Huddled around my small office at the Boyle Street Community Centre, the Burlie Family exchanged hellos with Martin Daniels, one of our long-term community members. I had told Martin about the special guests I was expecting and he couldn’t help but give them a Boyle Street welcome. Grinning through the gap in his teeth, he leaned into the room and shouted, “Welcome to the Boyle Street Co-op! I hope you enjoy your time here!”
Background and Early Life
Boyle Street Community Services started as a co-operative of inner-city agencies in 1971. Mary Burlie was one of our first volunteers and became a Boyle Street legend with 26 years of frontline service. Mary’s daughters, Stephanie and Tony; her granddaughter Tanika; and her son-in-law Richard were visiting to tell me more about Mary’s life and legacy at Boyle Street. Stephanie and Richard remembered Martin from their own work in the inner-city and happily returned his greeting.
Mary Burlie was born in Arkadelphia, Arkansas in 1935 to a family of thirteen. Growing up in a Black share-cropping family in the deep south under Jim Crow law was not easy. Mary grew up moving from state to state with her mother, Aida McGregor, who made a living as a cook. Reflecting on Mary’s childhood, Tony remarked:
“I can’t imagine. I know it was rough. A lot of things she didn’t talk about because she was trying to protect us. But, you know, as you get older you find these things out... You see the Black Lives Matter movement juxtaposed with Mississippi and we’ve come a long way, but, not so far.”
Mary’s children remember moving to Canada as a turning point for their family. Mary married a Canadian, John Burlie, and moved to Edmonton in 1969. With six children at home, Mary was looking for a way to get out of the house and find her calling. Alice Hanson, Boyle Street’s Executive Director at the time, told the story of how Mary got involved at Boyle Street:
“I remember the day. I had met her someplace; she was living in the community and she had all these kids, and one day she walked into my office when we were having trouble in the Drop-In. It was a hot day and it was jammed. It was in the old building and Mary walked into my office without knocking. She had on a yellow dress, bright yellow, right to the ground, and she looked at me and she said, “Mrs. Hanson, you need help.” And I said, “I know I do Mary, but I don’t have any money for another staff person.” “That’s alright honey, I’ll volunteer until you find the money.” That’s how Mary came to the Co-Op.” [Boyle Street 30th Anniversary book]
Contributions to Boyle Street
Mary became close friends with Boyle Street’s leadership and played an integral role as a member of Boyle Street’s staff. Her volunteering quickly turned into a paid, full-time job. Mary was incredibly tenacious and had seventeen cases open at a time while other staff managed six. Though Mary was quite introverted in her personal life, working for Boyle Street was a point of pride for her, and she handed out her business cards readily.