There is nary a corner of St. Albert that didn’t flourish under the wise and warm guidance Margaret Plain offered. Although she passed away last month, her remarkable legacy of civic spirit will live on in a way that could forever be admired but will likely never be matched.
It’s impossible to fully recap the breadth and the scope of what she offered the community during her 80 years, but as far as her husband — former mayor Richard Plain — is concerned, it stemmed from her greatest devotion and love.
“First and foremost for Margaret was her family,” he said, marvelling at her many talents and interests.
Despite her tirelessness and intelligence in multiple high-level organizational roles, she never veered from giving her greatest gifts of creativity and love to her children and grandchildren, he asserted.
“When it came to bedtime, Margaret would come in and sit down and would tell what, in our family, we call the Georgie Mouse stories. Margaret would have a story about the adventures of Georgie Mouse, and she would make up the story as she was sitting there. She wasn’t reading it; she literally made it up,” he said, continuing, “They got original bedtime stories created by Margaret, which had little moral or other things tied to those, along with a snack and I guess a kiss on a bruised forehead if you're raising three sons from time to time.”
Most people would probably think of Margaret as a five-term alderman, back before the term turned to city councillor. Though her service extended far beyond that, she seemed to prefer to let the work speak for itself while avoiding the self-congratulation of being in the spotlight as the champion.
It speaks volumes for anyone with 15 years of elected office to barely have one unposed photo in the annals of the St. Albert Gazette. Perhaps she was best behind the scenes. Perhaps she had other work still pressing.
Apart from city council, she also helped to found St. Albert Stop Abuse in Families, an organization whose efforts in preventing domestic violence cannot be measured. Plain was also the president of the St. Albert Historical Society during the years it created the formidable two-volume historical compilation Black Robe’s Vision, a tome that marked the city’s definitive record of the many stories of the settling families and the early days of this city.
Tireless, relentless, and full of devotion, she was on the board for the world-renowned Provincial Health Ethics Network, which was mandated to provide all citizens in the province easily accessible, high-quality health-ethics education and support for ethical decision-making. The independent, non-profit organization didn't take sides on particular ethical issues, but rather fostered thoughtful, informed, and reasoned ethical decision-making from all perspectives.
"Margaret had a pleasant but determined personality in the sense that Margaret always was able to help resolve things. Margaret was a solver of problems, not a creator of problems. Margaret could find the resolution to help the individual or the person, whether it was an older person that needed help or whether it was someone perhaps with some marital problems or issues or just upsets and family asides, as well as individual kids or something," Richard offered.
She was on the Capital Health Board (previously called the Capital Care Group Board), which she served on concurrently with her work on the Sturgeon General Hospital Board, and in her free time volunteered at the St. Albert Botanic Park, among many other places. You don't get to be Volunteer Citizen of the Decade lightly around these parts.
The St. Albert elementary school system, the St. Albert United Church, the St. Albert Festival of the Arts, and the St. Albert Children's Theatre all also benefited from her time and her generous nature. She loved the city and the people in it, Richard continued.
“One of my sons said that going to the St. Albert Farmers’ Market with Margaret for half an hour to pick up some vegetables and goodies [could] turn into two hours just chatting when she went down there and [with] all the people she knew. If there was a grandchild around well, of course, then you [could] safely spend a half a day."
Margaret served as chair of Rendezvous 2011 to oversee the celebration of St. Albert’s substantial 150th-anniversary celebrations. She was also integral to the organization of many other major community events, such as Celebrate 125, Homecoming 88, and the 1994 Alberta Winter Games. The long list of her CV goes on, and on, and on.
She chaired the Municipal Planning Commission for many years, Richard noted, adding that he remembers how developers would say how much they really liked and appreciated her presence "because she was so fair and thorough."
"Margaret was fair and thorough, that's true. Margaret was not one to go after individuals on a personal or other basis. In that way, hers was to bring about and achieve a positive resolution, reconciliation, and direction that was in the public interest. But she had a way of doing that without alienating one or more of the parties in the process. When decisions were made, they were fair and reasoned and researched."
It's true that she loved organizing. Long-term friend and former city councilor Carol Watamaniuk said it was staggering to consider Margaret's ability to give to her friends and to the community. Both surely benefited from her well-known artistic gifts also.
"I knew already, but it really hit me how incredibly generous Margaret was to this community, and to me as a friend," she began. "I've got I don't know how many jackets that she sewed for me, and just different gifts. All of the donations she made to charity, which were all handmade things — jackets or blankets or whatever — by her. It wasn't just the donation of money or something; it was a donation of her time."
She reflected on Margaret's important roles on those many different organizational boards.
"I joked about how she loved to develop policies. I put it in the eulogy that I knew that policies are so very important, and I would do them because they were, but I did not get great joy out of them like Margaret. She'd get positively excited. She'd be all in a tither about policies and getting them developed."
Watamaniuk said having someone as knowledgeable as Margaret Plain on city council for five terms was a huge contribution to St. Albert in general. Her sense of humour was a huge gift, too, Watamaniuk added.
"I could remember a council meeting where it went on for hours and hours, and it was 11 o'clock at night. Margaret had focus like I can't believe. She continued to ask hard questions to the staff. She was extremely well prepared for every meeting she went to. We were all tired and they finally called the break. Everybody left, and I looked over and Margaret was just sitting there. I said, 'Margaret, are you OK?' and she said, 'I just want to go home and play with my clothes.' I just cracked up."
It was in May 2020 that the sterling brain of Margaret Plain experienced a hemorrhage. Over breakfast, she commented to Richard that she felt a strange sensation in her hands. Richard handed her a pencil and a piece of paper, and suggested she write: 'A rose is a rose is a rose.'
Her handwriting was off. There were other significant portents of her decline as well.
"I took her to emergency at the Sturgeon … she had had a major bleed. It had impacted her centre that deals with her ability to speak. Much of that, of course, recovered over the four months or so that she spent in the neurology centre at the University of Alberta. It became very clear, unfortunately, that Margaret's centre of balance had been negatively impacted and she could not, therefore, return to our home where we've lived for 50-some years. Any time she went to move or stand up or anything, she was about 15 degrees off the vertical," Richard said.
She spent the remainder of her days in the care of the staff at the Youville Home. She passed away peacefully on the morning of Sept. 30, a month after she celebrated her 60th anniversary with Richard.
He reflected on the loss to the community and to himself.
"Margaret touched the lives of many, many people in a lot of different ways: as a friend, as a supporter of the individual, and in that context, it was rather amazing," he said.
“Margaret was not only a wife, a companion … but Margaret was my best friend,” he said, a rare waver daring to trip the resolute voice of the academic economist-cum-politician.
“You don't really understand exactly what that means until something like this happens. Couples live together many years, and some say that they tend to develop a common set of principles. We had very much our own directions and functions and backgrounds. It was a great team ... it was an amazing adventure having had the privilege of living with Margaret for 60 years."A memorial service has already been held, but a larger, more public celebration of her life is being planned to take place hopefully next year. In the meantime, charitable donations in her memory may be made to the Margaret Plain Memorial Fund at the St. Albert Botanic Park.