May 7, 2017

Margaret Mitchell

Local lineage

I picked up Margaret Mitchell's autobiography this spring after Glen Sanford gave a touching testament in the campaign office to her being a great person and a "great boss." She died on International Women's Day. The autobiography's title refers to her being laughed at in the House of Commons when, as the NDP MP for Vancouver East, she brought up the prevalence of domestic abuse in Canada. "Can you imagine?" as Glen said. People in the office who knew her teared up. I looked around and recognized for the first time a lineage.

“The Militant Mothers of Raymur” (great local case study in campaigning)

Raymur Housing Project, located in the Downtown East area, is one of the city’s oldest and largest public housing projects. It was imposed on the Strathcona community to replace demolished houses as urban renewal took place. It had no amenities and was often referred to as “the snake-pit” by poor people who felt trapped there and longed to escape. 

Children who lived at Raymur Housing Project had to walk across busy railway tracks to go to school. About twelve mothers who previously had been strangers formed a strong group, determined to gt an overpass over the railway to protect their kids. Mothers lobbied politicians and city officials for an overpass, but with no results. Finally they decided to take direct action. 

For a week, twenty mothers camped in their tents on the railway tracks, stopping train traffic to the Port of Vancouver. Activists from across the city swarmed to applaud and support them. Half of the women agreed to go to jail if necessary, while the other half agreed to look after their kids. Along with the other activists, I supported them each day, but we did not interfere with their decisions. My little red car carried a wine bottle and food for refreshment. 

Caroyln Jerome, the sister of the famous runner Harry Jerome, agreed to be on duty when officials came to serve an injunction to make the protestors insist. Each time they arrived, she tore off up the tracks and they were unable to catch her. Eventually the protesting women were taken to court by the powerful Great Northern Railway, which had several lawyers representing them. The Militant Mothers had none, until a sympathetic lawyer volunteered to represent them as a “Friend of the Court.” He eventually won on a technicality. There was great rejoicing! The city agreed to build an overpass. 

A strong sense of community resulted from this action, and tenants in Raymur organized many more improvements including a food co-op and recreation programs staff by people in the neighbourhood. They eventually negotiated to take over the Housing Authority offices, and the Ray-Cam Co-Operative Community Centre was built.  
Margaret outlines other examples of local campaigns, including the building of solidarity between Italian and Chinese communities in East Vancouver building together with existing associations to fight against evictions and housing destruction. The creation of CRAB Park. The fight for Chinese Head Tax redress.

“Canada’s First Woman Leader” (oh yeah)

Although women’s rights were high on the NDP agenda, caucus decisions were dominated by men. Several power-hungry men dominated executive positions, assigning duties as well as privileges, such as trips. 
When female representation increased to five, Audrey McLaughlin, Lynn McDonald, Mario Dewar, Pauline Jewett, and I decided it was time to have a great impact. We were actively recruiting women to run in the next election. When we began to caucus around the table in the Opposition Laounge, the guys began to wonder what we were plotting. When we moved into the “Ladies Lounge,” things got serious. (This lounge was originally provided for the sole use of wives of MPs–much to Claude’s disgust.) 
We realized that to have a greater say in decisions we would have to undertake leadership roles. The first step was to pass a motion recognizing “parity,” which was party policy requiring gender parity in key positions. This passed in caucus. To implement this with a minority of women, we decided to each run for a senior position on the executive. Audrey was elected chair and I was elected whip. The other three women also took on senior roles. And so the feminist revolution took place.
It was a little while before our colleagues recognized that a coup had taken place.  However, they soon began to feel the impact as we feminized the agenda and the style of operation with more group consensus and less belligerence in the House. 
…We decided to work within the party for nomination of a woman leader. 
[Audrey McLaughlin became the first leader of a Canadian political party with representation in the House of Commons, as leader of the NDP from from 1989 to 1995.]

Finally, a sweet clip from the chapter "Romance in Vancouver and Vienna", in which her Australian love Claude proposes with a list of things to look forward to

Later Claude wrote, “We will have a great life to live together with understanding, tolerance, a sense of humour, idealism, concern for our fellow man, music, work, discussion, a future to build together, our house that I want to build with your help. We will have children. We both love children so very much.” I was very moved, and when I wrote back, added to his list: “friends we both love, a love of nature and all things beautiful.” 
Margaret had ovarian cancer in her thirties (most women died of this at the time; the medical treatment involved radioactive gold), and couldn't have children, and she and Claude eventually separated, but she refers to him as being steadfast in her support of her. 

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