquor throughout Alberta on a private-enterprise basis. Their position has been at odds with the traditional values of a number of ethno-religious groups in the province, of whom Mormons are only one.

Mormon lifestyle and health practices have resulted in favourable life-expectancy rates in comparison with the rest of the Canadian population. Among the community in southern Alberta over the years, the incidence of alcoholism has been lower than among non-Mormon neighbours, except for the Hutterite colonies. Since pioneer days, Mormons have made concerted efforts to reclaim drinkers; in many instances they succeeded, and these individuals have become leaders in the church and the community. Congregational shunning for drinking or other deviations has not been practised, though a member could be asked to refrain from communion or church responsibility. For the relatively few problem drinkers, professional counselling has been provided in collaboration with such agencies as Alcoholics Anonymous. The emphasis has remained on the prevention of alcoholism through voluntary abstinence, reinforced through religion and culture.