Rethinking the Contributions of Union Activist Ethel Wilson Within the Postwar Context of Alberta’s Male-Dominated Industrial Complex

By Cynthia Loch-Drake

Struggling to make ends meet in 1934 while raising three small children after her husband deserted their family, Ethel Wilson took a job as seamstress in one of Edmonton’s major meatpacking plants. During WWII she became a union organizer and in the postwar era entered community politics, rising to become a cabinet minister in the Social Credit government from 1963 to 1972.[1] Despite this remarkable trajectory, critics have written off Wilson for her limited impact as a progressive politician. The labour movement judged her harshly for supporting Alberta’s most anti-union government, and Wilson is portrayed as no friend of working women because of the ineffectual provincial Women’s Bureau that she established during her tenure as cabinet minister.[2]

Ethel Wilson, 1957, Courtesy of City of Edmonton Archive (EA-10-2934-5).

I argue that as a white, Anglo-Celtic woman in a region shaped by recent colonization, Ethel Wilson’s abilities and privilege allowed her to be a more effective unionist and advocate for women workers in the 1940s than has been recognized. Her impact, however, was constrained by moralistic middle-class notions of female sexuality and her religious convictions, which fostered an individualistic approach to activism. More fundamentally, though, her career demonstrates that the male-dominated system of packinghouses, unions, and governments in postwar Alberta was a more significant barrier to Wilson’s activism, shutting her out of positions of real power due to her gender. Continue reading

The Voice of Women Against Chemical Weapons

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By Susan L. Smith

On August 20, 1988, over one hundred peace activists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens from Alberta and Saskatchewan gathered at Suffield, a military research facility in southern Alberta.  The protest was led by the Alberta Branch of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.[1]  The Voice of Women was an organization of peace activists founded in 1960 to demonstrate women’s discontent with Cold War politics and the nuclear arms race.  However, in the 1960s and 1980s, women in Alberta expanded their peace activism to include opposition to Canadian chemical weapons research.  Peace activists played an important role in the history of Western Canadian women’s political activism.

Women’s opposition to military research at Suffield was part of the long history of women’s international peace and disarmament efforts.  For example, during the First World War, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded by women from warring and neutral nations in order to halt the war. Several decades later, women’s opposition to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the creation of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace by a group of women in Toronto.  Women from across Canada soon organized local branches of the Voice of Women, including one in Alberta, which existed from 1960 to 1994. Continue reading

Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society

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By Debbie Beaver

As a women of color a question that I have been asked numerous times in my life is “Where are you from?”   My response is I was born in Barrhead, Alberta and raised on a farm in Tiger Lily, Alberta.  Next question is “Where is your family from; “your parents”?   “My response is “my father was born in Campsie, Alberta and my mother was born in Maidstone, Saskatchewan.’ This is still not sufficient for some, so I explain that my Grandparents were both born in the US and came here as children when their parents left the southern US in 1912 or 1913 due to racial segregation.    This answer seems to satisfy those curious minds, surprisingly many people are unaware that black families settled in Alberta a century ago.

The Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society (BSAS) is a non-profit organization that was started by four women who are all descendants of the black settlers that came to Alberta and Saskatchewan from the United States between 1905-1911. These settlers migrated from the rural South via Oklahoma to escape racial oppression and Jim Crow laws.

We developed a research plan and applied for funding to begin an oral history project titled “In their Own Words”.   The scope of our project is to collect oral histories from elderly descendants (80 +years of age) of the pioneering Black Settlers.  The majority settled in one of five areas: Campsie, Junkins (now Wildwood), Keystone (now Breton), Pine Creek (now Amber Valley) in Alberta and Maidstone, Saskatchewan.  Maidstone has been included in our research because all the settlements are connected in some way, be it shared farm work, working on the railroad, social events or marriage.  Many also settled in Edmonton and Calgary. Continue reading

Agrarian Feminism in Our Time and Place

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By Nettie Wiebe

As a prairie farmer, feminist, activist and former women’s president and then president of the National Farmers Union, much of my work rests on that of the generations of agrarian feminists that came before me.

My active participation in public life, including leadership positions in farm, political and other organizations, are possible only because of the struggles and courage of the many women who fought to open these spaces for women.  That I have my name affixed to the titles of some of the land we farm is also thanks to prairie women’s political activism.  Women’s struggle for land has a long history.  And today we face a new set of challenges on that front.

The land history of the Canadian prairies is one of dispossession and displacement of indigenous peoples by settlers more than 150 years ago.  Colonial settler policy constituted a radical shift in the use and role of land, moving it from traditional territories occupied by peoples to newly deeded parcels owned by individuals.  It also reinforced colonial patriarchal land ownership by ensuring that the deeds or titles to land were allocated almost exclusively to males. Continue reading

Theme Week Introduction: Women’s Social and Political Activism in the Canadian West

Introduction by Nanci Langford with Sarah Carter. Theme week edited by Sarah Carter, Erika Dyck and Nanci Langford. 

                         “If I didn’t do something, my spirit would die…”
Senator Thelma Chalifoux, 2006

This quote forms the title of Corinne George’s study of the history of Indigenous women activists of Alberta that she drew on for her presentation at the October 2016 conference on the History of Women’s Social and Political Activism in the Canadian West held at University of Alberta in Edmonton.[i] Corinne’s paper had a focus on Cree Elder, activist and conference participant Lillian Shirt, and was the topic of an Active History post in December, 2016.[ii] The six articles in this series showcase some of the other papers presented at this conference.

The centenary of the achievement of suffrage for (some) women in the prairie provinces prompted conference organizers Sarah Carter, Nanci Langford and Claire Thomson to provide a forum for recent research on prairie women’s activism in the last century.[iii] In particular we wanted to feature new scholarship being undertaken in diverse communities that reflect the struggles women have been engaged in during the last fifty years.

Prairie women have always been involved in community development and lobbied for public measures that would improve the lives of women and children. The challenges and conditions of the settlement years in the west demanded action from women and men in both settler and Indigenous communities to build secure lives for themselves and their children, and that action started at their front doors and extended to communities, districts and to provincial politics. Moving beyond those years, women of all backgrounds and cultures were and continue to be engaged in political activities to address personal and community needs, to confront unfair practices or unsafe conditions, to change the political agenda, or to demand equity. To carry out these activities they spoke out individually or formed organizations and committees, joined political parties and ran for political office. Continue reading

Trumpism, Fascism, and the Lessons of History

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By Geoff Read, Cheryl Koos, and Samuel Kalman

The 45th President of the United States

Many articles have appeared in the past year debating whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist.[1] Although some of these pieces are mere exercises in name calling, others offer political, social, and historical analysis. Just prior to the US presidential election, for example, Kevin Passmore, an eminent scholar of the French far right, took up this question in the  Guardian and reached similar conclusions as previous commentators: that fascism is a difficult concept to nail down, that so-called fascists were a diverse group, and that the label “fascist” may not be helpful for understanding Trump and the movement (let’s call it “Trumpism”) that he has inspired.

We don’t argue with the thrust of the first two conclusions. However, unlike Passmore and others, we do think that comparing historical forms of fascism to Trumpism can be a useful exercise. Moreover, the day of Trump’s inauguration is the right moment to revisit this question from a different angle. It strikes us that asking whether or not Trump is a fascist misses the point. The logic of the comparison is as follows: that the majority of rational people can agree that fascism was dangerous and thus if a political movement resembles it, it must be strongly opposed. Surely, therefore, the important question to focus on is what similarities Trumpism shares with the fascists of the past. Pursuing this line of inquiry allows us to see many disturbing points of convergence between Trumpism and fascism without falling into the trap of a semantic debate and does in fact help identify the danger that Trumpism represents. It is not necessary that Donald Trump or his movement be fascist for these similarities to alarm us.

Focusing on the fascists of western Europe between 1919 and 1945, then, what similarities did those movements and governments share with Donald Trump and his followers? Continue reading

The Historical is Personal: Learning and Teaching Traumatic Histories

Andrea Eidinger

Learning and teaching history is hard work. The physical, mental, and emotional toll can be high, for both educators and learners. This is especially the case when it comes to traumatic histories. For educators, it is difficult to balance the desire to make an emotional impact on your students without inflicting (further) trauma. For learners, it is difficult to balance curiosity with respect. We are often implored to “never forget,” but we seldom take a moment to talk about what and how we are supposed to remember.

 All of us come to the field of history from different backgrounds, and the ways in which we interact with history as educators and learners are shaped by these early experiences. But, with certain exceptions, it remains rare for anyone to talk about this, especially when it comes to teaching. So in this blog post, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about my personal experiences learning and teaching about traumatic histories and specifically how my experiences as a Jewish-Canadian woman who was taught about the Holocaust as a child shaped my approach to teaching first-year university students about residential schools. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Ninety-Two: The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson


By Sean Graham

Conspiracy theories can be undeniably appealing and addictive to read. One of the reasons for this is that they are so hard to disprove. In fact, for the true conspiracy theory devotee, evidence that seemingly disproves the theory is turned around and used as part of the conspiracy. An internal CIA document confirming that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone for instance, is then understood as evidence of how far up the conspiracy goes. That logic (or lack thereof) ensures that the conspiracy will live on for future sleuths.

At their best, conspiracy theories are harmless entertainment, but at their worst, they cause real damage. I would contend that the flat-earthers qualify as the former, with Pizzagate most definitely as the latter. And somewhere in the middle of those lies Tom Thomson, famed Canadian artist and member of the Group of Seven.

Given my interest in conspiracies and wild theories, I was excited to read Gregory Klages’ new book The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction. Like many artists before him, Thomson was not a particularly well known figure during his life. In addition to painting, he held a series of jobs just to sustain himself. When his art did sell, it generally wasn’t for large sums of money and Thomson toiled in virtual anonymity producing pieces that would later become some of the most celebrated art ever produced by a Canadian.

There is a certain cruelty to the fact that it wasn’t until after he died that Thomson became a celebrated artist. Perhaps it’s confirmation bias, but that seems to be a somewhat regular thing in the art world – in fact, second to having no talent, it’s the main reason why I didn’t pursue art. The part that’s troubling isn’t the anonymity during life, but the economics that goes along with it. Struggling to survive on your art while you’re alive seems unfair when it is sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars when you’re dead. But what happens if the manner in which you died contributed to the value of your art?

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Trump, Trade, and Canada’s Special Relationship with the United States

Christo Aivalis

In mere days, Donald J. Trump will conclude his improbable rise to the highest office in world’s most powerful country. What this means has been explored from numerous perspectives, but one issue growing in coverage is how Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will relate to this new Republican administration. In fact, many political analysts have suggested that Trudeau’s recent cabinet shuffle was undertaken in part to prepare for Trump’s regime.

All this would be important in any case, because relationships between Prime Ministers and their Presidential counterparts often play a role in diplomatic affairs. But Trump’s protectionist campaign rhetoric offers a special challenge to Canada’s leadership. Because when Trump calls for NAFTA to be renegotiated or scrapped, it could very well lead to the erosion of a close relationship with our southern neighbour that has help define the Canadian-American relationship for much of the postwar era. An example of this can be found in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s dealings with U.S. President Richard Nixon.

Looking back a little bit further, we can see how Canada’s 20th century was determined in large part by the politics of traded with the United States. Canada’s 1911 federal election was fought on the issue of free trade with the USA, with the Liberals backing the concept and the Conservatives warning of how it would harm Canada’s imperial relationships. While the Conservatives won the1911 election, the following decades saw a decline in trade with Britain, along with a steady reliance upon American markets and capital. The result was that many Canadian industries became dependent upon the American economy or became owned by American capital in a branch-plant economy. Continue reading

January Reflections on the Historical Problem of Women and Sexual Misconduct in Academia

By Beth A. Robertson

Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, 1919 edition title page

January is typically the month for reflecting on the year that has passed, and it is perhaps without a doubt that 2016 will be remembered for many, even unsavoury things, from the Zika virus, to Brexit, to the US presidential election. This is not to say that 2016 did not have some brighter notes. In September, a couple of friends and I had the pleasure of attending the launch of When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upsidedown World Right. Edited by Rachel M. Vincent, this collection featured a number of award-winning authors, including Madeleine Thien, who powerfully spoke that night on women’s place in the world and the challenges we still face.[1] Thien is notably a graduate from UBC’s Creative Writing Program, which brings me to another piece of her writing that also garnered some attention in 2016– a letter she wrote to UBC asking for her name to be removed “as member of the UBC Creative Writing community and as UBC alumni.”[2] Thien wrote the letter in response to the controversial investigation and firing of Dr. Steven Galloway, an award-winning novelist, as well as former professor and chair of UBC’s Creative Writing Program who was dismissed due to allegations of sexual misconduct with a student. Galloway’s case, although beginning in 2015, seems destined to continue capturing headlines, especially once his filed grievance with UBC is finally heard in March of this year.

I found myself thinking about the storm swirling around Galloway once again when I started teaching a course this January at Carleton University on women’s and gender history. I have taught this course before and one of my first lectures in part focuses on the challenges experienced by early women historians like Alice Clark and Mary Ritter Beard in academia. Although both have since been recognized as pivotal actors to the emergence of modern women’s history, they each struggled to be recognized for their research and writing, and neither were fully accepted in male-dominated university faculties.[3]

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