Annie Maude (Nan) McKay

By Duff Spafford

Annie Maude (Nan) McKay was a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan (BA ’15) and worked at the University Library for 44 years, from 1915 until 1959.  In 2007 she was chosen one of the University of Saskatchewan’s “100 Alumni of Influence” and was said to be the “first Métis and first Aboriginal woman” to graduate from the University.

Nan McKay came from an English Métis family which had connections in the community of HBC employees, in the Anglican Church, and in political (and especially Conservative party) circles in the Northwest Territories and later, Saskatchewan. 

Nan was born on 10 October 1892 at Fort à la Corne, North-West Territories. Her father, Angus McKay, worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and Fort à la Corne, about 80 kilometers east of Prince Albert, was an HBC trading post. Her mother was the former Annie Maud Mary Fortescue, whose father worked for the HBC.

Nan had two brothers, Joesph Fortescue (b. 1890) and Charles Angus Percy (b. 1906), and two sisters, Gertrude Eleanor (b. 1891) and Elsie Marian (b. 1895). Their mother died in 1907 following an operation for appendicitis, and in 1910 Angus married Margaret Croall Dryhurst.

Angus was reassigned by HBC from Fort à la Corne to Green Lake in 1899, and there followed further moves to Ile-à-la-Crosse, in 1907, and to La Ronge, in 1909. He was manager of the La Ronge post from 1913 until his retirement in 1921.

Nan began her education at home, tutored by a cousin, Mary Traill, who came to live with the Angus McKay family as a mother’s help when the family moved to Green Lake. Mary Traill was a grand-daughter of Catharine Parr Traill, author of The Backwoods of Canada and other books.  When her mother died, decisions about Nan’s education came to rest in the hands of an uncle, James McKay, a lawyer in practice in Prince Albert who was to be appointed shortly to the Board of Governors of the new University of Saskatchewan. James McKay enrolled Nan and her sister Marian at St. Alban’s Ladies College, Prince Albert. The College was a church school, both day and residential, maintained by the efforts of Rt. Rev. J.A. Newnham, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan, who raised funds and recruited teachers for the College in trips to England.

A former teacher at the College described it as a school “catering to the daughters of better-off people, not only in Prince Albert, but from many parts of Canada” and achieving an “enviable reputation.” Christina, the eldest daughter of President Walter Murray of the University of Saskatchewan, was a student there and became a friend of the McKay sisters. In 1912, St. Alban’s Ladies College nominated Nan McKay as a candidate for a $200 entrance scholarship to the University of Saskatchewan, and the nomination was successful. Money left by her mother in a bequest for her children’s education made up the rest of what she needed to attend the University.


Nan took an extraordinarily active part in student life at the University. She was staff artist of the Sheaf, the student newspaper, in her first year (which was also the Sheaf’s). In later years she served as a member of the Students Representative Council’s executive committee, vice-president of Pente Kai Deka, the University’s sole and thoroughly inclusive sorority, secretary of the campus YWCA, and corresponding secretary of the Literary Society. She gave “an instructive address on Raphael” at a Pente Kai Deka meeting devoted to Renaissance art. In the winter months she was a figure skater, and she played ice hockey in her student days and well into the 1920s for University teams, which in those days accepted alumni players. In an account of a victory of the women’s hockey team over that of the University of Alberta in 1920, the Sheaf reported the “Miss McKay” had scored a goal on “one of the nicest and neatest shots seen this season.” Some years, after exams, she did substitute teaching in country schools.

She graduated in 1915 with a BA degree with Honours in English and French, and was hired shortly afterwards by the University Library to fill a position – a “temporary” one, according to the Sheaf – as Assistant Librarian. The Librarian, Arthur Silver Morton, who was also a professor of History, gave her a glowing report in his next annual report, referring to her “unfailingly placid temper and her intelligence.” The “temporary” position, if that’s what it started out to be, turned into employment at the University Library until 1959.


With so many students serving overseas, special efforts had to be made to maintain student activities on campus during the First World War, and in 1916 the Students Representative Council resorted to alumni as co-editors of the Sheaf.  The co-editors chosen were Nan McKay, just settling into her duties at the Library, and Harry Saville, a recent graduate in Agriculture. In the first issue under their direction, McKay and Saville put the following query to their readers: “What do you think of forming a U. of S. Alumni Association? All interested are requested to communicate with one of the editors of The Sheaf.” The response was encouraging, and the two arranged a meeting of graduates to consider the proposition. At the meeting, held in May, 1917, an organization called the University of Saskatchewan Graduates’ Association was founded. Nan McKay was elected secretary-treasurer of the organization, which survives as the University of Saskatchewan Alumni Association (the name was changed in 1937).

At the second annual meeting of the Graduates’ Association, in May, 1918, Nan was re-elected secretary-treasurer and, according to the Saskatoon Daily Star, “shouldered the heavy responsibilities of the business meeting” whose main concern was the adoption of a constitution for the organization. The constitution decided upon included a provision that one-half of the executive officers should change each year and another which stipulated that “at least one vice-president shall be a lady graduate.”


In the flu epidemic of 1918, Nan McKay worked as a volunteer nurse, and her name is recorded on the wall of the north stairwell of the College Building. For a ceremony in 1922, she was chosen to unveil a brass tablet mounted on the campus in memory of a fellow volunteer nurse, a student, who had contracted influenza and died.

A holiday trip into Northern Saskatchewan made in 1919 by Nan McKay and Christina Henry (later Bateman), who worked in the Registrar’s Office at the University, produced a travel diary and photographs which are interesting documents of the time. The diary, written by Christina Henry, described the journey by rail, road and water from Saskatoon to the HBC trading post at La Ronge, where Angus McKay, Nan’s father, was manager; then by water from La Ronge into the Churchill River, the Sturgeon-weir River, and the Saskatchewan River (along with intervening lakes and portages) to The Pas; with return to Prince Albert by rail. Christina learned that Nan knew some Cree, and both learned that women wearing trousers, as they did on this journey, were a curiosity to northerners.

Nan served a further term as secretary of the University of Saskatchewan Graduates’ Association from 1928 to 1932. She was co-editor, with J.A. Corry and C.W. Downer, of a special edition of the Sheaf marking the opening of the Memorial Gates in 1928. In 1930, she prepared an illuminated address decorated with images of native plants, birds and animals for presentation by the Graduates’ Association to Walter Murray to mark the 21st year of his presidency.



In the early days of the Library, Nan McKay kept order in the reading room and carried out the first cataloguing o the collection. She attended two short courses in the United States on cataloguing library collections but otherwise learned librarianship on the job. In correspondence in 1933, President Murray described her as “a very capable woman” who was “first assistant” at the Library.  According to the University Calendar, she was Assistant Librarian until the 1945-46 academic year – that is, for 31 years.

In the summer of 1944 she had an accident which almost ended her working life. She was caught in a rock slide while hiking on a trail in Banff National Park. A story told in the family is that, fearing she would not be seen in the rubble, she hoisted her sweater on the end of a stick to signal her location. Her back was severely injured, and she was away from work recuperating for 18 months; afterward, she walked with the aid of two canes. Her sister Marian, who was working as a nurse in the United States, came to live with her when she was injured. When Nan returned to work she was put in charge of book ordering, and the Library went without a position of Assistant Librarian for a decade.

A notice of her retirement which appeared in the Saskatchewan Library Association Bulletin in 1959 says of her that

...for many years she was almost the whole Library. Nan was “right-hand man” to a succession of University Librarians, each of whom counted heavily and frequently on her wide knowledge of books and booksellers, students and faculty, and the many other bits of wisdom stored up by her retentive memory. At one time or another, every job in the Library was hers, and she did them all well.

G.W. Simpson, Professor Emeritus of History, speaking on behalf of the faculty, referred to her as “the watchdog of the Library’s interests.”

She told the Star Phoenix that leaving Saskatchewan had never been among her ambitions, and she had no plans to do so in retirement. She had bought a house, her first, on Lansdowne Avenue, and looked forward to doing some gardening and reading. She and her sister Marian played bridge, sketched and painted in water-colours, and went on bird-watching outings. A niece recalls that the sisters were “avid horse racing fans, following the races throughout the province.”  Other members of the family recall variously that Nan had a lively sense of humour and was a fan of the Saskatchewan Roughriders – always a good combination. When Marian died, in 1980, Nan’s half-sister, Marjorie Skerratt, who for many years worked at the Saskatoon Public Library, provided Nan with companionship. Nan McKay died on July 27, 1986, at the age of 93.