Continuing a legacy – 113 years at IODE Laurentian Chapter

By Janet Uren

Women such as Lady Sybil Grey – a character right out of Downton Abbey – played a huge role in creating a compassionate society in Canada. Her legacy in Ottawa is the organization she founded more than a century ago.

The year was 1904, and the 22-year-old Lady Sybil Grey was newly arrived in Ottawa. As the daughter of Governor General Lord Grey (the King’s representative in Canada from 1904 to 1911), she was born to privilege. She was also bred to a life of service, and she began her philanthropic career in Ottawa.

Lady Sybil lived in this country for seven years, travelled widely and never forgot Canada. She said that, had she been a man, she would have emigrated and made a life for herself in that young nation. As it was, she left an indelible mark on the capital as the first vice-regent of a local chapter of a national woman’s service group – the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (known simply as the IODE today).

Sybil Grey continues to inspire the women of the Laurentian Chapter with her example. Born in 1882 in one of Britain’s grand stately homes, she went on to a life of some adventure. As a volunteer nurse during the First World War, she set up a Red Cross field hospital on the Russian front. In Russia, she met the doomed Tsarina, witnessed rioting in the streets of revolutionary Petrograd, gave shelter to the man who murdered Rasputin (the “Mad Monk”) and was wounded when a grenade exploded in her face. Undaunted, she returned to France, where she organized an ambulance unit to serve casualties on the Western Front.

IODE signage outside one of the homes on the House & Garden Tour. (Photo courtesy of Susan Leclec)

?In 1906, while still in Ottawa, Lady Sybil met with a group of 15 Ottawa women and persuaded them to set up a branch of a national organization founded in Montreal a few years earlier. The IODE was originally conceived as a patriotic club to support Canadian troops fighting overseas during the Boer War. During two World Wars since then, Laurentian Chapter has remained true to its patriotic roots, working to set up war loan funds, running canteens and sending parcels of tobacco, chocolate and warm socks to those in active combat or suffering as prisoners-of-war.

It did not take long, however, for Laurentian to evolve into an organization serving a broader range of social causes, including public health. Tuberculosis was a major killer in the early 20th century. Under Lady Sybil’s leadership, the Laurentian Chapter raised $17,000 to build and equip a sanitorium in Ottawa in 1910. The Royal Ottawa Hospital later replaced the Lady Grey Sanitorium; and, such is the difference in the value of a dollar today that, when Laurentian Chapter contributed the same amount of money to celebrate their 100th Anniversary, it was just enough to furnish a single room.

The philanthropic heirs of Lady Sybil Grey are still hard at work in Ottawa. “Our mission,” says President Janet Stratton, “is to fill the gap,” to identify some neglected corners of philanthropy in the Ottawa community and to make up the deficit. Recently, Laurentian chapter has supported a hospice for homeless men and women with terminal illnesses; they have provided clean beds for homeless youth and cribs for the babies of young single mothers; and they have supported shelters for the victims of domestic abuse.


Adopted classroom student writing a thank you letter. (Photo courtesy Lawrence Wesley Education Centre)


Today, much of the focus of Laurentian’s forward-looking work is on education – through the provision of scholarships and bursaries at the university and college level, as well as summer programs to support children – many of them new to this country – in one of Ottawa’s Community Houses. For 20 years now, the chapter has also been sending supplies and reading materials to an Indigenous school in Northern Ontario.

The chapter has a number of fundraising events during the year, the most important being the annual House and Garden tour which takes place this year on May 9, 2020. Laurentian conceived and delivered Ottawa’s very first house tour in 1961; in 2021, it will mark the 60th anniversary of this landmark event.

One of the oldest surviving philanthropic organizations in Ottawa, Laurentian Chapter IODE is still making philanthropic history. Lady Sybil Grey would approve.