Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Log 543 April 22 2017: A new book about six stalwart NDP women whose achievements for us all deserve to be more widely recognized

First of all, to those readers who have hung in here over the years reading this blog, I want to express my apologies for having allowed more than six weeks to elapse without a word from me. I have been silenced by a number of medical mishaps that have taken me to both a French-language and English-language hospital in Montreal, where each of my two serious complaints appears to have been resolved satisfactorily. During this rather testing experience,  I have heard some remarkable testimony to Canada’s universal health care system.  This morning I was talking to a Francophone woman who was waiting for her husband to return  from a procedure that I had undergone, one comprising radiation in preparation for a whole-body  photographic examination. After we talked of the severity of such treatments, she said, “Never mind, we are so lucky to have these things available…. and,” she added, “we don’t have to pay for it.”  We then agreed how much superior our system is, in every respect, from that in the United States, which, having made a minor step forward with the so-called Obamacare, seems to be in the process of demolishing it in such a way as to leave many millions of people without any health insurance of any kind.

Book review
Working for the Common Good, Canadian Women Politicians, by Madelyn Holmes, published by Fernwood Publishing of Halifax and Winnipeg, 171 pps, $20

This is certainly an appropriate way to introduce the subject of today’s blog, a just-published book by an American-born Montrealer, Madelyn Holmes, in praise of six women politicians who have performed prodigies for Canada ever since 1921 when Agnes Macphail became the first woman ever elected to the Canadian Parliament, on the Progressive ticket, which later morphed into the Commonwealth Cooperative Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the New Democratic Party (NDP). It was the CCF, as the government of Saskatchewan, that first introduced the practice of socialized medicine to Canada (indeed to North America), and it was done under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, who (in case anyone has forgotten) was chosen by a CBC television audience as “the greatest Canadian ever.”
I am devoting this blog to this subject because, although the NDP occasionally irritates and frustrates me, nevertheless I have always considered that its very existence as a democratic socialist party is one of the determinants of the difference between Canada and the United States.  At least in Canada, the ideas of socialism have been kept alive in our political discourse, whereas in the United States the very word socialism has become terrifying for so many of their electors.
I have found in reading Ms. Holmes book that I have indeed tended to underrate the achievements of the women she features. At least one of them I considered a pathetic leader of the party, but Ms. Holmes shows that she has followed a life dedicated to working for people, and not just people in Canada, but in other countries as well. 
I also might have chosen some other candidates had I been writing her book: for example, I have always admired Libby Davies, the long-time and very effective MP from Vancouver, Rosemary Brown, whom she does mention favorably, and even I would have liked to have read about Ursula Franklin, the doughty, brilliant old woman academic who died fairly recently after a left-wing lifetime devoted to the improvement of her fellow citizens.  
Ms. Holmes discovered, when she set out to research the careers of these women Parliamentarians, that the work done by them had been more or less scuffed over even in the archives of their own party, the NDP.
One thing that does strike me after reading this interesting book is how harsh is the political life: some of these women tried unsuccessfully to win an election; others, having devoted decades to improving life for all of us, eventually were rejected by the voters: the populace, in other words, tends to be pitiless in its judgments, even of those who work on their behalf.
Although, like all of us, these women demonstrated  occasional political weaknesses, Ms. Holmes has unashamedly concentrated on the positive aspects of their work and of their attitude to society and community. A brief listing shows how right she is:
Agnes Macphail (1980-1954), a former schoolteacher, opposed militarism throughout her life, especially set herself against the training of young people as military cadets, and warmly espoused that international disputes should be settled without resorting to war.  She never stopped campaigning for economic justice, for pay equity for women, and for the first old age pensions.  She campaigned successfully for a more humane prison system. After serving for 19 years, she was defeated in 1940, when standing for a sixth term.
Therese Casgrain (1896-1981) began as a Liberal, but joined the CCF at the age of 50. She was a tireless and successful campaigner to win the provincial vote for women in Quebec, and throughout her life campaigned for world peace. She supported the civil liberties of the interned Japanese–Canadians during the war.
She failed eight times but failed to win a seat in either the House of Commons or the provincial legislature, but is remembered as one of the most tireless workers for a better Quebec and a better Canada, carrying out, as Ms. Holmes notes, every campaign with “verve, optimism, conviction and hard work.” Though she came from a privileged economic background, she was a persistent campaigner for the rights of workers, both men and women, participating in strikes, demonstrations and endless meetings with trades unionists. She was, and is, recognized as a mentor by an army of younger women politicians.
Grace Macinnis (1905-1991) was the daughter of J.S. Woodsworth, founder of the CCF, and from 1931 she worked in support of her father in a backroom role. In 1932 at the age of 27 she married Angus Macinnis, an MP 21 years older than she, and she entered elective politics when in 1941 she became a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Her father was a lifelong pacifist, but she supported Canada’s role in the Second World War. She did not enter Parliament until 1965, when she was 60 years of age. During her nine years as an MP she concentrated her energies on consumer protection, abortion, and the environment.  She tied her comments about the plight of consumers to the larger problem of lopsided income distribution and growing poverty among Canadians,” writes Ms. Holmes.
Pauline Jewett (1922-1992) was an MP from British Columbia from 1979 to 1988, worked in the realm of peace and disarmament, espousing an independent foreign policy for Canada, “free from the great-power dominated military alliances.” Her Parliamentary work followed a distinguished academic career, which took her to the presidency of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Like Therese Casgrain she had also been a Liberal party politician briefly. In addition to espousing the social democratic values she had a deep commitment to civil liberties, and was critical of Pierre Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act during Quebec’s October crisis of 1970, when more than 400 Quebecers were uselessly arrested, and later released without charge. She espoused, and led her party to support, the concept of common security, highlighting support for the United Nations, for developing countries and measures to claim the peace dividend.
Margaret Mitchell (born in 1925) , a social worker, served abroad with the Red Cross during the Korean war, and again later in camps set up to assist Hungarian refugees after 1956. She became well-known in Vancouver for her social work, and when persuaded to stand for the NDP in 1976 she managed to defeat a Chinese Liberal MP where most of her constituents were of Chinese origin.  She served 14 years as an MP before being defeated in 1993 election. As a politician her major concerns were “unemployment, poverty, the need for  affordable housing, the high cost of living and the inequalities and discrimination  felt by women and ethnic minorities. She asked the Canadian government to issue an apology for such measures as the head tax levied against Chinese from 1885 to 1923, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, preventing many families from bringing their wives and children into the country. These campaigns eventually in 2006 resulted in a government apology, with an offer of compensation to head-tax payers and their spouses who were still alive.  She was also active throughout her career in urging the need for affordable child care for working mothers.
Lynn McDonald (born in 1940) an MP from 1982 to 1988, had an historic impact on health legislation when her private members bill C-204 was passed as the Non-Smokers’ Health Ac, together with the Tobacco Products Control Act, which laid the groundwork for smoke-free workplaces, planes, trains, buses, and so on to the present day. McDonald was another social worker, who  after studying at the London School of Economics, “turned left. “ She was a sociologist with a particular interest in the societal treatment of criminals. As an academic she became a strong advocate for women’s rights, no doubt influenced by her time as a visiting professor  at Gothenberg university in Sweden. As a member she took up the cause of the disproprortionate number of indigenous people in jail, as well as redress for Japanese-Canadians, and against capital punishment.  She wrote a book on the NDP, and she was an early campaigner for the environment, focusing especially on acid rain and toxic chemicals. Following her defeat she wrote scholarly books on the social sciences and women;’ rights, a biography of Florence Nightingale, and edited a momumental 16-volume collection of the Collected Works of Ms. Nghtingale. She also  helped to found the organization Just Earth: a Coalition for Environmental Justice.
Audrey McLaughlin (born 1936) was another social worker who drifted into the NDP when she took up residence in the Yukon. In the 1960s she persuaded her husband to move to West Africa, where they taught English. This experience was a life-transforming one, as Ms. Homes notes. After bearing two children, she and her husband divorced, and at the age of 43 she moved to Whitehorse. She was elected to Parliament in 1987, joining with four other NDP  women members to create a Women’s Caucus. When Ed Broadbent decided to retire as leader, the women were determined to put forward one of their number as a candidate.  She agreed to stand, saying “I would talk about my vision of a more open party and a more inclusive, consultative way of operating.” Elected leader, she became the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada.  Her consensual form of leadership was not a great success, and in the first national election her party  was almost wiped out. She served ten years as an MP, concentrating on four dominant issues, affirmative action policies for women, .onstitutional matters, aboriginal land claims and anti-war policies. In 1991 she led her party to  oppose the First Gulf War, “no to an offensive military role for Canada, and no to a Canadian participation in an unnecessary and deadly war.”
Alexa McDonough (born 1944) grew up in a family of CCF stalwarts, was largely educated and raised in Halifax, and returned there after graduating from university and working as a social worker for a few years in the United States. Active in women’s issues, she first supported the Liberal party, but by 1974 she decided to join the NDP. She was twice defeated in attempts to be elected to the federal parliament, but she found she enjoyed knocking on doors and talking to people, and turned her attention to the provincial legislature, and in 1980 was elected NDP leader for the province. The next year she was elected, the only NDP member, the only woman, and a rookie, as she said, to the provincial legislature.  She gave notice in her first speech that she was determined to fight for home care for the elderly, affordable housing, family benefits for single parents, and meeting the needs of the disabled. She was also a determined campaigner for abortion on demand. In 1994, after 14 years of lonely battle, she stood for the national leadership of the party. Elected an MP in 1997, she served for 11 years. In her maiden speech she said: “these are the values of my party … giving our children the best possible start in life, in education and in opportunities for our young, decent pensions for our seniors, medicare for all and poverty for none, a healthy environment for future generations and strong safe, thriving communities.” After leading the party into two elections, one in which more members were elected, the second once again showing a decline, she recognized the need for “a rekindling of the social democratic imagination,” and resigned to make way for Jack Layton, who led the party to its greatest success in its history.

I have only one last thing to add: that the nation is deeply in their debt for having maintained and espoused deeply feminine, human values through all these decades, and thus improved all of our lives almost immeasurably.