A Prairie Homo Companion is a regular column that celebrates the Canadian prairies, canola fields and big skies, and the paradoxes of being a fine-ass lady prairie homo.
Header by Rory Midhani
The theme of this week in Western Canada has been protest on the prairies. There have been road blockades, round dances in shopping malls, and marches. As the movement grows, “protesting Conservative government bills beginning with Bill C-45 [that] threaten Treaties and [an] Indigenous vision of sovereignty” it’s simply something that can’t be ignored. A recent Tyee article called Idle No More the “biggest and most important national outpouring of grassroots aboriginal anger ever seen in Canada,” and as I tried to find my friend in a large crowd of dancers and speakers in -30 with windchill weather last week, I could believe it. I couldn’t believe that a protest this big was happening in Alberta.
The prairies are too often stereotyped as backwards and conservative, resistant to change. This stereotype comes partly from politics – though Manitoba has elected the socially progressive NDP, Alberta and Saskatchewan both have conservative governments. The prominence of farming and the oil industry in the prairies also doesn’t do much to dismantle our redneck reputation. It’s unfortunate that this “redneck reputation” often makes others, and even ourselves, forget that many rights which we now take for granted – like free, universal healthcare and women’s right to vote – originated right here in the prairies. Though when first introduced, these rights were seen as radical, unnecessary, and inconvenient, we now take them for granted. As socially progressive and environmentally conscious prairie homos, we sometimes feel isolated and like we’re fighting an uphill battle. This is why it’s so important that we remember our radical prairie history. From free healthcare to the suffragette movement to Idle No More, there’s plenty worth reminding ourselves of about radical prairie activism.
FREE HEALTHCARE FOR EVERYONE
Prairie farming helped Tommy Douglas, the preacher turned politician and Canada’s Father of Medicare, see the devastating effects of actually having to pay for healthcare. During the Great Depression, if a farmer had an expensive doctor’s visit, it took away his valuable time, energy, and money, and could completely ruin his farm. This would add to the shortages of an already short food supply and didn’t do anybody any favours. As a preacher, Tommy Douglas had firsthand experience witnessing the suffering in his community:
“Again and again we would leave some sitting in the hospital waiting room while we went out and borrowed or begged a few dollars here and there till we’d make up enough to pay the bill. In some cases I knew people who simply died. I remember burying a girl fourteen years of age who had died with a ruptured appendix … I buried a good many people that I knew, some of whom I loved. “
In fact, Tommy Douglas himself almost lost his life because of inadequate healthcare funds. As a boy in Manitoba, he contracted a bone infection and underwent several unsuccessful leg surgeries. His parents didn’t have more money to pay for a specialist, and Douglas was about to have his leg amputated when an altruistic doctor offered to take a look at him for free. This doctor not only cured his infection and saved his leg, but taught a young Tommy Douglas what a difference free healthcare can make. Douglas swore that if he were ever able to, he would change the system:
“In was in those days I made up my mind that if ever I had the power I would, if it were humanly possible, see that the financial barrier between those who needed health services and those who gave health services was forever removed.”
In 1944, Tommy Douglas ran to be Premier of Saskatchewan under the CCF party (now the NDP). He ran a strong campaign, using his background as a minister to preach his vision for healthcare; but he was met with vicious and unprecedented attacks. Canada’s leading businesses, such as Imperial Oil and Noranda Mines, were threatened by the CCF’s socialism. The department store Simpsons used its catalogue to mail-out anti CCF propaganda. Canadians were poor from the Great Depression, dying in World War Two, and more than a little suspicious of new ideas and anything having to do with socialism. One opponent even said, “The only thing that separates the CCF from Hitler’s National Socialists is its lack of the swastika.” Despite the attacks, a poll reported a Douglas win, but the Saskatchewan newspapers refused to print it. But on June 15, 1944, the province of Saskatchewan made history by electing the first socialist government in Canada. Tommy Douglas quickly brought in free medical and hospital care for pensioners, those on governments support, and cancer patients. By 1962, he had expanded free medical care to, well, everyone, and Saskatchewan enacted the first universal publicly funded medical insurance medicare plan in North America. Saskatchewan set a precedent for the rest of the country. Seeing how well Douglas’s plan worked, then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson adopted federal universal health insurance in 1966.
Tommy Douglas didn’t let his prairie idea die at the hands of good-old-fashioned prairie conservatism. Instead,he used his prairie persistence and got shit done.
“Social justice is like taking a bath,” he famously said. “You have to do it every day or pretty soon you start to stink.”
WOMEN ARE PEOPLE TOO! WOMEN GET TO VOTE!
Women’s suffrage was first proposed in Manitoba way, way, back in 1870 by the Icelandic settlers, but the men in power said no, and there was nothing much Manitoban women could do, so they focused on their work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and petitioned to end the “evils of alcohol.” Personally, I quite like alcohol, but had I been living in the late 1800s with 5 kids to support, a husband who spent most of his income on alcohol, no power to go out and earn my own income, no access to birth control to stop having more kids, and not much power to get divorced, I might have felt differently! The WCTU held meetings, protests, and teach-ins about prohibition, and in fighting together for a cause they believed in, they realized they had real power that should be translated into political power.
Nellie McClung, the daughter-in-law of Mrs. J.A. McClung, one of the early WCTU activists, led a strong campaign for women’s suffrage between 1912 and 1915. If you’ve ever watched the film Iron Jawed Angels, about the American suffrage movement, you’ll know that it was fought with hunger strikes and even jail time. In France and England, the suffrage movements sometimes got violent. But in Canada, suffrage was won in typical Canadian style – with politeness, persistence, and even humour. For example, Nellie McClung rented the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg to set up a mock parliament in which she was the Prime Minister and men had to beg her for votes. On January 28, 1916, Manitoban women (excluding First Nations women) became the first in Canada to win the right to vote and hold provincial office. They were followed by Saskatchewan on March 14th and Alberta on April 19th. In 1918, women were granted the federal right to vote, but it wasn’t until 1940 that Ontario women could vote provincially, and it wasn’t until 1960 that First Nations women and men were given the full right to vote!
Unfortunately, winning the right to vote did not guarantee women full executive power, as Edmonton woman Emily Murphy found out when her appointment as judge came under fire. Under the British North America Act (BNA Act), only a person could participate fully in politics and affairs of the state, and women were not considered “persons.” Murphy banded together with suffragette Nellie McClung and four other prairie women (Louise McKinney, Henrietta Muir Edwards, and Irene Parlby) to appeal the BNA Act’s definition of person at the Supreme Court. Both the court and Sir. Robert Borden, Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, did not see the need for women to be considered persons under the law, so the five women, now known as the Famous Five, grew fed up with Canada and took a ship to England where they appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. They returned to Canada successful, and women were finally considered persons under the law in 1929.
THE FIGHT TO END CANADA’S RACISM AGAINST INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
The Idle No More movement is gaining momentum as news of First Nations’ protest against Bill C-45 and the removal of their treaty rights spreads both nationally and internationally; but what many don’t know is that the movement was started by women – prairie women. Saskatoon-based activists Sheela McLean, Sylvia McAdams, Nina Wilson, and Jessica Gordon came up with slogan Idle No More and are responsible for taking it from a Twitter hashtag to the name and rallying cry of First Nations and non-First Nations alike who are sick and tired of Harper’s undemocratic policies and the ongoing racism towards Indigenous Canadians. Jessica Gordon says, “These colonial forms of legislation that the government expects to unilaterally impose on us has brought us together, to stand together.” The Idle No More movement has just begun, so it’s hard to say how it will be remembered. What I know right now is that I’m proud that yet another fight for equality has begun right here in the prairies.
WHAT PROTEST MEANS TO PRAIRIE HOMOS AND QUEERS EVERYWHERE
As prairie homos and queer people as a whole, we know firsthand that our voices and our struggles are often not heard and recognized. The fight for universal healthcare, for suffrage, and for First Nations’ rights are three examples in which a group of people whose voices have also been dismissed, whose concerns have also been pushed aside and mocked by the mainstream media, peacefully but persistently fight back and assert their right to be treated equally. I hope that as queer people, we understand the need for equality and that this understanding can help us relate to other oppressed groups, such as Canada’s First Nations. And if past prairie movements can give a clue to the future of the Idle No More movement, I’ll say that like the fight for universal health care and for women’s rights, the struggle against Harper and centuries of racism will be won (even in the face of adversity) with courage, persistence, and humour.
I’m so excited about the Idle No More protests! Thanks for this column!
Would just like to point out it was Quebec that women got to vote in 1940; Ontario women had voting rights well before then.
Also, Tommy Douglas <3
Thanks for this post!
This article is brilliant!
!!!! to everything
Tommy Douglas was voted the Greatest Canadian for a reason. Great article! I love reading about Canadian politics here on AS.
Yay! Thank you!
That handbill for the mockparliament is painted on the side of the Walker Theatre. I’m surprised that the 1919 Winnipeg general strike didn’t get mentioned, but then I have a Winnipeg-centric bias. Our Idle No More march was huge, we shut down a section of Main street and walked to the aboriginal center.
Also, one other fine detail I’d like to point out – just so that everyone’s aware of it.
First Nations (men only, I *think*, but I may be wrong) were able to vote before 1960 – but only if they were permanently off-reserve. In 1960, the right to vote was extended to Status Indians, too… prior to 1960, one had to give up one’s status, in order to be able to vote. Which, to me, is a rather subtly racist “sure, you can vote… if you’re willing to assimilate”.
Yes , exactly! My article pointed out that prior to 1960 First Nations were not given full voting rights. The government was trying to assimilate them and that’s something the Harper government is still trying to do.
i think it’s important that we complicate the history of the movement for women’s suffrage in canada. for one thing, nelly mcclung and others campaigned on a racist, biologically essentialist model, arguing that white women were “morally superior” and the caretakers of the race and therefore it was their duty to make sure that everybody else didn’t fuck everything up. on top of that, she and many others in the suffragist movement were major proponents of eugenics; nellie mcclung’s name is on the act that enforced the non-consensual sexual sterilization of thousands of poor people, immigrants, people of colour, people with disabilities, queers(!!), and first nations people, among many others.
annnd people were actually still being forcibly sterilized until the 1970s. that’s not a legacy i feel particularly excited to celebrate.
Well, those are very valid points.
However, I think it’s very important that one keeps the societal context of the period in mind. These were essential first steps that had to be taken, the foundation upon which later advances could be built.
Before there could be a 747, there had to be the Wright brothers. Everything can’t happen at once.
i am considering the context – my whole point is that the context in which this foundation was built is fucked, and for that matter, continues to be. i don’t think that the “progress” of women’s rights would have been hindered had it actually been inclusive from the get-go. the context is that these supposed gains were made at the expense of people of colour, people with disabilities, queer people, poor people, etc. they were made in a context of a racist patriarchal legal system that continues to value certain bodies over others, which is why we have movements like idle no more. this context isn’t a historical one. we are still living in it.
Yeah, I think you’re looking at it through rose-coloured glasses.
Society was very conservative, and very christian… and very Anglo-Saxon-centric. I’m quite certain that had they tried to be all-out inclusive from the start, and insist on all-or-nothing, progress would have at best been delayed several decades…
I’m not really ready to believe we’d even be where we are today. I really think that the progress *had* to happen piecemeal.
i wholeheartedly disagree with you. i don’t think any of it is justified. i think that’s the lie of colonization. it’s what we’re supposed to think, that’s there’s no other way to do things except leaving other people behind. i’m going to respectfully back out of this conversation.
I completely agree with kpee. The whole idea that we can’t retrospectively criticize the suffrage movement is complete bull. If I was born at the same time as Nellie McClung, I wouldn’t have gotten the vote until 1947. It’s not just First Nations that didn’t have the vote and everyone else did, most ethnic minorities didn’t get the vote until the post-war period. In most social movements of note, there’s a disgusting idea of presenting the community as a unified whole, and getting rid of all the parts that make it not as easily digestible to the general population.
It’s why we have white, middle-class, non-threatening queer men on television. Look at how non-threatening they are, they’re so lovable why wouldn’t you want them to get married?? Martin Luther King was an entirely non-violent person, look at these hand-picked quotes of his! He was such a good black person, not like that evil Malcolm X.
(When in fact, MLK acknowledged on several occasions that he felt he had no right to tell young black youths to abstain from violence when the violence of the oppressed was so minimal compared to the institutional violence of his own government.)
Look, I get that McClung was fighting a difficult battle. But then her movement should have been called “Women’s Suffrage for White, Middle-Class, Heterosexual Women”, not the “Women’s Suffrage Movement”. If we don’t fight for inclusivity in social AND political movements, they lose their value and become meaningless. When minority groups or disempowered groups are ALSO discriminatory, it’s pathetic.
I also don’t like the fact that McClung and her crew are seen as the spearheads of the only women’s suffrage movement in Canadian history. As if the women of colour fighting for their voting rights from the 1920s to the 1960s don’t count. Those truths aren’t told in Canadian history textbooks.
I can’t comment on the political history of women’s suffrage in Canada. However, it sounds much like the kind of argument that can be had over whether Thomas Jefferson or Washington were great men or are they disqualified because they owned slaves? I don’t really know the answer or that there is a definitive one. I’d say it’s important to acknowledge both the good and the bad because that’s true of most people in most times.
This is probably going to sound like I’m trying to dig out of a hole or something, , but whatever.
I wasn’t trying to say that I think it was done in a good way, that excluding anyone not falling within a certain definition of ‘white’ is a good thing.
But given a societal context in which anyone outside of a very specific definition was hardly considered human, is it entirely a bad thing that the process started in the most privileged segment of society?
I’m not going to deny that there was a lot of horrible bullshit going on… but I don’t think that should discredit the positives, either.
Okay, I definitely get that there were a lot of problems with the suffrage movement and that it wasn’t inclusive to many women. Tommy Douglas also did many things in his personal and professional life that I don’t applaud. However, I can only write one article at a time and this article is not about the failings of the suffrage movement. I could write that article and it would be interesting, but as much as it’s important to criticize movements, it’s also important to recognize and draw inspiration from their good parts. And yes, Nellie mcclung and the suffragettes DID do good, very important things. I am queer. I am a woman of colour. there are many obstacles in my life, but one of them is not having to worry about going to the doctor. Another one is not having to worry about being able to vote. Should I just not talk about certain people who have played a part in giving me rights because they happened to be white? Because compared to others they had a certain amount of privilege? My article did point out the problems with racism in Canada. If I had also included all the problems with the suffrage aaaand the universal healthcare movement the article would be twice as long and wouldn’t have any focus. I’m not saying we should ignore the problems with social justice movements of the past, but we can draw inspiration from what they did right-which is what this article is about. And again, one article can’t contain everything.
I know it’s impossible to cover all the possible angles in the movement in one article. Obviously I too am grateful to be considered a person (!) and universal healthcare has saved my ass too many times to count. I am definitely not suggesting that you not celebrate or appreciate these histories because white people were involved; I’m sorry if it came across that way. All movements are fraught. All of them can be viewed with a critical eye (and I think this is super important!) However, since this article was framed as a celebration of radical activist work I felt it was important to point out (not necessarily to you, but to others – especially those outside of canada who may be less familiar with the subject) that the suffrage movement was about a lot more than the vote, and the legacy of this is still evident. For this reason I struggle with the characterization of the suffragettes as “radical”.
All that aside, I reeeally like this column and it is so exciting to be able to engage with other cdn queers!! I feel like I don’t get much opportunity to do this and it’s great.
Ohalsooo I wanted to say that I think it’s possible to simultaneously be appreciative and critical and theyre not necessarily at odds with each other!
Hey, awesome, I agree it’s possible to be critical and appreciative at the same time! I see the suffragettes as radical in the context of the early 1900s, but I think “radical” can mean different things to different people. Anyways, thank you for reading and commenting! I do appreciate your insights! And it’s good to generate discussion, share thoughts/ideas!
I’ve been following this for awhile, so glad to see it on Autostraddle.
this was really interesting i liked reading it
Thank you for this! I’m from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and have only recently discovered my sexuality. Autostraddle has been a WONDERFUL resource but I until now I felt that most everyone was from the USA and even though this is an online community, I felt disconnected. It was really great to read this article and all the commentary – thanks for covering Canadian content!
Hey, it’s so great that you’ve discovered AS (and your sexuality). I’m gonna keep it up with the Canadian content :-)
Please keep up the Canadian content! It’s definitely one of the things that keeps me coming back to Autostraddle. I especially appreciate the prairie perspective – I am considering a move to Edmonton.
yes Saskatchewan for being pioneers in universal health care! as a rural person i feel so much love for this, even though j give shit to the Canadians in my own border town i fucking love Canada
also I know people in the states who are supportive if idle no more in border states like Montana and it’s just…great
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