Remember / Resist / Redraw #01: 150 Years of Colonialism

The Graphic History Collective (GHC) has launched a new activist art project: Remember | Resist | Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project.

The collaborative project will be an ongoing poster series that aims to intervene in the Canada 150 conversation. We hope to encourage people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for radical change in 2017 and beyond.

The GHC will publish the posters on our website and on as they are completed. We also plan to create a traveling pop-up people’s history exhibition this summer. Learn more about the project on our new website, and stay connected with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news and special features. Continue reading

Staging an Imagined Ireland

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This post by Matthew Barlow is presented in partnership with Au delà des frontières / Beyond Borders, the blog of the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University

Montreal from Street Railway Power House chimney, 1896. Wm. Notman & Son. Wikimedia Commons.

In May 2017, my first monograph, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, will be published by UBCPress.  Around the same time, my colleague G. Scott MacLeod and I will release our documentary film, The Death of Life of Griffintown.  As you can imagine, I am very excited about this, as it will culminate a decade-and-a-half of work on Griffintown.  For those who don’t know, Griffintown is an inner-city neighbourhood in Montreal.  And while today it is under rapid regeneration with the construction of dozens upon dozens of condo towers, it was historically a working-class neighbourhood. Indeed, the Canadian industrial revolution began in Griff in the 1830s.

While the population was a heterogeneous combination of Irish-Catholics, Anglo-Protestants, and French-Canadians, the neighbourhood is remembered today for its Irish population.  Griffintown has emerged as the Irish neighbourhood of Montreal, even if only in memory, as a counterpart to more famous Irish neighbourhoods like Southie in Boston and the Five Points and Hell’s Kitchen in New York.  My work has centred around the constructions of identity in the Irish-Catholic population of the neighbourhood over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  The Irish of Griffintown were a diasporic people by the dawn of the twentieth century, as Irish emigration to Canada had more or less dried up over half a century earlier, during the Irish Famine (1845-52) once passage to the United States was made more affordable by the repeal of the Navigation Acts.

An imagined Ireland has remained part and parcel of the Griffintown experience, as the people of the neighbourhood’s diaspora found ways to represent the old country back to themselves. Continue reading

Rediscovering the “Oracle of Wheat”

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By Anne Dance

E. Cora Hind, first-wave feminist and famed agricultural journalist, was never one to back down from a fight. In the 1930s, the septuagenarian recommended reforms to a federal cabinet minister. The Canadian politician quickly dismissed Hind’s suggestions, much to her disgust. “This merely shows his colossal ignorance of the whole situation,” Hind later wrote in one of her bestselling books. “He is dead now, but I have no doubt his evil influence on that subject has lived after him.”[1]

When we reflect upon women’s activism in the Canadian West, Ella Cora Hind ticks so many boxes: a good friend of Nellie McClung, she was a proponent of women’s suffrage and advocated relentlessly for women’s vocational training. Hind was also a renowned agricultural authority. She was a ubiquitous presence at producers’ meetings, conferences, trade shows, agricultural fairs, and experimental farming stations. From the late 1890s onwards, Hind spent weeks surveying Prairie crops and interviewing farmers for the Manitoba Free Press. Her published predictions were consistently more accurate than government surveys and other experts. And they made her famous, so much so that Hind was dubbed the “Oracle of Wheat”. Continue reading

Silenced Histories: Accessing Abortion in Alberta, 1969 to 1988

By Shannon Ingram

Two years following the 100th celebration of Canadian confederation in 1967, the Omnibus Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed on May 14th, 1969 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that partially lifted the strict criminal sanctions regarding abortion nationwide. [1] The decades that followed the passing of, what many deemed, “the monumental omnibus bill” was no more liberating for women’s bodily autonomy than prior to the passing of the bill.

Therapeutic Abortion Committees or TACs were established across Canada following the partial decriminalization of abortion in 1969. The TAC maintained that a minimum of three medical professionals had to be present to regulate the number of abortions performed on women in hospital settings. The Therapeutic Abortion Survey, conducted in 1969, showed evidence of this increased attention by medical professionals and government. Each therapeutic abortion required the woman to fill out a standardized individual report, including such information as, “[the woman’s] marital status, age, province of residence… [and recommendations for or against] sterilization.”[2] The Therapeutic Abortion Survey, initiated by the Federal Department of Justice and Welfare, was submitted by hospitals who both had accredited Therapeutic Abortion Committees and who performed therapeutic abortions. The criteria for sterilization or recommendations for other forms of birth control was left to the discretion of the referring doctor and the TACs, and in many cases, went against the woman’s wishes. And while the standardized individual report case forms estimated the number of women across Canada seeking abortion services, it also implicitly suggested that some women were suitable for motherhood and some women were not. Ultimately, this decision was more times than not left in the hands of government and medical professionals regulating and problematizing the female body, under the auspices of a more liberalized era of reproductive choice. Continue reading

Firmly on the Left: ‘Ethnic Hall’ Socialist Women’s Activism and State Responses, 1919-1945

By Rhonda Hinther

Authorities caught up with Regina Communist Party Activist Gladys Macdonald on June 3, 1940, along with two men, John Slavkowsky (whom the press identified as a Hungarian relief recipient) and Clifford Peet, another local Party organizer. According to news reports, the three, were “accused of printing a pamphlet known as the Saskatchewan Factory and Furrow, containing materials intended or likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty; likely or intended to interfere with the success of His Majesty’s forces and intended or likely to be prejudicial to the efficient prosecution of the war.” Her arrest was a serious blow to the party locally.  Shortly after, an RCMP secret bulletin noted “The Communist Party of Canada in the Province of Saskatchewan appears to be seriously disorganized as a result of the outlawing of the Party and other left wing organizations and the arrests of Clifford Peet and Gladys McDonald, leading Communists.” Slavkowsky’s wife, Susie, was later charged and convicted with the trio, as the pamphlet’s printing allegedly took place in her home.  Susie received a suspended sentence, while her husband and Peet received jail time of six months and one year respectively of hard labour served in Regina Jail.[1]

Apparently more dangerous, Macdonald was convicted and sentenced to double the time of Peet– she was ordered to a year of hard labour at Battleford Women’s Jail. Upon completion of her sentence on the morning of July 11, 1941, “she was informed that orders had been issued for her to be held in jail.” A short time later, “the RCMP [showed up] with an internment order on which no grounds [to hold her] were shown.” A week later, she was furnished with the particulars justifying her continued incarceration, and, over a month later on August 19, 1941, a government committee heard her appeal.  Despite a host of positive character witnesses and McDonald’s own testimony that she now supported the war (in keeping with the Party’s then changed position), she did not fare well during the proceedings.  By the next month, she found herself interned in Kingston Penitentiary.

Macdonald’s story is part of a larger project I’m researching on the political incarceration of leftists during WWII.  Then, the Canadian government imprisoned, in jails and internment camps, hundreds of far left activists. Their detention was part of a broader climate of repression, intimidation, and fear that hung over many leftists in wartime Canada. Authorities here, like other western powers, used the war as excuse to criminalize radical activism, involvement in a host of leftist ‘ethnic hall’ socialist organizations, and support of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), which, at the time, had grown to considerable strength thanks to its Depression-era activism among the working class and unemployed. The state took aim at these radicals, focussing on the CPC’s antiwar position adopted following the German-Soviet Pact in August of 1939. Fearing disruption to the war effort and seizing the opportunity to silence Canadian radical groups (a constant thorn in the government’s side), Prime Minister Mackenzie King in the spring of 1940 banned a number of organizations linked to and including the CPC, granting state authorities the right to confiscate these groups’ property and arrest the leadership.

I’m especially interested in how gender shaped wartime political incarceration.  The vast majority of the men rounded up (some 120 or so) were interned, typically serving out their time together in one of three camps across Canada.  Most of the women I’m finding (currently numbering around ten and growing as my research continues) were formally charged, convicted, and served jail time.

Gladys MacDonald enjoys the dubious honour of being the only leftist woman internee.  She was finally released, along with many of the male leftists internees then held in Hull Jail, in the fall of 1942. And after that, she seems to disappear from the record.  It’s possible her name changed through marriage, and that this is making it difficult to locate further sources on her.  It’s possible she may have left the movement entirely – wartime was obviously traumatic and lonely for her.  I’m hoping some additional sources I’m planning to examine over the coming months will help shed light on her life and activism following her incarceration. I welcome any help Active History readers can offer.

As this and the other posts in this series demonstrate, women’s political and social activism in Western Canada was complicated and complex. And it was not without danger, as Gladys MacDonald’s story underscores, especially when it was perceived as a direct challenge to the authority of the state.  Wartime, in MacDonald’s case, provided the government with the perfect excuse to silence her and others who dared to contest the lot of the working class.

Rhonda L. Hinther is an Associate Professor of History at Brandon University (BU).  Her research and teaching interests include public history, oral history, gender and women’s history, migration and labour history, and radical and social justice activism in Canada.  She is the author of the forthcoming book, Perogies and Politics: Radical Ukrainians in Canada, 1918-1991 (University of Toronto Press, 2016) and the co-editor of Re-imagining Ukrainian-Canadians:  History, Politics, and Identity (University of Toronto Press, 2011).

[1] “4 Persons Rounded Up In Regina Raid,” Medicine Hat News, June 6, 1940; “Sask. Trio Held Under War Act,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 3, 1940; “War Act Violators Sentenced to Jail,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 12, 1940; Joan Sangster includes some discussion of Macdonald and several of the other leftist women arrested at this time – see Joan Sangster, Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left, 1920-1950 (Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1989). For more information on women internees and other women (of varying circumstances and political stripes) rounded up seemingly without rhyme or reason under the DOC Regulations, see Michelle McBride’s path breaking article, “The Curious Case of Female Internees,” in Enemies within Italian and Other Internees in Canada and Abroad, ed. Franca Iacovetta, Roberto Perin, and Angelo Principe (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 128–47.  On page 164, McBride provides important commentary on McDonald’s wartime circumstances.


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