Abbie Jacques Lane was 40 years old when she was pregnant with her third and final child, Jean. Her other two children, Margaret and Frederick (Ted), were already in their teens. During her pregnancy, Lane had the lead role in a production of The Torch-Bearers at the Theatre Arts Guild in Halifax. Lane wouldn’t get into municipal politics for another 12 years, but her daughter Jean Lane Duncan, who lives in Philadelphia, remembers her mother as a woman always ahead of her time. Duncan says her mother taught her she could do anything, and she had to learn how to support herself.
“She was not universally well liked,” say Duncan. “She was not a saint by any stretch of the imagination. But she really did care. I had enormous respect for her and the proper amount of fear as a daughter should have for her mother.”
Many Haligonians know the name Abbie J. Lane because of the hospital and part of the QEII Health Sciences. But Jean Lane Duncan has all sorts of stories about her mother, who served as the alderman of Ward 2, the city’s second woman alderman, and the city’s first deputy mayor, biographical facts which haven’t been chronicled anywhere recently. But David MacDonald wrote this article, Ubiquitous is the Word for Abbie, for Macleans in 1953, two years after she won the by-election in Ward 2. Charles Bruce Fergusson published a biography, Alderman Abbie Lane, in 1976 (you can read it in the Halifax Public Library).
“Mother was a very strong force and I think she had to be given her growing up experience, which was quite tragic,” Duncan says.
Lane was born Abigail Amanda Jacques in Halifax in 1898 to Dr. Hartley Jacques and Margaret Locke Jacques. Duncan says Hartley Jacques was an alcoholic whose drinking become worse after Lane’s younger sister, Estelle (Stella), died from spinal meningitis at the age of three.
Divorce wasn’t an option then, so Margaret Jacques took young Abbie to live at her sister’s house. In 1904, the pair went to New York and lived in a boarding house in Brooklyn, where Margaret Jacques worked low-paying jobs. Duncan remembers her mother telling her stories of those days: how her coat was lined with newspapers to keep warm and how in the summer she’d beg her mother to take her to Coney Island. Margaret Jacques would save a few cents for the trip.
“At age seven or eight, I was in tears hearing those stories,” Duncan says.
When Hartley Jacques died, Abbie Jacques and her mother moved back to Nova Scotia, first living in Truro. As a young woman, she worked as a teller in a bank in Truro, eventually getting a transfer to Halifax. In the city, Abbie Jacques met her fiancé, Frederick A. Lane, who later became manager and secretary/treasurer of the Nova Scotia Savings, Loans, and Building Society.
Abbie Jacques and Frederick Lane were engaged for six years while Abbie took care of her mother, who suffered from uterine cancer. The couple got married one year to the day Margaret Jacques died.
Duncan was six years old when her mother got a job as the woman’s editor at the Halifax Chronicle, where she reported on the social events in the city, from parties to weddings.
Abbie Lane later worked at CJCH, which was then on the top floor of the Lord Nelson Hotel, where she was a woman’s commentator.
“She’d go off to the radio station for her program, which I think was at 10:45 in the morning,” Duncan says. “If I was home sick in bed, I remember she’d always end the program with ‘This is Abbie Lane. Good morning, ladies.’ And then she’d say, ‘Good morning, Jean,’ which thrilled me.”
Duncan says her mother was an advocate for the city’s poor and she served as the president of the Halifax Welfare Bureau for six years. She was on the city’s civic planning committee, which spent and helped draft Halifax’s master plan. Over the years, Lane’s contribution to the community would include her role as president of Zonta Club of Halifax, president of Halifax Women of Rotary, president of the women’s branch of the Women’s Press Club, and a member of national board of directors of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Lane served as provincial president with the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire. In 1959, Lane represented Canada at an international women’s conference in Bogata, Colombia.
Duncan was in Grade 6 when her mother decided to go into politics. She ran in a by-election in Ward 2 after the death of Charles Hosterman in 1951.
“I think women have a big role to play in the community and I decided to play mine,” Abbie Lane told reporter David MacDonald of Macleans.
Frederick Lane was one of Abbie Lane’s biggest supporters.
“My father encouraged every single thing she did,” Duncan says. “I always recognized mother was what she was because of him. She had the ambition, and he was willing to sit back and let her do it. She felt women needed to get involved and she did.”
Lane and her friends ran the campaign from her home; it was a kitchen campaign. Lane defeated Allan M. Butler in that by-election 1254 votes to 675. Lane served as alderman for Ward 2 for 14 years. She served as deputy mayor, the city’s first woman in the role, from 1954 to 1955. Even then, Duncan knew what her mother’s win meant.
“I knew it was very important,” Duncan says. “I knew it was controversial. In some ways, I had to take a lot of ribbing through the years because whatever she did got reported and was in the paper and I’m sure there was chitchat at friends’ homes about Abbie Lane. It was very clear to me at a young age I must do nothing to embarrass her, certainly publicly or privately, because it would result in more criticism. But quite honestly, I was so proud of her.”
Duncan says her mother didn’t want to be called alderwoman.
“She said alderman designates the position,” Duncan says. “It has nothing to do with your sex. She wanted people to realize she was every bit as smart as the men were, to the extent she wore a matching hat, gloves, bag, and shoes to any meeting in the daytime as a reminder she was, in fact, a woman.”
But being a woman in politics did follow Lane. Duncan remembers her mother being told her place was in the home. Even that 1953 article from Maclean’s mentions Lane’s weight.
“I think some of the men thought, ‘Why don’t you go home and take care of business,’” Duncan says.
One particular political decision caused Duncan some grief during her senior year at high school. At the time, Lane was chairman of the school board, which decided all boys were required to wear dress shirts and ties to school after local merchants complained that young people weren’t dressed properly for job interviews.
“It caused such an uproar,” Duncan remembers. “My senior year in high school, I got teased a lot and boys would come to school with ties on backwards or inside out.”
The Macleans article says Lane always had her eye on becoming the city’s first woman mayor, although Duncan says she doesn’t think her mother was thinking about running that soon after being elected alderman. She does think her mother had supporters to run.
In those days, mayoral terms were alternated between Protestant and Catholic candidates, and Lane could only run in a Protestant term. Lane could have run in 1960, the year Jean and Peter Duncan married, but Duncan says her mother didn’t want a campaign to distract from that celebration.
In October 1965, Duncan says Lane told her family and close friends she was planning to run.
“We thought it was long overdue,” Duncan says.
But Lane never got to campaign. Duncan says the family knew she was ill, but Lane was private about how she was feeling. Jean and Peter Duncan came home that summer from Philadelphia and Jean Duncan encouraged her mother to go home with them for treatment.
“She said I’m not seeing any doctors if there’s anything wrong with me,” Duncan recalls. “I have no intention of doing anything about it.”
Lane was admitted to the hospital with a collapsed lung on Dec. 3, Duncan’s birthday. Lane was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was about to start chemotherapy.
“Mother was terrified of dying of cancer because her mother had a very painful death,” Duncan says.
The next morning, Lane suffered a massive heart attack and died. She was 67.
Duncan has more memories of her mother beyond the politics. The family spent summers at their cottage in Hubbards. On Sundays in the winter, Duncan and her mother would stand together outside the fence at the Public Gardens and feed the ducks. When Duncan was a teenager, Lane would pick up Duncan from school and they’d have lunch at the Seashore Restaurant. They’d go to the movies at a private room at the Highland Theatre. “I would turn down a date, not every time, but I thought I’d rather go to the movies with mum,” Duncan says.
Duncan would drive Lane to events out of town where she was scheduled to make speeches. They’d make a weekend getaway out of it.
But Lane was strict, too. Duncan remembers being grounded for the entire season of Lent one year because she came home from a Friday night party at 1:30 a.m.
“Forty days and forty nights, I want you to know,” Duncan says. “Mother was fit to be tied. She was furious. I hit the top steps of the second floor and I heard, “Jean…” and she let me have it with both barrels and said you’re grounded for the entire season of Lent.”
Lane was also a great poker player. Duncan remembers when she first introduced her eventual husband, Peter Duncan, to her mother. Lane came down the stairs of their home in a hurry, and she said, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to change for my poker game tonight.”
“My husband fell apart. He couldn’t believe she was going to play poker, this dignified lady. Peter Duncan and Abbie Lane would become fast friends, telling off-colour jokes while drinking martinis.
The city named the hospital after Lane years after her death. The portrait of Lane that hangs in the hospital was commissioned by Frederick Lane. Duncan says her mother would be proud of the honour.
Besides the hospital, there’s a fountain in the Public Gardens Frederick Lane had built dedicated to his late wife (the Friends of the Public Gardens wrote about it in its more recent newsletter). Duncan says the family visits the fountain any time they visit the city and often laugh about the monument because Lane didn’t like birds.
“It’s become a great family joke because whenever we’re home, we gather around that fountain and take a picture,” Duncan says. “And my daughter said the last time, “Why are we standing around a fountain grandmother would have hated to take a picture?”
Duncan says she misses her mother as much as she did when she died in 1965.
“I miss her laughter, her hugs, her quick wit,” Duncan says. “She was very warm. Her laughter was infectious. I always felt cheated because I was 27 when she died. I had two children of my own, she never saw her last grandchild.”
But Duncan tells stories about her mother to keep her legacy alive.
“She often said, she was a public servant, not a politician,” Duncan says. “She never had an axe to grind, she didn’t make any money. She did get paid what every alderman did. She set the example that women could and should be involved in their community. She was a true woman of faith and she did care about her fellow human beings. She was gracious, she was funny, she had a very quick tongue in all kinds of ways. That to me is her legacy. She did it herself long before it was fashionable, but she was equally qualified. Her success was driven by her brains, her ability, her drive, and her need to look after other people. There was no glory in it for her.”
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