Remembering Mrs. Jean - The Making of a McMurray Matriarch
“True happiness can only be found in doing things for others.”
Throughout the decades, Fort McMurray has seen extraordinary women push the boundaries of their present day by thinking forward to develop new ways to improve the livelihoods of their fellow neighbours.
Mrs. Frances Kathaleen Jean was one of these extraordinary women. She had an indefinable quality in both her nature and feats, that compelled other people to revere her. Whether she was making history or writing it, there’s one thing very evident – Mrs. Jean valued Fort McMurray.
And although Fort McMurray said farewell to the matriarch on December 1, 2018, during her largely-attended Celebration of Life at the NorthLife Fellowship Baptist Church; Mrs. Jean will be forever known as one of Fort McMurray’s most knowledgeable historians and community leaders who played a pivotal role in preserving the city’s history and shaping its women in business.
The Westbank Beginnings
On February 5, 1932, Mrs. Jean was born a Griffin and grew up in Westbank (known today as West Kelowna), British Columbia on her family’s orchard.
She was the youngest child born to Margaret Lois Griffin, née Johnson, and her husband John (Jack) Howard Sr. Griffin. The Griffins had six children including John (Jack) Jr., Fred, Annie, George, Lois Isabel and Frances.
In her 1998 book, Cooking with Memories, Mrs. Jean published a milk formula recipe made by her mother. It was a recipe that saved her brother John Jr.’s life and started the early chapters of her family’s story.
John Jr. was the son of John Sr. and Margaret Lois’ sister Annie Johnson, who passed away four months after her son’s birth due to tuberculosis in November 1918.
“This very old recipe is credited with saving the life of our brother Jack (John Jr.). His mother died of TB. Jack was so tiny and weak the doctor told mother she was wasting her time with him,” she wrote.
“He was born in August; Aunt Annie died in November and Mom took Jack by train from Kamloops in a grape basket because he was so tiny. He cried and cried until she found this recipe and then he thrived. Mom and Dad were married in 1920 and Jack was our wonderful, kind, clever and Godly brother.”
Mrs. Jean’s cookbook preserves much of her family’s past describing what it was like for her to grow up in the Okanagan Valley during the 1930s and 40s. And though it was during a time of war, she remembers the beautiful things that surrounded her life like picking fruit and baking bread.
“How fortunate I was to be born before the days of instant foods; when hamburger was ground at the kitchen table with a hand meat grinder; when ice cream was made with rock salt, real cream and real strawberries; when bacon and hams were cured with Dad’s special recipe; and when summer time and harvest was the time for “putting down” all the winter supply of foods,” as she recounts in the book’s prologue.
By the time of Mrs. Jean’s birth, the Great Depression hit Canada’s economy the hardest and experienced “a staggering decline of 34.8 percent in per capita gross domestic product,” as stated in the Canadian Museum of History archives. “No other developed nation was as hard-hit.”
And while many communities across the country were suffering, Kelowna was able to maintain a viable agricultural economy due to the stability of the fruit industry. John Sr.’s siblings, who were living in Saskatchewan at the time, moved to Westbank to join him to build a farming community.
“It was 1931 when John Howard Griffin Sr.’s brother, Doug, moved to Westbank. There, also on Fourth Ave. N., he had a mixed farm (fruit and many different animals),” as stated in Okanagan History’s 55th Report of the Okanagan Historical Society.
“On the farm, he owned the oldest house in Westbank. Doug’s son, Harold, now owns the farm and the house still stands there today. Following Doug came Fred Hubert Griffin and his family from Saskatchewan in 1933.”
In 2015, Mrs. Jean spoke at her sister Annie Stutters’, née Griffin, Celebration of Life and called 1939 a memorable year as the rest of the Griffin family joined them in Westbank.
“Nineteen thirty-nine was a very eventful for our family,” she said in a video. “In the spring, dad drove all the way to Ontario and brought the rest of the Griffin family to the Okanagan.”
During this time, the Great Depression was coming to an end. Mrs. Jean was almost seven-years-old when her community – and the rest of the world – woke up to the Second World War. Many men and women left their homes to fight, and it was up to the ones who stayed behind to harvest the orchards.
Mrs. Jean remembered the time World War II was declared in September 1939. The Griffins first learned about the news from a neighbour, who owned a radio. Back then, radios were not so easy to come by as people had to purchase $1 licenses to listen to them in their homes.
A few days following, Mrs. Jean’s father asked her to go to the post office to pick up a newspaper. Mrs. Jean wrote about how he was out in their backyard picking crabapples when she returned.
“He sent me downtown on my pony to get the mail and when I gave him the Vancouver Province (now known as The Province, one of the leading newspapers in British Columbia since 1898), he sat on an apple box to read the news.”
It was soon after this day, her father bought a radio, and Mrs. Jean took on her earliest role in reporting news. Some of the daily farming routines were at 6 p.m., and this was at the same time BBC Radio aired bulletins with war updates. It was Mrs. Jean’s duty to record notes and take them to her father who was busy milking cattle in the barn.
While hardships fell across the nation and families were altered due to WWII, Mrs. Jean recalled on a battle happening closer to home and wrote about her family walking through the orchard to help provide nourishment to their critically-ill neighbour.
“Mr. Elliot had the farm next to ours in Westbank. In 1939, the first Mrs. Louella Elliot was dying of cancer. Every day, Mom would go over with some soup, Jello or baking or send one of us children. A path was well worn through the orchard, over a wooden flume to their door,” she wrote in her Cooking with Memories cookbook.
“They had no children. Often on a Sunday afternoon, the young people from the Gospel Hall, led by my brother Jack, would gather on Elliot’s lawn and sing hymns for her.”
Mrs. Jean grew up developing strong family values and faith, learning responsibility in work during her days on the farm, an appreciation for the land and its many rewards, and the importance of philanthropy by helping others.
Only a few decades following, she brought all her learnings to Fort McMurray.
Established in 1918, the Griffin Farms still exists today in the Okanagan Valley (once named The Griffin Way) and remains family-owned and operated. After John Sr.’s death in 1956, John Jr. took over the farm. When he passed in 1979, his son Glen Griffin, one of his 16 children became the owner of the land of his forefathers. The farm has been providing fresh fruit to locals and travellers for over 100 years.
John (Jack) Howard Griffin Sr. - 1889-1956, John (Jack) Leonard Griffin Jr.- 1918-1979, Margaret Lois Griffin -1889-1979 and Annie Stutters, née Griffin; rest together in the Westbank Cemetery in West Kelowna at 3200 Elliott Rd.
Moving North & Making News
In 1967, Mrs. Jean arrived in the Fort McMurray community with her husband Bernard and their children Lawrence, Blair, Mark, Philip, Evelyn and Brian. Mr. Jean was employed by Catalytic, an Industry contracting company, as a supervisor of contracts at the Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS), known today as Suncor Energy.
Fort McMurray was a small town with a population of 1,500. And, more people – like the Jeans – were quickly residing surrounding the opening of the GCOS project, which first launched three years prior.
In the 2001 book, The Place We Call Home, author Irwin Huberman wrote about this significant year, describing it as one of Fort McMurray’s most historic.
“September 25, 1967, will be forever remembered as one of the most historic days in Fort McMurray’s history. That day, more than five hundred dignitaries from around the world arrived in Fort McMurray to officially open the GCOS plant,” he wrote.
Huberman was founder and editor of a former weekly newspaper – Fort McMurray Express, and acknowledged Mrs. Jean for her help in the compilation of his book and called her “a kindred soul, whose love for facts, people, history and weekly newspapers helped sustain my enthusiasm during this long journey.” The book originated by a committee of residents, which included Mrs. Jean, with a purpose to preserve and highlight Fort McMurray’s history through 1778 to 1980. It was copywritten in 2001 and sold over 10,000 copies.
Within the first year of the Jeans arrival, they recognized the community wants and needs of the fast-growing town. They made the decision to become local entrepreneurs and opened a gift, office supply and toy store called Jean’s Gifts and Stationery on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Hardin Street.
In 1996, Mrs. Jean self-published and printed a memory book titled A Family Album for her family members and wrote about these early beginnings in a chapter titled “Life on a New Frontier.”
“When we came to McMurray, there was no television, no radio, and I read to the family on the long, winter nights. We read such classics as The Bounty Trilogy, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and more. It was difficult to buy the kinds of books we wanted and we kept saying, “Someone ought to open a book store, a stationery store” and then, we did. It was on the main street, across from town hall and in 1971, we bought the building next to ours, giving us ten thousand square feet for our changing and expanding businesses,” she wrote in the album.
Bert MacKay, a historian and one of Mrs. Jean’s community colleagues, recalls the time of community urbanization – having following the masses himself to work for GCOS. Businesses were rapidly appearing throughout the new city.
“I first came to Fort McMurray on February 15, 1967. In the community, we watched many small and large businesses set-up shops and one was a printing and publishing business combined with a high-end quality gift shop called Jean’s,” MacKay shared in an email interview.
“I met the Printer, later – Bernard Jean. He was a pleasant and very likeable person who was anxious to explain to me and others what the Jeans plans were, especially as Fort McMurray did not have a print shop for small businesses. Following Bernard, I met this extremely likeable Frances Jean who expressed interest in all we were doing on plant-site. She was extremely sharp. She had all the latest on what local business needed, how to do it and at what cost.”
By 1971, the town’s population expanded to 6,847 as new mergers, and discoveries took place in Industry. The Jeans’ business was booming along with the rest of the community.
At the peak of the Shop’s retail service, hundreds of residents would line-up on Franklin for their Midnight Madness and Sidewalk Sale events. Throughout the years, the Jeans sold a wide variety of items from toys to pets, canoes, rifles – anything they imaged would sell.
Mrs. Jean’s daughter Evelyn Jean-Clewes said the times at the stationery store were some of her most favoured, especially on “Stock Taking Day”, which took place annually on the first day in January.
“Mom would be set-up on a cart with a calculator. We would push her around and there would be up to ten of us yelling out prices. It was a relaxed time,” Jean-Clewes said. “At the end, we would pick out a gift for ourselves.”
After the success of the stationery store, the Jeans launched Fort McMurray’s first community newspaper – McMurray Courier – on June 12, 1970. It was published and distributed weekly on Wednesday for free with a circulation of 1,600.
As new entrepreneurs, the Jeans were becoming trailblazers in local business. And, their son Brian Jean explains, they were a successful duo who worked well together because they recognized and respected each other’s strengths.
“She was able to do whatever it took to run a newspaper. She could edit. Do typographic stuff, cut and paste and do the darkroom work. She couldn’t run a printing press and would be the first to tell you that she’s not mechanical but that’s where my dad came in or one of my brothers that worked in the shop. They would run the printing press and my mom would deal with customers, and do the bookkeeping and the writing,” he said from his parents’ kitchen table on March 8.
“And so, they would divide up the jobs based on what their talents were. And that’s – I think – a huge part of the success as my dad was a great worker. He could work and run any machine and my mom was a really good friend and person, and I think her success was that my dad never tried to limit her, as well. During those times, men did and he didn’t. They were best friends.”
The Jeans published the Courier until 1974 and sold it to Bowes Publishers Limited of Grande Prairie.
Known as The Fort McMurray Today, the print publication is now owned by Postmedia and remains as the community’s longest-standing newspaper. Mrs. Jean continued writing and published Focus on Fort McMurray from 1995 to 1999. It was a monthly, 16-page full colour newsletter with a circulation of 16,000 copies.
In 2012, Mrs. Jean launched a historical non-fiction book based on Fort McMurray residents and the history of Northern Alberta. More Than Oil – Trappers, Traders & Settlers of Northern Alberta is a collection she intended to put together for many years and stated in the book, “It’s time.” She released the publication on her 80th birthday.
“I so much enjoyed the research and writing of this book,” she wrote in the book’s preface. “My first thought, many years ago, was to do a book about the people that Fort McMurray streets are named for. But I couldn’t limit it to that; there are too many interesting people that haven’t yet been recognized by the city. We have an amazing history in Fort McMurray. I am so proud of our city and its people. I hope in a small way, this book will make you proud, too.”
The commercial property on Franklin Avenue, which once housed the popular stationery shop, remains under the Jean ownership to this day.
Lady in the Chamber
“She shrugs off the notion that she was fighting for women’s rights. She simply wanted a place in the Chamber of Commerce. She was after all a business person in the community. In a Courier editorial, she said if the Chamber was exclusive to businessmen then it should be called a “men’s club,” and not under the banner of the Chamber of Commerce, but call it what it was – a club for men. Her editorial brought the hoped-for response and shortly thereafter Frances, along with Grace Dafoe and Alice Haxton were voted in as Chamber members,” —As written by Anne Young in Mrs. Jean’s novel, More Than Oil: Trappers, Traders & Settlers of Northern Alberta.
As the editor and writer for the Courier, Mrs. Jean was skilled in all aspects of running a newspaper and covered many angles on community happenings including local business.
In the early 70s, women in business were under-represented. There had been known woman pioneers of Fort McMurray’s past like Christina Gordon, who was the first non-aboriginal woman to permanently settle in the area and operate a successful trade post and post office with her brothers in 1906.
However, even decades following Gordon’s and other women’s success, the local Chamber of Commerce remained an association for men to promote and protect the interests of Fort McMurray’s business community – until a new-to-town, local businesswoman took note.
In 1971, Mrs. Jean was writing a story on Walter Hill for her newspaper. She was invited to the Chamber of Commerce, but was asked to leave after the interview as the Constitution only allowed men in good standing to be present.
“When I was editor of the newspaper, I was a very, very, very shy person,” Mrs. Jean shared in her 2015 Women of Inspiration video for Girls Inc. of Northern Alberta’s annual awards. “I would be sitting in the Council chambers – a lone woman, the only spectator. Eight men with their feet up on the table, smoking in a smoke-filled room.”
As a business owner, she felt she had the right to stay, but left and went home to write a “scathing editorial” that would change the practice of the Chamber meetings from then on. After the letter printed in the Courier, the community’s attention was on the No-Woman-Allowed matter, and Mrs. Jean was welcomed back to the Chamber to be a part of it.
Mrs. Jean’s son explained how his mother never looked at this moment as pinnacle one in local woman’s history because she simply thought all should be treated equally.
“She didn’t even notice until I pointed it out to her,” said Brian Jean. “She didn’t understand. She thought it was stupid that they would exclude women. She just knew they were every bit as good.”
As one of the first female members of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, Mrs. Jean continued running multiple local businesses throughout the decades, including Jean’s Printing, The Factory, Jean’s Business Machines, Quiznos, City Centre Auto Wash, City Centre Group Inc. and Amazingstays.world – her vacation rental accommodations – to name a few.
In her 86th year, she continued working at the City Centre Auto Wash as it’s where she had her main office and she would hold several personal and business meetings throughout the day.
Brian Jean, former Wildrose leader, credited his mother as “the key to my success” as they weren’t only mother and son but partners in business for over three decades.
“Our whole family grew up around the business table. It wasn’t called the dinner table. We grew up talking about how the newspaper would work or how we’d make signs for Suncor. What was going to sell in the store. All of us did this kind of stuff,” he said.
“Over the years, we adapted our businesses to the sales that were taking place, so we could continue to be prosperous. We changed businesses at least 20 times and I think that’s what my mom saw as well is that she had to adapt to the times to be successful.”
The Fort McMurray Legacy & Beyond
On October 16, 2018, Mrs. Jean went on a 12-day trip to Ko Olina, Hawaii with her children, Evelyn Jean-Clewes, Brian Jean and his expecting, wife Kimberley.
The trip had a personal purpose and intended to be her daughter Evelyn’s last trip away as doctors recently shared her nine-year breast cancer battle was soon coming to an end.
“It was supposed to be my farewell trip to Hawaii because of my health being so bad and I was only given a short time to live. We thought this trip was for me,” her daughter, Jean-Clewes, shared in a phone interview from the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre (NLRHC) on March 7.
“We just sat there and laughed and joked. It was the best holiday that the four of us had ever been on. We’ve gone on quite a few holidays together.”
The day after Mrs. Jean arrived home from Hawaii, she was admitted to the NLRHC for a blood clot and pneumonia on October 29, 2018. A few days following, she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.
“She never came out again, until she got moved to the house to die,” said Jean-Clewes. “She said to Doctor Wilson: “I want to go home. I want to die in my home. I have such a beautiful home.” And, he said: “OK, no problem. I think your kids are going to get things ready for you to go home” and that’s what we did. We got everything ready. Evan (Evelyn’s son) went down to Edmonton for her to get a special bed.”
On November 23, 2018, Mrs. Jean passed away in the home she loved – in the city she loved.
Throughout her years, she travelled to over 50 countries, met Queen Elizabeth twice in London for tea, volunteered countless hours in the community, donated millions to people in developing countries, and walked to work every day – when not on vacation or the weather was in her favour.
With investment properties in Australia, Canmore, Edmonton, Hawaii and Vancouver, Mrs. Jean loved to explore new places and has been to over 150 places around the world. And although she went on remarkable adventures, she always came back to the place she cherished – Fort McMurray, a place close to wilderness, where summers were long and bright.
She spoke plenty about family time spent at her favourite spot at her son Phil’s cabin on the Clearwater River and how they explored the Wood Buffalo region through their hunting and camping experiences as such survival skills were embedded and taught to them all at an early age.
“Bernard and I have travelled to many countries; to me that cabin on the Clearwater is my favourite place in the whole world. Bernard and I often spent a week or ten days at the cabin in the winter; he cut firewood and I did our companies’ year-end statements,” she wrote in her A Family Album memory book.
“How fortunate we are today to be able to travel, to see so much of the world; but the best part of travel is always coming home – home to family, the most important people in your life… Life is a mystery; life is a challenge; life is a treasure.”
From a young farm girl - a title she proudly proclaimed through her life - on to a loving wife and mother, she continued to enjoy the simple things in life like making jam, and reading books and her bible.
She was one of Fort McMurray’s greatest pioneers but very much one of her own. From starting community reporting to championing behind the fight for Willow Square, she shared compassion to everyone who called Fort McMurray home. And even after all her travels around the world, she was deeply rooted and drawn to her fellow neighbours.
“She loved Fort McMurray more than any other place in the world. She travelled to over 150 places, and she always came home to here. She wouldn’t leave in the summer, or the fall, or spring unless it was under extraordinary circumstances,” Brian Jean said. “Of all things she loved and adored, it was her faith and family that came first. Her hopes for the future of Fort McMurray is to be a thriving community of families.”
Mrs. Frances Jean will be forever remembered as Fort McMurray’s matriarch.
Survived by her children Mark, Philip, Evelyn, and Brian and step-children Mary, Charles, Lawrence, Blair, Guy and sister Isabelle; Mrs. Frances Kathaleen Jean – 1932-2018 rests between her husband Bernard Charles Phillip Jean – 1926-2004 and grandson Michael ‘Mikey’ Bernard Jean – 1990-2015 in the Abasand Cemetery in Fort McMurray.
Things They Miss Most
In interviews with Your McMurray Magazine, Mrs. Jean’s loved ones shared favourite memories and what they miss most about their mother, grandmother and friend.
Her Phone Calls
“We were very close. I knew that she was the mother and I was the child but the thing is I could still talk to her about things. As we got older, we became friends. We would talk sometimes at least once a day or twice or more a day. There wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t talk unless she was travelling,” —Evelyn Jean-Clewes, daughter to Mrs. Jean
Her Scones & Playing Scrabble
“I miss sitting down and playing Scrabble with her. She’d be so excited and would help you play but always win by a mile in the end. That – and her scones, and by that, I just mean how much love and attention she’d put into them and then put them in front of you and have some tea and chat. Or even just sit in her office in the car wash and have some leftover scones with homemade jam and chat with her about how life is and all the new things.” —Jaymes Jean, grandson to Mrs. Jean and son to Brian Jean
Her Laugh and Wisdom
“I miss so much – her laugh and the twinkle in her eye when we were doing something adventurous and exciting; the way she listened to everyone that spoke to her with keen interest and empathy; but mostly I miss her level head, her practical advice, and her wisdom. She reminded us of the important things in life by the way she lived her life. I leaned on her a lot for perspective and advice.” —Kimberley Jean, daughter-in-law to Mrs. Jean.
Her Emails on Travelling
“I miss Frances daily as does most of Fort McMurray. She was a vibrant lady in-spite of growing years. She was a youth at heart and loved young people as she loved her remarkable family. She loved reading books and had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace one of her real objectives. Her world travels thrilled her and the travel logs she emailed to all of us showed how great her excitement was in meeting various nations of the world. She traveled to 30 countries and learned all the customs. We lost one of those who was the real community heart of Fort McMurray.” —Bert MacKay, community colleague and friend
Her Community Cheerleading
“Our community lost on our greatest champions, cheerleader and the fiercest advocate. Not a day goes by that I don’t run into someone who expresses their grief and admiration on what Mrs. Jean meant to them. Mrs. Jean and I had a special bond that goes back to the mid-80s and I miss her dearly but I am also thankful to have known her. —Vaughn Jessome, community colleague and friend
Welcome Annabella Frances!
Meet Annabella Frances Jean! She’s the daughter to Brian and Kimberley Jean and named after her grandmother the late-Frances Jean. Annabella – nicknamed Bella by her mom and dad – was born on February 13, 2019, at 12:16 a.m. at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton.
With a five-week early arrival, Annabella stayed in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at the hospital, where she and her mother received the best possible care.
On March 6, Brian shared the news of taking Annabella home from the hospital in a Facebook announcement.
“Kim and I want to give a huge shout out to all the frontline healthcare professionals who worked so hard to ensure Kim and Annabella survived and are now healthy,” he wrote.
“From the AHS staff at Fort McMurray Northern Lights Regional Hospital to the air transport team who helped medivac Kim to Edmonton, to the amazing nurses and doctors at the Royal Alex and everyone in between. Thank you. We are so grateful.”
Cooking with Memories
In November 1998, Mrs. Frances Jean self-published a 214-page cookbook titled “Cooking with Memories” which shares a collection of her own recipes and personal favourites gathered from family and friends. Frances learned to cook in the Jack Griffin home in Westbank, British Columbia, where she grew up.
In the book’s foreword, she wrote: “How fortunate I was to be born before the days of instant foods; when hamburger was ground at the kitchen table with a hand meat grinder; when ice cream was made with rock salt, real cream and real strawberries; and when summer time and harvest was the time for “putting down” all the winter supply of foods.”
“Cooking with Memories” reprinted two times after its 1998 launch in September 2002 and August 2015 due to its success in sales. Copies are available for $20 at the City Centre Auto Wash, Fort McMurray Heritage Park and the Oilsands Discovery Centre.
The following are recipes and excerpts from Mrs. Jean’s cookbook.
- 4 cups of flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
- ¼ cup sugar
- ½ cup marg. or shortening
- 1 ½ cups buttermilk
- ½ cup of raisins or currants if desired
Cut margarine into dry ingredients with a pastry blender. Add sugar, and raisins if desired. Then stir in buttermilk. Turn out onto floured counter and pat to half inch. Cut with round cutter or into triangles. Bake for 20 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 400 degrees.
“My scone recipe has been very popular both with our family and staff at the business. I’m not sure where I got the recipe but the scones taste just like the ones Mother used to make. Mom always cut hers into triangles. Seldom was the pantry without scones. Mom sent them out to the orchard in a tin syrup pail, along with coffee or hot cocoa, for a mid-morning break. We usually ate them smothered with butter and Roger’s Golden Syrup. The recipe can be halved or doubled, depending on the need.” — Frances Jean, Cooking with Memories; Bread and Muffins, page 28
1 1⁄3 cup rolled oats
1 cup brown sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 ½ cups flour
2/4 cups butter
1 tsp. soda
1 lb. dates
½ cup white sugar
2⁄3 cup water
1 tbsp. lemon juice
Boil the filling until thick. Cool. Mix remaining ingredients together, then put half in 13-inch cake pan, packing firm. Spread filling over base, and cover with other half of mixture. Bake 20 minutes (at 350). Cut while hot.
This is another recipe I copied from Mom’s own handwriting. Mom died in 1979 and most of the recipes she gave me in the ‘50s. What a legacy our mothers and aunts left us with their recipes and advice. I wonder if our descendants will feel the same way about us? — Frances Jean, Cooking with Memories; Matrimonial Cake, page 66