Kate Rice was so brilliant she could have done anything, and her family was so wealthy she could have done nothing at all.
One hundred years ago, the adventurous, tough-as-nails beauty from southern Ontario set out for the rugged Manitoba wilderness with a shotgun and snowshoes in search of treasure.
She never struck it rich, but she did discover the first nickel deposits in the province and made headlines across the continent as Canada’s first “girl” prospector.
“Living in the middle of nowhere, depending solely on yourself … I know how hard it is to work in a man’s world,” says Toronto businesswoman Linda Rice, 60, who recently found the mining legend’s name on a branch of her family tree.
She says she can’t even imagine what life would have been like for such a woman a century ago.
“I was gobsmacked … I was very excited that I was related to such a pioneer.”
She is so proud that she and her father will be attending a ceremony in Toronto on Thursday, where her ancestor will be formally inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. Kate Rice died in 1963 at 80.
She is the second woman to be honoured by the mining industry. Viola MacMillan, a prospector in the 1930s and the driving force behind the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, was inducted in 1991.
MaryAnn Mihychuk, president of Women in Mining Manitoba and a former provincial mining minister, lobbied for the past two years to get Rice into the hall of fame.
“There were all kind of roadblocks. Many people said she didn’t deserve it. She hadn’t found the mega-mine,” said Mihychuk. “But what she did in terms of social change and her vast experience … was just amazing.”
Kathleen Rice had been raised in St. Marys, a small town in southwestern Ontario, where her family owned a local mill. Her father taught her to camp and canoe, but also encouraged her studies. She majored in math at the University of Toronto, where she was awarded a gold medal.
First she worked as a teacher, taking jobs in towns in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta. But she made only half the salary of her male counterparts and wrote in her diary about how it was frustratingly unfair, says Mihychuk.
She got a taste for adventure after climbing mountains in Alberta and knew her future did not lie in a classroom. In 1912, she homesteaded near The Pas, Man., but because a woman was not legally considered a person, her brother had to sign the paperwork for the land.
Rice studied geology books and, by making friends with local aboriginals, learned to shoot, trap and speak Cree. She travelled the northern wilderness on her own, dodging dangerous rapids by canoe and navigating the bush by dogsled.
Rice was renowned in the area because she had such control of her dog team she never had to lash the animals.
She was “no dummy,” says Mihychuk, adding Rice introduced the use of borax in metal testing in the West. She also designed a hydro-electric dam which she had hoped would power one of her mines someday.
She penned scientific papers about the northern lights and dabbled in journalism by writing articles for the Toronto Star. She later added commercial fisher and market garden grower to her list of accomplishments.
To top it off, she was a stunner. Mihychuk recalls a tale of a how a burly Frenchman once starting inching over to Rice while they were sleeping in a shared cabin.
“Here’s this Angelina Jolie sleeping in this cabin, and he’s coming over with intentions. She picks up her axe and her rifle and puts the axe down between them. And she says, ‘Just don’t touch my axe or I’ll have to shoot you.’”
Rice never married. She once had a prospecting partner named Dick Woosey, a retired British army officer, and the pair built a cabin together near Snow Lake, Man. There were rumours of romance, but Mihychuk has found no evidence that it was anything more than business.
Together, Rice and Woosey discovered deposits of vanadium, zinc and gold, but they ended up having to settle with mining companies for far less money than they believed the sites were worth. Mihychuk says it was typical for prospectors, even successful ones, to end up penniless.
As Rice’s feats became known across Canada, she provided inspiration for other women, says Mihychuk. She was once quoted about how more women would be prospecting if they knew how thrilling it was.
“No woman need hesitate about entering the mining field because she is a woman,” said Rice. “It isn’t courage that is needed, so much as perseverance.”
After Woosey died in 1940, Rice lived in the bush on her own for two more decades. A few years before her death, she was admitted to the Brandon Mental Institution. There are varying reports about whether she was dragged there or walked in herself.
After two months, she was kicked out. Mihychuk says doctors determined she wasn’t crazy — just an old woman prospector.
Snow Lake’s mayor, Clarence Fisher, will accept Rice’s award on Thursday.
“She’s a mining story, but she’s really an adventure story,” he says. “I think it’s important that we make sure that story doesn’t get lost.
“We’re kind of a country built on individuals like this and, in lots of ways, I don’t think we’re that good at remembering them. And we should be.”
Rice spent her final days in a nursing home in Minnedosa, Man., and was buried in an unmarked grave.
The owner of the Snow Lake newspaper later paid to erect headstones for both Rice and Woosey.
Hers reads, “Extraordinary Woman of the Wilds.”