Subscribe to Sharon Fraser Subscribe to Sharon Fraser's comments

This piece was first published in The Women’s Almanac in 1993. Muriel passed away in 2009.

Muriel Duckworth

MURIEL DUCKWORTH was born in 1908 on a farm in Quebec near the town of Austin. She graduated from McGill University in Montreal in 1929. She and her husband lived in Montreal and in New York before moving to Nova Scotia in 1949.

Much of her work has been in adult education but she is best known as one of Canada’s most distinguished feminists and pacifists. She was a founding member of the Voice of Women (Nova Scotia) and served as national president from 1967-1971.

She is also a founding member of 17 other national and provincial organizations, including the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW), the Canadian Conference on the Family (out of which came the Vanier Institute on the Family), and the Nova Scotia Women’s Action Coalition. She has run for public office (with the federal New Democratic Party) and has attended women’s conferences for peace around the world.

She is a member of the Order of Canada, and has been awarded six honourary degrees. In 1991, she was the recipient of the Lester B. Pearson Peace Medal.

She has three children, eleven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

This story is told in Muriel’s own words.

My mother was a very independent person with ideas that she always expressed. I remember a lot of arguments in the family because my mother had her point of view and it was always taken for granted that she would have. I suppose I’ve become like that.

She always earned money, by turning the farmhouse into a summer boarding house – she was a very good cook – and then when they moved from the farm into the village, she always boarded the teachers or young men working in the bank. Then she opened what she called a tearoom – it was a really attractive little place and we all worked there in the summers.

She also became a representative of the Travellers’s Aid, because we lived a block from the railstation – if any young women arrived not knowing where they were going or what to do, the station agent would send them to my mother.

There was no library in the town at that time. We didn’t have many books but the ones we had, she took the china out of the china cabinet and put the books in there and made a little book plate and had a little library.

She even wrote letters to the editor. That really got her into trouble! She was very active in the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) which used to be a source of great amusement. When I was at McGill, I wouldn’t have had anybody know my mother was active in the WCTU – everybody would laugh. After I became involved in the women’s movement and women were doing research about Canadian women, they began giving credit to the WCTU for what they had done.

It changed my thinking and I felt very stupid that I hadn’t seen it before because they were among the groups that had worked for votes for women and were well-supported and they really had a cause: temperance was an important social issue. Women were very angry how women and children were suffering while men were getting drunk.

My own mother must have been inspired by her mother. There is a connection between generations. I’m sure I leaned toward working with women because of my mother and grandmother. They say my grandmother was a wonderful teacher. She kept a blackboard in the kitchen so she could teach her children – she had a large family. I knew her though she died when I was quite young. She taught me to read.

I was the first one in my family to go through university.
Education was very important to my parents although neither one of them had a lot.

So I did go to McGill. As far as I know, only two women from that town ever went to university.

* * *

During World War Two, my younger brother went to war and of course, that was a terrible worry for my mother. He was much younger than the rest of us; it was awful to see him go off to war and he was killed.

But from the beginning, my husband Jack and I were opposed to the war and that was not a very common position to take. When the war broke out in 1939, Jack was already 42, so you know, he had seen war before – I had lived through the First World War as a child, but he had lived through it as an adult. He had done a lot of thinking about it and there was a very strong pacifist movement between the wars. My mother and father, of course, supported the war and they were very upset when we didn’t. My mother used to get very angry about that.

It was hard to defend pacifism during the Second World War. I could do it better now than I could then. The war didn’t have to be fought. It could have been dealt with earlier. That’s my conviction.

I’ve just read an article about what happened leading up to the Gulf war with Iraq and it’s shocking what happened with the rest of the world arming Iraq and then complaining about its nuclear capacity. That’s the kind of thing I mean.

* * *

The Voice of Women grew out of the fear of the nuclear testing in the ’50s. The fallout from the testing was what got people thinking first. The women opposed that from the very beginning.

No one in the peace movement can really point to something and say “we did that” and you know that there were other factors – political factors – but there was also this real uprising of people when they began to see the films of what was happening in the US with the testing above ground. Then we began to realize that testing below ground wasn’t so great either.

Around the country, there were already women on the verge of organizing a women’s peace group and when it happened, women poured into the membership, because it was such a dangerous time. The women who had come here as war brides were just beside themselves because they couldn’t bear the thought of another war.

Our annual meetings were very emotional because there was so much fear. This was around 1960.

The Cuban crisis was in 1962 but before that it was the spy plane, the U2 over the Soviet Union that nearly caused a crisis. Then there was the fallout that was evident all across Canada from testing in the US causing the strontium-90 in milk.

* * *

I connect the kind of violence that we see in our cities and in our homes with the ultimate dependence of the state on violence as a solution.

I don’t think people recognize that war is the greatest destroyer of human life, the greatest polluter, the greatest creator of refugees, the greatest cause of starvation and illness. Look at Iraq. The children of Iraq had a good health system and now, five times as many children are dying from diseases they shouldn’t be dying from – because of the war.

The rape of women has always been a consequence of war, still is: the setting up of prostitute cities in the Philippines near where the soldiers are, in Honduras where the soldiers were crossing into Nicaragua, all over the world… the Korean women in Japan.

When I was president of the Voice of Women – this was in 1967-1970 – I phoned around to the columnists I knew to see who would link the money going into armaments with the lack of money for all the other things that people need. Nobody would. They said there hadn’t been any studies done.

Today, you sometimes hear one who makes the link, who says this is a disgrace. Even men are now sometimes saying that – women have been saying it for years: why are we spending two billion dollars on submarines for Canada when we can’t keep the schools supplied with enough teachers? What you could do with that two billion dollars to make a good society!

When the government wanted to take the country to war, it could suddenly find millions of dollars a day to fight in the Gulf. War is the only emergency that people recognize – that the state recognizes and that it can sell to the people.

* * *

Halifax is very much a military town and I’ve always had crank letters and phone calls. People wouldn’t speak to me on the street.

You can’t do this kind of work alone. You’re with a whole lot of other people doing it and that’s where I’ve always got my strength. I think groups who are seeking change are now recognizing each other as being part of the same thing – black groups, women’s groups, single mother’s groups, the environmental groups, anti-poverty – all these groups are recognizing each other and working together.

In a way the VoW has changed because we now function much more loosely – we want to have a sense of what all women in the VoW are thinking.

From the start here in Nova Scotia we had a two-track mandate: one was peace, the other was human rights. When we started with human rights, it was for black people – we did research, we had public meetings and we did as much as we could. Now, that’s not appropriate; the black people are doing it themselves and that’s as it should be.

We’re not writing as many briefs to government as we used to write. There’s a real question in everyone’s minds whether that’s an effective way to function. We’re much smaller than we were at first. We have perhaps 1500 women across Canada now.

There was a resurgence of interest during the Gulf war. People did a lot of protesting. I used to get very angry at the media because they’d say, “where’s the peace movement?” The peace movement was there before the war started but they weren’t paying any attention. It’s still there and they’re not paying attention.

There’s a lot of environmental emphasis in the VoW now and a lot of human rights emphasis and a lot better understanding of economics and of power structures than we had at first. We’ve always been a very wide-ranging group. Some women, in the very beginning were politically conscious and had very well-developed thinking about what was going on in the world – but a lot of us didn’t. We were just there because we couldn’t stand the idea that there might be another war.

We’ve become much more feminist. We no longer have the argument that we used to have when people would say, “well, maybe we should change our name to Voice of People or take men into the membership.” I don’t think anybody ever suggests that anymore. It’s a hard question about whether women have made significant gains in my lifetime. I’ve begun to take a hard view of history and I’m not sure you can say what progress is. There’ve always been great women but I think the progress is that a lot more women have confidence in themselves and a lot more women rely on each other and are taking action to change their conditions.

But to take a world view, women are still doing 90 per cent of the world’s work and are mostly without power.

So many of our children, around the world, have been so damaged and have been left with such a damaged environment, that I sometimes take a pessimistic view of the future. I don’t know what kind of life future generations of women will have.

I think you just have to put your faith and trust in people. I don’t use the word love but we all have to care – not just for our own little circle, but for the universe.

(This column was published in The Sunday Daily News, July 23, 1989.)

There was a recent news story about a Dartmouth day care centre that plans to hand children over to the police if their parents are late picking them up. When I first heard about the memo the parents had received to that effect, I thought there were two very obvious observations to be made on this subject.

The first one is that our society still doesn’t see child care as an essential service. The second is that the people in power don’t recognize the true nature of most women’s work and the lack of control that most working women have over their work lives.

The day care centre in question is government funded. Many of the clients who use the service are single mothers trying their best to make a go of it, perhaps having managed to get off social assistance and work toward some financial independence. It surely won’t come as a surprise if I point out that most of these women are not bosses; indeed, most of them are at the mercy of bosses, many of whom have little understanding of the other lives that so many women lead.

Imagine the predicament of a woman who works as a waitress, or a secretary, or a nurse when a situation arises that is going to keep her late. What if a party of eight arrives at the restaurant just as her shift ends and her replacement hasn’t shown up? What if a new client arrives at the office while the boss is still involved in a previous appointment? What if there’s been a fire and a number of victims are being carried into emergency just as the nursing teams are changing?

In cases like these, women would be risking their jobs to walk out and say “well, excuse me, I have to pick up my child before she’s placed in the custody of the police.”

But there are also more subtle instances where workers are placed in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between staying late or losing favor which may ultimately lead to losing the job. If there’s a special project going on at work, for example, and co-workers have all agreed to stay on and do extra work after hours, how does the mother in the crowd feel about being the only one to leave? How does the boss feel when one employee always seems to be the first one out of there?

I don’t for one minute mean to suggest that I excuse or condone the way employees are treated but that’s the reality of work life and mothers should not be automatically placed at a disadvantage by having a set and inflexible schedule.

Now of course, I don’t blame the child care workers at the centre for this situation. They are absolutely right to point out that they too have families and private lives and should not be required to stay after their day is finished to wait for parents who are late.

But I do blame the whole system, most particularly our provincial government which is responsible for this centre. Surely the government has to take the lead in changing the perception of child care so that it’s not seen as a favour being done for rich professional women so they can pursue a high-powered career but is, in fact, an essential service for women of all classes and ages who work outside their homes for a great variety of reasons.

Surely the government has to set certain standards so that centres can be somewhat more flexible through a system of shift work (with differentials paid for those who work outside normal business hours) so that the service really works for its clients rather than against them causing further stress and anxiety.

Certainly we’ve come a long way since the days when my own sister — a divorced single mother — used to frantically drop her daughter off at our mother’s house at 8:30 a.m. after yet one more babysitter had turned out to be unsatisfactory, undependable or both.

We do have some good child care centres and many well-trained child care workers — dedicated and underpaid. What we don’t have is the right attitude, an attitude that would recognize the community care of our children to be as natural and essential as the outpatient clinics in our hospitals, or school libraries, or museums.

The Topshee Conference was held at St. Francis Xavier University, sponsored by the Coady Institute, every second year through parts of the 1980s and 1990s. Each conference’s aim was to present facts relating to critical social and economic issues of the Atlantic Region; to enable people from all walks of life in the region to discuss those facts in terms of their own experience; to encourage follow-up action on the issues by a range of organizations.

In 1997, the theme of the conference was the media. I gave the keynote address that year and these are some excerpts from my speech.

The mainstream media is not a monolith. And yet, the mainstream media covers the news within a very narrow framework. Any attempt to cover the news outside that frame is immediately suspect and the person pushing the boundaries of the frame is marginalized and isolated. I’ll give you two examples – which reach different conclusions:

I was once taken off a story because the producer thought my background and my beliefs weren’t suited to the subject matter. It was about the feminization of poverty; I had done a lot of research on this, knew a lot of sources, felt I could throw some light on a complex subject. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think a story like this coming from your point of view would lose some credibility. I’m going to give it to Bernie.”

“And whose point of view will Bernie do it from?” I asked ingenuously. But my ingenuousness was lost on him because he looked at me strangely and said, “Well, from nobody’s point of view. He’ll just do a straight objective story.”

Those of you who have worked in radio or television will be familiar with those machines whose job it is to erase tapes. You just take all your full tapes, line them up, run them through and they come out clean as a whistle, with no pre conceived ideas on them, no background, no history. I suddenly imagined the producer running Bernie through that machine every morning, making him much more qualified than I to do a story – pristine, written on a blank slate.

(Just in passing, around the same time, I heard of a black male reporter with a private radio station in Montreal who was removed from a story dealing with a police shooting of a member of the black community – presumably in favour of a white reporter who would bring no `point of view’ to his coverage.)

My second example is more positive. In the mid ’80s, I was the first editor of a newspaper called Atlantic Fisherman which covered the commercial fishing industry in the four Atlantic provinces. I made a conscious decision to cover the Atlantic fishery from the point of view of the people who caught the fish, worked on the boats, and worked in the plants. I spent days driving around the Maritimes, wharf to wharf, and hours on the phone to Newfoundland. I wanted to know what the issues were to the people who were affected by them. Once I knew, I began to call people – politicians, bureaucrats, big business processors. I would tell them the issue I wanted to discuss and I would explain why. I was received very coolly. There would be a long pause and then they – politician, bureaucrat, business executive – would say, “We don’t consider that an issue and have nothing to say.” So I would put that in the paper. It didn’t take very long for them to realize they’d better talk to me because I wasn’t going away. One satisfying moment I had was when the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans was fetched from the floor of the House of Commons to talk to me – and thanked me for calling. The fishermen and the fish workers thanked me too because they realized the power they had when they were able to get their message out.

This comes under the heading “Who defines the issues?”

Today, the privileged and the powerful define the issues and set the agenda. Those who work outside the accepted boundaries are at worst, invalidated, or at best, diminished in importance.

Here are my examples.

This one astonished me: a story in the paper – Canadian Press, I think – reported on a news conference called by the president of the Canadian Nurses’ Association at the end of an annual meeting. She reported on several resolutions that had been passed by her organization, all of which had to do with the state of health care today, in these times of heavy cutbacks. Amazingly enough, at the end of the story were a couple of quotes from the president of the Canadian Medical Association, patronizing the nurses’ position on health care, leaving an impression of “who cares?” Try to imagine the opposite. Try to imagine the CMA stating its position on anything and some reporter saying, “gee, I’d better call the Canadian Nurses Association and see if they have any comment on this.”

Each year, before the federal government budget comes down, an alternative budget is presented in Ottawa by a coalition of economists and social activists to demonstrate that there are other ways of handling the economy than the way this government has chosen to handle it. If you see any coverage of it, it will be discredited by a handful of conservative economists who will declare it a product of the looney left while the budgets of Paul Martin are presented with no such scrutiny by progressive economists. In fact, Paul Martin’s budgets will probably be reported with reverent quotes from the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, or maybe Brian Crowley of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies.

The most blatant biased reporting happens in the realm of business. Watch the business pages if you doubt me: Thomas d’Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues, gives a speech at the Empire Club in Toronto. He praises the government for its deficit fighting cutbacks; he extols the idea of small government; he’s ecstatic over privatization, de regulation, globalization. His speech is reported as Truth. His salient points are lovingly picked out, a little background is thrown in, maybe a quote or two from a couple of the guests at the Empire Club are included. And so to press.

In Hamilton, Bob White, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, speaks to a workers’ rally. He assails the BCNI for its anti-worker rhetoric. He attacks the Ontario government for its new anti-labour legislation. The report of his speech is written up but wait! Call Tom d’Aquino to get a reaction to White’s statements. Call the Ontario Minister of Labour to get a “reasonable” explanation of the legislation. By the time the Bob White story goes to press, his points have been distorted, his position has been weakened, he has been rendered less effective by a press that chooses to diminish his pro-labour point of view.

And by the way – you notice I said, watch the business pages. Business has its own pages, usually its own section. For many years, it had its own column on Morningside on CBC Radio. It has its own shows on television – on both private and public channels. Soon to get more, in fact – Newsworld, I read, is about to dump all its sports coverage in order to add more business programs. And business is covered simply as it says it is – no questions asked. My example this time is not from my own experience but from the writer James Winter whose most recent book is Democracy’s Oxygen: How the Corporations Control the News.

“In 1995,” wrote Winter, “Canada saw $77.4 billion in corporate mergers and acquisitions, up 60 % from 1994, which in turn was up by more than 100 % from 1993 – three record breaking years in a row. Overall, Canadian companies racked up a record $95 billion in profits in 1995, up 19 % from the year before.

“At the same time, the commercial news media were also reporting that 1) these profit gorged corporations were continuing to lay off thousands of workers; 2) wage increases were still lagging behind the rate of inflation; and 3) the Chretien government, elected in 1993 on the promise to create jobs, was instead confining its role to pleading with the corporations to stop downsizing.

“The media, in reporting the mass layoffs by profitable firms, either did so without explanation, or attributed them to mysterious and irresistible market forces such as globalization and international competitiveness.”

It’s probably true that media have always been owned by rich people; it seems more recent to me that the interests of the rich and powerful have been so outspokenly represented. In Conrad’s flagship paper, for example, (The Ottawa Citizen), members of the editorial board gleefully and smugly refer to themselves as “right wingers.” Yes, they think government is the enemy. Yes, they believe that the public’s assets should be sold off to the highest bidder. Yes, they believe that people should be able to buy superior health care if they can afford it. During the recent election campaign, one of their editorials said, “There will always be a place for a party that preaches fair distribution of a country’s wealth although we would never support such a party.”

You can’t ask for more directness than that. And for some people, that’s comforting – better to know where they stand.

But news coverage can be much more subtle. News coverage – going right back to where I started from – is never objective, is never without point of view. And so commentators and reporters have identified groups that show up regularly in news coverage as “special interest groups.” These could be environmentalists – whining tree huggers; they could be people working against discrimination and racism – politically correct bleeding hearts; they could be labour unions – power hungry thugs; they could be – and so often are – women.

I once came into a story meeting directly from a visit to my bank. I told my producer that all the tellers at my branch had been cut that very morning from full time to half time, had lost half their wages and all their benefits. “Yeah, well we can’t do that story,” he said. “We’ve already done womenstuff this week.” That could have meant that we had done a story on child care, on sexual harassment, on bake sales, on pay equity, on family violence, on Harlequin romances – womenstuff. The bank teller story was not seen as a story of employment or underemployment, of the economy, of human decency in the work world – it was seen as special interest. (Of course, make a note please. I don’t go to banks any more. I go to credit unions.)

A few years later, during the Gulf War, I called a local media outlet to tell them about a dramatic peace demonstration that was taking place the next day. The editor I spoke with hesitated, then said “I don’t think so. We’ve already done peace stuff this week.” You’ve done war stuff every day, I countered. But that’s different. Peace: special interest. War: the way of the world.

There’s even subtle bias shown in much more benign ways: last Christmas, a large front page photo in the newspaper showed weary Christmas travellers stranded in an airport during a snow storm. Far back in the newspaper was a picture of empty shelves in a food bank and people beginning to line up for a little bit of food for Christmas. Is it just that the person deciding on the placement identified more with the travellers in the airport? Or did that person find the food bank lineup distasteful? On some level, did that person say, “why don’t you people get a job?”

In his book, James Winters talks about the myth of journalists’ independence from ownership. He documents with academic studies and interviews with working journalists that “owners and managers in fact exert tremendous pressure over news content, beginning with the hiring and firing process and extending through to sources, editing, and placement. Sometimes the pressure is subtle, sometimes direct.”

So am I saying they make things up? No, they usually don’t have to. It’s not hard to find sources to say what you’d like them to say for the slant of your story. But I think somebody in our right wing newspaper world did try to make something up during the recent election campaign. I saw a story in two different places about someone called the “4×4 guy.” There were not so subtle references to the angry white male vote in the 1992 American elections and the soccer moms of 1996. This 4×4 guy – looked kind of like a suburban Marlboro Man – was supposed to be representative of a large block of voters living in the suburbs around the major cities and was, at time of writing, an undecided voter. “I’m going to look at each party carefully,” said 4×4. “I’m going to see what each offers and which one will be best for me and my family.”

That said a lot to me. Over the last decade and a half our country has been pulled away from an earlier sense of community we felt – not only for each other but for others in other parts of the world. We’ve now been given permission to think only of ourselves. That serves the agenda of those who seek to gain from the breakdown of our communal society, who know that if they can isolate workers from each other, can build a distrust for our institutions, can separate us from each other by dismantling our public services and our public broadcaster – they will have won.

They already run many of our governments. They already own much of our media. And that’s why media literacy is so important.

(This column was published in The Daily News in Halifax, July 10, 1990)

We spent a recent weekend in Antigonish, attending the annual Topshee Conference. This year, the theme was Underdevelopment in Atlantic Canada; the format was, as usual, a keynote address, a panel discussion, plenary sessions interspersed with workshop groups, and a few social events.

“That sounds so interesting,” a friend of mine said, when I described it to her. “Why do they call it the Top Sheet Conference?” I suppose she thought I was leaving out the more risque parts in my description.

For others who might not know, the conference is named after Father George Topshee, a director for many years of the Coady International Institute. He is remembered as a simple, practical man who preferred working with people at the community level and the theme that runs through the conferences that bear his name is that ordinary people can make a difference – by understanding the issues, by working together, by learning methods of political action.

The official aims of the conferences are: to present facts relating to critical social and economic issues of the Atlantic Region; to enable people from all walks of life in the region to discuss those facts in terms of their own experience; to encourage follow-up action on the issues by a range of organizations.

Each conference is, according to the founding brochure, a place where difficult problems will be examined; a place where people of diverse economic and social backgrounds will confront problems together; a place where answers will be discovered through group study; a place where leaders will develop; and a place from which new directions for development will emerge.

I found it to be as good as its word. It was an extraordinarily stimulating weekend, attended by a great variety of people from many different backgrounds, all of whom seem to maintain the belief that it is possible to effect change from the bottom up. Only a cynic or a person who’s lost all hope could fail to have been heartened by the discussions and the commitment to a better life for all people, not for just a few.

In my group, we had a mathematician with a special interest in the environment, a federal civil servant with a particular interest in health care, an economist from Dalhousie University, a retired nun, a civil servant from Sri Lanka now at the Coady Institute, and a graduate student in women’s studies at the Mount. Our group leader was from the Extension Department of St. FX.

We found, both in our small groups and in the large sessions – and also listening to the speakers – that it was impossible to feel helpless and powerless when we were together in this way. It’s one of the reasons that many people go back year after year – to enjoy the reaffirmation of their own beliefs, to broaden their knowledge and experience, and to spend hours discussing issues with people of somewhat like mind.

Although the discussions were wide-ranging, they all had some connection with the underdevelopment theme – were often based on points raised by keynote speaker, economist Monica Townson. She presented the philosophies of several different types of economists and their views on underdevelopment: those who believe that underdevelopment is the result of deficiencies in the region itself; those who attribute underdevelopment to interference by government into the free market system; those who view underdevelopment as the inevitable result of capitalism.

We talked about what possibility there could be of full employment, and whether Atlantic Canadians should simply be expected to pack up and move to Ontario when support systems for industries are removed or when the use of resources is bungled.

“People cannot just be moved around like pawns on a chess board,” said Townson, “without regard for their families, their communities and their roots in the region. If we want to establish a society worth living in, we must establish that the preservation of people, of human values, communities and a way of life are worthy objectives in themselves.”

The conference didn’t satisfy every participant in every way. Some people felt that the concerns of organized labour were not as much in evidence as they should be. Others thought that unless issues surrounding the environment are dealt with, all the rest is just academic. Still others believed that the discussions were worthwhile but how would the ideas be translated to political action?

I was not so worried about the final point. In many ways, the conference reminded me of my early days in the feminist movement when discussion was seen to be valuable for its own sake. It was called consciousness-raising and it led to political action of many kinds. I have no reason to believe that things will be different for the participants in the Topshee conference.

(This is how I introduced this column on social media – Facebook and Twitter – and to my email list:

I’ve always believed that the work – and the play and the art – of girls and women are valuable in their own right and are not more valuable if they resemble the work, play or art of boys and men. I’ve never enjoyed the observation, “She’ll get ahead. She thinks like a man.” I don’t like the fact that people are called “girly” and it’s supposed to be insulting. I had to stop going to my son’s baseball games when he was little because there were always parents who yelled – at their own sons! in front of their own daughters! – “I can’t watch you! You run like a girl!”

I’ve never believed that being a welder is somehow intrinsically better than being a nurse and I believe that an intricate hand-made quilt is a work of highest art.

That was my frame of mind when I wrote this column. This is about hopscotch and the athletic little girls who play it. It was written in 1990.)

When the weather starts to improve, I know I will find that I have retained a childhood custom of walking with my eyes resolutely cast downward. Old habits die hard and I am, of course, still looking for the perfect hopscotch rock.

Hopscotch, a female ritual of my youth, seems to be one of those sub-cultural activities of childhood that travels from generation to generation almost intact. To this day, I see the familiar patterns drawn out on sidewalks and schoolyards and I fondly imagine little girls with their favorite rocks tucked safely into jacket pockets, awaiting the recess or after-school bell.

I played two kinds of hopscotch – this kind:

Hopscotch Court

and this kind:

hopscotch square

The second was, I think, a little more difficult because it required the player not only to hop on one foot, but to kick the rock from square to square. Naturally, the two kinds of hopscotch required different kinds of rocks – and that’s something I’m still considering as I conduct my rock-search today.

The first kind, which involves simply tossing the rock from square to square, uses a very flat rock – the flatter and thinner the better. Sometimes, if we were really lucky, we’d find a dandy piece of slate – from a roof? Who knew? And there were some people who used a flat piece of glass or china – from broken crockery – but I never thought that was a great idea.

hopscotch stones 2

The second kind of hopscotch required a thicker rock, flat enough that it wouldn’t roll but with enough depth to allow for toe contact.

hopscotch stones

This springtime game for girls demanded physical coordination and skill. It’s not that easy to kick a rock around all those squares – all the while on one foot, making sure neither foot nor rock stops on the line, judging just how far you can kick your rock so you’ll be able to fit your foot behind it but not kicking it too far so it stops on or goes over the line. You might say you need good eye/foot coordination.

And don’t forget, if your opponent’s rock occupies one of the squares, you have to kick your rock through her square and then hop – on one foot – over it as well. What a game.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, the major change in the game that seems to have taken place over the years is the surface on which it’s played. I can remember drawing my hopscotch court with a stick on dirt roads and later, scratching the squares on the pavement with another piece of rock. Over the last few years, most of the courts I’ve seen have been drawn with chalk – some of them quite colorful – on pavement.

But these are small changes and easily lived with. I’m always quite glad that most little boys didn’t play hopscotch. (I don’t think they can hop on one foot as well.) If they had, who knows what might have happened to the game? There surely would have been much more significance and importance attached to it and by now, it would be organized into leagues, players would have uniforms, there would be a regulation-sized grid and printed official rules in a manual.

Probably you’d have to buy your hopscotch rocks (made of plastic) at the sporting equipment store. They’d probably be made in Taiwan.

So it’s all right with me that hopscotch – along with skipping – survives in a little girls’ subculture. In fact, I’ve never been able to identify with those people who believe there’s more inherent value in little boys’ activities and I’ve never believed that little girls who were tomboys have grown up with some natural advantage.

Not me. I could never see the point in playing with a truck and if my parents had ever given me one, I would have wondered what got into them.

To this day, just as I recognize that it’s someone else who has devalued women’s work, I like to see the playtime activities of little girls appreciated in their own right.

(May 1-3, 2014, was reunion weekend for graduates of the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing. Our class, the Class of 1964, celebrated the 50th anniversary of our graduation. Please click on the photos for a larger version. The quality of the photos is not consistent.)

Friday morning: The Livingston Hall Coffee Party

There was a glass case just outside the lounge in Livingston Hall. I was waiting for my classmates and I was looking at our class’s memorabilia which was on display.

MGH 50th Reunion 003 (2)

“Who are they?” I heard someone ask.

“They’re nurses who used to work here. They came back for a reunion,” said another voice. “They used to wear proper uniforms and a cap.” After a few disparaging remarks about how nurses have changed, he went on. “They were real nurses,” he said fondly.

The questioner was a young man in uniform – probably a porter – and the middle-aged man answering the questions was from housekeeping. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he said to me.

I assured him I was and we had a lively conversation about what Livingston Hall used to be like. They were interested to hear that it was our home as well as our school – I pointed out the nearby elevators and told them about our rooms and some of the fun we had there, as well as the more difficult times.

There are many highlights of our reunion weekends but the visit to Livingston Hall always stands out because it takes us back to a more familiar place than some of the other events. It’s there that our memories are waiting.

MGH 50th Reunion 031

MGH 50th Reunion 006

MGH 50th Reunion 008

So many of us, for example, remembered Miss Herman, ever-vigilant, with her tape measure to make sure we didn’t have too much leg showing on our way to work. I was an expert at turning my waistband so my apron was a good two and half inches shorter than it was supposed to be. I wasn’t nearly as good at avoiding Blanche but on the days I did, I always had a better day.


When a few classmates and I walked along the corridor between Livingston Hall and the hospital lobby – with a stop at the Hop Shop, of course – we slowed down to pay homage to Mrs. MacLeod near where her office was. A little further on, we remembered – by name – our evening and night supervisors. We remembered some more fondly than others.

Since graduation, we’ve lost 12 of our classmates. There are some we’ll always remember as the girls they were when they left us, far too soon. Others, lost more recently, are still mourned, still causing us to say, “I can’t believe it. It seems like only yesterday that we talked.” Whenever we meet, our missing classmates are there, if only fleetingly, because in some small ways, we ask time to stand still for that kind of remembering.

Thursday evening: Reception at the Omni

We had 56 members of our class attend our reunion – an excellent turnout for a class that graduated 108 students 50 years ago. We were in varying stages of mobility and health and, as we’ve observed before, some of us are instantly recognizable having retained at least some of our identifiable characteristics. Others of us must try to keep our nametags front and centre to try and minimize any embarrassment and to avoid those awkward whispers of, “Who is that anyway?”


Our sense of fun remains intact and we enjoyed the Omni. Our Thursday reception, the first point of contact unless we had run into each other in the lobby, was a party of perpetual motion and musical chairs as we tried to talk to everyone at once.




Friday evening: Dinner at the Omni

We all went to dinner wearing funny glasses, emblematic of the 50-year class. We stayed up late, got up relatively early, commiserated with those who are going through a rough patch, admired photos of grandchildren, new digs, momentous life events. We talked and talked and talked.

MGH 50th Reunion 051

In the end, we behaved like the sisters we are. Sisters, not by virtue of blood or relationship, but sisters in life experience and in shared memories.


Because we don’t want it to be over, we’re all prepared to do it again, whenever we can.


(I wrote this piece in October of 2005 for the now-defunct Catholic New Times, a newspaper for progressive Catholics.)

I had two recent experiences that bookended my summer and also presented me with a graphic picture of the range of views in today’s Catholic Church.

At the beginning of the summer, I went to Mass in a big beautiful church in another city. I was enthralled by my surroundings but unfortunately, as the Mass progressed, I became grateful for the beauty, grateful for something other than the words of the homily to put my mind to.

The homily was spoken by the deacon and early on he asked us to consider the evil that surrounds all of us, every day. Yes, indeed, I thought – and considered racism, domestic violence, illegal wars, child abuse.

“Birth control,” he intoned solemnly. Oh dear Lord, I thought. He’s opening with birth control. He went from birth control to divorce to abortion to – his real destination – same-sex marriage. He was followed by the priest who asked us to pray that the politicians in Ottawa would not pass the marriage bill.

I dragged myself out of church that day, feeling rotten, and said to my husband, “This is not how a person should feel, leaving the Mass.”

I have never been subjected to this style of preaching. I am fortunate – blessed, even – to be in a parish where the priest is a scholar and historian, who uses his homily to interpret the day’s readings and to give us a greater understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

In our church, we don’t pray for politicians to close their eyes and ears – and their minds. We pray for them to work for peace in the world and to put policies into place that would reduce the gap between rich and poor.

At the end of the summer, I took part in a conference for recipients of the Canada Millennium Scholarship in Ottawa. One of the workshops I attended was called The Catholic Church: A Call for Internal Reform. I couldn’t resist it. It featured Father Raymond Gravel, a parish priest in Joliette, Que. In the program introduction to his workshop, he’s quoted saying, “To truly follow the teachings of the Gospel, the Church must become more open, more welcoming, more tolerant and more revolutionary.”

He is an open and outspoken – and cheerful – priest who preaches the Gospel of love and acceptance and inclusion. He was given the Fight Against Homophobia 2004 Award to highlight his exceptional contribution in the debate about gay marriage when he said that “the Vatican was wrong when it condemns such a marriage.” He has happily and publicly opposed the Church on other controversial subjects such as abortion, the ordination of women and marriage for priests.

He was sent a letter of reprimand by then-Cardinal Ratzinger entreating him to return to the fold and conform to conventional Catholic dogma but he’s still enthusiastically unconventional, by most Catholic standards today.

I listened to Father Gravel in a brightly-lighted room full of young people – all in their late teens and early twenties. They were engaged and listening intently. They had many questions both challenging Father Gravel and seeking further information. Many of them prefaced their questions by saying, “I was raised Catholic but I don’t consider myself Catholic any more.” There was excited chatter in the hallways as the young people left the workshop, still discussing everything they had heard.

The beautiful church where I heard the homily at the beginning of the summer was dim and still and cool – like the old churches in Europe. There were no young people there, no challenging questions, no chatter. There wasn’t much of anything.

When I look back, the symbolism couldn’t be clearer.

(This essay was first published in The Globe and Mail in 1993. It was written in response to previous articles on the subject of pornography and censorship, by lawyer Clayton Ruby and feminist/professor Thelma McCormack. Some of the material here is dated and I appreciate that. I don’t just acknowledge it – I appreciate it, because it confirms my belief that there is still so much to do.)

Pornography and censorship are bitter issues for feminists. They’re issues that have turned sister against sister, friend against friend.

One feminist tells how she counsels 15-year old girls who are being coerced into uncomfortable sexual activities by boyfriends who have read Hustler. Others point out that if censorship is seen to be a solution, feminist thought and writing will be among the first to be censored because they so blatantly challenge the political and social status quo.

Feminists in women’s shelters see women every day who are victims of men who are consumers of pornography. The women are frustrated when their testimony is not considered in the search for empirical evidence of the harm done by pornography.

Clayton Ruby is swept away by Thelma McCormack’s speech given at a recent forum on censorship (December 1, 1992). Much of what he quotes challenges the views of the Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and other feminists that pornography does indeed harm women, that by its very nature pornography constitutes a form of inequality.

I am anti-pornography. I am also anti-censorship – although not because of any particular reverence for the freedom of expression of pornographers.

But I would like now to see the discussion about pornography move beyond hurtful words used by feminists against each other (or by those who enjoy seeing this feminist split) and ask this question: could pornography, in its ever-escalating forms and in its horrifying proliferation, exist without the more socially acceptable objectification of women as presented in mass media?

* * *

In the early ’80s, I was a writer/broadcaster in current affairs at CBC Fredericton. In central New Brunswick, a 16-year-old girl had been murdered. Her 18-year-old boyfriend was about to go on trial.

Every time the girl was mentioned in news stories, it was noted that at the time of her death, she’d been wearing a pink angora sweater and tight jeans – symbolizing at once vulnerability and sexuality. Every time her boyfriend was mentioned, it was noted that he was a cadet at a military college studying engineering.

The producer of the program I worked for decided to send someone from our program to cover the trial – an unusual move, which I questioned.

“The news department covers trials; we usually don’t,” I said.

“Ah, but this murder is different,” he said slowly, with mock lasciviousness. “This is a murder with sex appeal.”

* * *

The attraction of mainstream media to sexy murders of women is nothing new – both in news and elsewhere.

For example: in a recent memoir, The Good Times, about his life in journalism, New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote about covering the police beat in Baltimore in the ’30s and about which murders rated with his editors. “Any number of things could elevate a little murder into a good murder,” Baker wrote. “…Could the rewrite man justifiably describe the victim as `statuesque’, the universally understood code word meaning `big breasts’? If so, good murder, especially if the murderer was still unknown and the cops could be persuaded to hint at sexual motives behind the crime…”

For example: Esquire, a magazine which subtitles itself “Man At His Best”, did a cover story this year on “Women We Love.” The picture used to illustrate the story was of Laura Palmer, the dead girl from the television series Twin Peaks.

For example: Advertising layouts in such upscale magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair commonly show women – if not dead or suffering – in attitudes of implicit and somewhat anonymous distress.

Women as natural victims. Women as natural sex objects. How convenient when both can be captured in one image.

The eroticized pain and suffering of women has been normalized by the mass media; thus, pornography becomes acceptable as simply being the medium at the end of a continuum, falling in rather naturally behind news, advertising, fashion and entertainment.

* * *

There remains much resistance to the idea that pornography and violence against women are connected – as there was in Mr. Ruby’s column. Oddly enough, there is no such denial when pornography is used to increase the aggressiveness of soldiers as they go into battle or of pilots as they set out on bombing raids during wars.

But doesn’t the loving and lewd coverage of sexy murders and rapes, the portrayal of young, vulnerable, almost-naked women to sell products, the depiction of women as dead or hurting in fashion layouts, soften us up for the terrifying pornography of violence and death? Isn’t is logical that the imbalance of power between men and women – as exemplified in all the branches of the media – would be extended into real life?

There was a story a few years ago in a British feminist magazine written by a woman who described an experience she had in an Underground station. She was alone, waiting for a train, when a man arrived on the same platform. He looked at her, stared at her. Both were surrounded by larger-than-life billboards, all of which used women or women’s bodily parts to advertise products. There were bums and legs and lips.

“I felt like a thing,” she wrote. “And I felt like all those pictures were his gang – that they somehow gave him a right to look at me that way.”

Pornography is the ultimate right to look – the blatant expression of male dominance and female subordination.

* * *

After the Montreal massacre, violence against women became the glamour issue of the ’90s and was taken up as a cause by many newly-organized men’s groups. They go to meetings and talk about causes and about solutions; it’s possible they talk about pornography. I doubt if they talk about the way women are portrayed in mass media – although the mass media itself is the fertile breeding ground for attitudes which lead to the disadvantaged status of women in our society.

Violence against women grows out of that disadvantage and inequality. Pornography, whether it causes violence or simply gives a powerful endorsement of a society built on male domination, grows out of our everyday information and entertainment services.

Eliminating material that degrades women is a lot more complicated than simple censorship. Providing for the safety of women in our society is a lot more complicated than we’ve been treating it up to now.

On the first anniversary of the defeat of Nova Scotia’s first NDP government, this is a look back and a look ahead.

(This article first appeared in following the Nova Scotia provincial election on October 8, 2013.)

Over the years, I have watched many nights of election returns under a cloud of doom and gloom. I’m almost never on the winning side. It’s usually the winner who’s the cause of my despair – think Mulroney and Harper – but every so often, it’s the losing person/party/government that causes my plunge into despondency.

I well remember the night that Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter – it was 1980 – and I have often wondered since how different the world might be if that result had been different. Imagine if the world had never been subjected to the Reagan-Thatcher partnership – with Mulroney tagging along later, trying to keep up with the big kids.

Carter didn’t come close to being a perfect president. He acknowledged mistakes and admits to poor judgment on certain issues. But he also said said that, “allowing Ronald Reagan to become president was by far my biggest failure in office.” Years later, his wife, Rosalynn Carter said, “It was impossible for me to believe that anybody could have looked at the facts and voted for Reagan.”

When voters were asked why they chose Reagan, most said it was “time for a change.”

Nova Scotia in October 2013 is a long way from Washington DC in 1980 but once again, Nova Scotia’s election was one in which I mourned the loss of a government and I expect there will be many who will try to evaluate the innumerable ways Nova Scotia will change as its government changes.

The Nova Scotia NDP came to power in 2009 after a campaign in which voters announced they were ready for a change. And change is what they got. It has been well-documented that the province’s finances were not in good shape but that wasn’t all. Whole departments were in chaos; the bureaucracy was directionless. One former cabinet minister from an earlier government said she had never seen a more dysfunctional workplace than the department she was responsible for a few years before.

This is where the NDP government started, clearing out many years’ worth of detritus left over from many previous administrations. Within months, people who worked for the government could feel a difference. Someone was in charge and government workers knew why they were coming to work every day.

After two years, there were people speaking openly about how much better their departments were running; after four years – after the election, in fact – a high official at Capital Health (Nova Scotia’s largest provider of health services) told a friend of mine that he had never seen things running so smoothly and it was clear that the government had a long-term plan.

So the NDP government worked on getting Nova Scotia’s House in order. At the same time, it efficiently handled the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year business of the province. Finally, it put in place strategies for long-term development in areas such as energy, health, education and employment – unheard of in earlier governments.

This was an intelligent, innovative and activist government – dealing with past, present and future at the same time. Much of what the NDP government accomplished will make life easier for the government that’s taking over although it remains to be seen whether the new government will begin by dismantling and tearing down.

Still, people would say to me, “But it’s an NDP government. I wish it would do something for the poor.” I would acknowledge that the government didn’t show up at the door of the poor with a bucket of cash but I would usually point out that it raised the minimum wage four years in a row, despite opposition pressure to limit increases.

And, I would add, the government did this:

• It took the provincial tax off power bills and home heating. (In fact, the Liberals voted 8 times to tax home heating and energy.)
• The NDP is covering the cost of insulin pumps and supplies for eligible youth to age 18 and supplies for people 19 to 25 with type 1 diabetes, who use an insulin pump.
• The NDP increased the Nova Scotia Child Benefit by 40%.
• The NDP introduced and indexed the Affordable Living Credit to provide financial support to 240,000 households who earn less than $30,000.
• The NDP also introduced and indexed the Poverty Reduction Tax Credit to support about 15,000 of the most vulnerable low income Nova Scotians, many of whom have disabilities.
• Over a thousand more children a year have places in daycares and pre-schools around the province, making childcare more affordable for Nova Scotian families.
• The NDP took the HST off more family essentials including children’s clothing, footwear, and diapers.
• The NDP created Nova Scotia’s first Affordable Housing Strategy, with model projects already starting.
• The NDP increased income assistance personal allowances enabling approximately 31,000 adults to better provide for themselves and their families.
• The NDP’s new consumer protection cell phone legislation caps cancellation fees and ensures Nova Scotians are told about any changes that may increase their bills.

I could also say:

• The NDP ensured that nearly 18,000 low-income seniors who receive Guaranteed Income Supplement pay no provincial income tax. Next year even more low-income seniors will pay no provincial income tax.
• The NDP expanded the Caregiver Benefit, restorative care and self-managed programs to allow seniors to manage their own care and stay in their homes and communities longer.
• The NDP increased the Property Tax Rebate for seniors by $200 to a maximum of $800. Seniors receiving the GIS may qualify for a rebate on their municipal property taxes.
• The NDP ended the injustice of having seniors pay security deposits for long term care.

I would go into the same amount of detail on issues around health, education, environment, agriculture, labour and employment but it might be just as easy for you to read them here.

And now, it’s said, the people have voted – again – for change. There will be a change from the past four years but not from the 142 years that preceded them. A zebra doesn’t change its stripes. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The incoming government will have many of the old influences lurking in the shadows and there are some Nova Scotians who wouldn’t have it any other way.

Some of the post-election commentary suggested that the NDP government was a victim of high expectations. I’m pretty sure the incoming government won’t suffer the same fate.

I don’t subscribe to the silly notion that the people are always right. Imagine what a nice world it would be if that were true. I also don’t believe that the people get the government they deserve. “The people” are not a monolith. No doubt some of them got the government they deserve – and others didn’t.

The new government has a big job in front of it, of course. One of the first things it will have to do is try to make those people who allegedly voted Liberal because of Justin Trudeau understand that he isn’t actually here in Nova Scotia.

Speaking of “the people”: My son worked the phone bank leading up to and throughout the election campaign. He spoke to one voter who said the only one she liked was Obama and that’s who she was voting for and it didn’t matter what my son said to her; she was voting for Obama.

He thanked her for her time and wished her a pleasant good night.

Sharon Fraser is a former editor of She is also a former editor of several major Atlantic provinces publications, a long-time political commentator with both CBC Radio and CBC-TV, a political newspaper columnist and a freelance writer for publications across the country and internationally. (And yes, her husband held a high position in the Nova Scotia NDP government.)

happy thanksgiving

Get Adobe Flash player