In 2001, when Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicle of Anna Heilman was launched in Ottawa, Heilman said her “older sister Estusia” was:
not only my sister and my best friend. She is also my hero. But who she was and what she did have meaning for more than me, her sister. As a Jew, she was a hero for all Jews. As a woman, she was a hero for all women. As a human being, she is a hero for all of us. Though she is known to history for her part and her fate, Estusia’s story has never been told. It is time.
Estusia Wajcblum, Ala Gertner, Roza Robota, and Regina Safirztajn were hanged by the Nazis on January 5th 1945 in Birkenau, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, a huge death factory and industrial complex. The Nazis accused them of supplying gunpowder for the October 1944 Uprising of the Sonderkommando (special squad), male prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers, burning pits, and crematoriums. The four women were arrested because Estusia, Ala, and a small group of Jewish women including Anna and Rose Gunapfel had carefully smuggled a little bit of gunpowder at a time out of the Weichsel Union Metalwerke munitions factory, in which they were slave labourers. Anna and Estusia gave the gunpowder to Ala who passed it to Roza. Roza “deposited” it “at the wires near the crematorium” for her contact in the Sonderkommando. The Nazis also arrested Regina, the supervisor of the Pulverraum, a secure room in the Union factory where Estusia and Rose worked with gunpowder. Anna’s book reveals the courage of this small group who dared to defy the Nazis during the greatest crime “in human history,” the “genocidal” “murder” of “six million European Jews” (Evans “The Anatomy of Hell,” 1.).
The Wajcblum sisters were born in Warsaw Poland to a family of middle-class partially assimilated Jews. Jacob and Rebecca Wajcblum had three daughters, Sabina, Esther (Estusia), and Anna. The girls’ parents and their nanny were deaf, as were the workers in Jacob’s thriving factory that produced wooden handicrafts. Sabina, four years older than Estusia and eight years older than Anna, was her parents “spokesman to the outside world.” Anna and Estusia were best friends. In September 1939 the German army invaded Poland ending Anna’s happy childhood and the “vibrant dynamic community” of “Warsaw Jewry” in which the Wajcblums lived (Davies, Rising ’44 The Battle of Warsaw, 82).
From 1939 to 1941 German-occupied Poland was the “key ‘laboratory’ for Nazi experimentation in racial persecution.” (Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution, 169.) In 1939 Sabina and her fiancée, Mieczyslaw Zielinski, fled eastward, were arrested on the Soviet border, and held separately in the Soviet Union. The rest of the family stayed put, their lives increasingly restricted within the Warsaw Ghetto, which the Nazis sealed on October 16th 1941. Joseph’s factory was confiscated and the Ghetto, which at its peak confined 380,000 Jews, deteriorated into a “sea of starvation and misery” as the Nazis began to deport Jews to concentration camps. (Davies, 99.) Estusia and Anna knew their parents would not approve, so they secretly joined the Hashomer Hatzair, “a Zionist youth group” that “had a distinctly socialist orientation. Its goal was to establish kibbutzim (collective settlements) in Palestine,” a British Mandate. The sisters and their “comrades in the Hashomer Hatzair” were active in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that erupted in April 1943.
The next month the Wajcblums were one of the last families to be deported from the Ghetto. Anna and her family were among 170 Jews crammed into a cattle car; only 120 were alive when they reached the Majdanek Concentration Camp. Upon arrival Anna and Estusia were separated from their parents who, unbeknownst to the girls, were sent to the gas chamber. In September 1943 the sisters were shipped to Auschwitz “the centrepiece of the Nazis Final Solution machinery” where a million Jews were murdered. (Buse and Doerr, “Introduction” to Never Far Away, xviii.) They were always hungry living in subhuman conditions in the women’s camp, brutalized by the Schutzstaffeln (SS) and kapos, prisoners who were given privileges for co-operating with the SS.
Anna and Estusia were befriended by Marta Bindiger, a resourceful Slovak Jew. They were saved from certain death when they “volunteered” to work as slave labourers for the Union factory in Birkenau (Auschwitz II). As “essential workers” they were not subjected to the routine selections that sent those who were weak and unable to work to the gas chambers. In the factory they were to stay at their own work station, but eventually Anna found a way to move about. The sisters made friends with women who worked near them and a few from their barracks. This small circle gathered and visited late into the night, giving one another much needed “warmth and closeness.”
By the autumn of 1944 the Russian army was moving westward toward Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando, who were routinely murdered by the Nazis and replaced by incoming prisoners, knew their time was almost up so they planned an uprising in which outside resistance fighters would simultaneously attack the camp. Hearing about the planned revolt Anna suggested she and Estusia smuggle gunpowder out of the factory for the Sonderkommando. Estusia was aghast, but Anna convinced her. Since they were going to die in any case rebelling against the Nazis would give their deaths meaning. The Sonderkommando planned to blow up the five Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematoriums. On October 7th, 1944, the men in the Sonderkommando staged a spontaneous unco-ordinated revolt at Crematorium IV, which they blew up with the gunpowder. The men at Crematorium II also revolted and some escaped. Immediately “a whole detachment of SS men drove in armed with machine guns and grenades” (Gilbert, The Holocaust, 745). They rounded up the escapees and killed some 460 rebels.
When the SS discovered the gunpowder had come from the Union factory they arrested Estusia, Ala, Roza, and Regina and tortured them for months. The only names they gave were those of men in the Sonderkommando who were dead. When the four women were released more dead than alive Anna and Marta nursed Estusia, but suddenly they were arrested again and sentenced to hang. Marta cared for Anna who “went mad” after Estusia and the other three were hanged. Marta also cared for her during the Nazis’ brutal final evacuation of Auschwitz on January 18th and as the Nazis forced thousands on a 700 kilometre death march. Those who collapsed were shot or froze as the prisoners were pushed toward the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp north of Berlin. Marta “bodily took” Anna and “dragged” her along. They were moved to Neustadt-Glewe, a sub-camp, where they were liberated on May 2nd 1945 by the Russians who turned them over to the Americans.
The Red Cross flew Marta and sixteen-year-old Anna to Belgium to recuperate. They were moved to a recuperation camp where in June Anna rewrote from memory a diary she had kept in Auschwitz. Anna and Marta found jobs, but after a year in Belgium Anna managed to get into Palestine, a British Mandate. Sabina and her husband Mieczyslaw, who were already there, later settled in Sweden. Anna married Joshua Heilman in 1947. She had two daughters, completed high school, and did a social work degree while working full time. They moved to the United States in 1958 and settled in Ottawa in 1960 where Joshua was the principal of the Hebrew school and Anna was a social worker for the Children’s Aid Society.
When Marta visited Anna in 1988 she said the information about the Sonderkommando Uprising was so “incomplete and distorted” it did not even give the names of all the women who were executed. Anna later recalled that “Marta’s mission was to see justice done, and to have all four girls take their place in history.” Marta persuaded Anna to join her and a small group of women who had worked as slave labourers in the Union factory to lobby for a monument honouring the four women. Anna went to Jerusalem in 1991 when a monument, with all four names inscribed, was unveiled in the Memorial Garden of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Sabina and Anna lit the eternal flame during the ceremony.
When Anna accompanied a group of young people on a tour of Majdanek in 1993 she stood by a collective grave that was the final resting place of her parents and countless other victims. At last she was able to say a Jewish prayer of blessing over her parents. She had a vision of them and thousands of other victims urging her to tell their story. She did so from then onward, even though she felt guilty about surviving. In 1994 Estusia was posthumously honored by the Polish government with the Cross of Auschwitz. Anna did a lengthy interview at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which posthumously awarded Estusia the Medal of Resistance. Anna also gave interviews or made speeches to other organizations such as the Shoah Foundation and the Wiesenthal Center.
In Canada in 1991 during a casual conversation with Sheldon Schwartz, her son-in-law, Anna mentioned her Auschwitz diary. He urged her to translate it into English so her family could read it and convinced her to write about the events before and after the period covered in the diary. He worked with her for three years as she grappled with extremely painful memories while writing and he edited her manuscript. When publishers claimed Anna’s manuscript was one among many Holocaust memoirs they rejected it. Anna Feldman, a friend of Sheldon’s mother, put him in touch with me. I recognized that the manuscript was historically significant and suggested Canadian historian Alvin Finkel also read it. Knowing it was both a diary and a memoir, we had Sheldon contact the University of Calgary Press and we suggested an introduction by a historian who specialized in the Holocaust. Dieter Buse and Juergen Doerr, the Holocaust experts who wrote the introduction, say that Heilman’s book is valuable because it gives “information on how women witnessed a different world than males in the ghetto and especially in Auschwitz” and because it describes in detail how the women smuggled the gunpowder out of the factory for the Sonderkommando. (Buse and Doerr, xxiii-xxiv). Anna dedicated her book “to Marta, who saved my life, and Sheldon, who saved my story.”
Anna’s social and political activism continued until the end of her life. In May of 2010, even though she was not well, with the backing of the Canadian Jewish Congress, she lobbied a parliamentary committee to take action on the genocide in Dafur Sudan. She died of cancer on May 1st 2011 and was buried on May the 2nd, the 66th anniversary of her liberation in Europe.
Unless otherwise noted the direct quotations are taken from Heilman’s book, her 2001 speech, and her video-taped interviews held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Shoal Foundation. I am grateful to Sheldon Schwartz for reading earlier drafts, making helpful suggestions, and agreeing to be interviewed.
** “About Anna Heilman;” Anna Heilman, “Never Far Away,” a speech delivered in Ottawa, 27 November 2001; <http://annaheilman.net/About%20Anna%20Heilman.htm>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
** Anna Heilman, Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman, edited by Sheldon Schwartz, with an introduction by Dieter K. Buse and Juergen C. Doerr and an afterword by Joel Prager (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2001).
** Anna Heilman, video-taped interview, Shoah Foundation Institute, <http://www.ovguide.com/anna-heilman-9202a8c04000641f8000000000f11207>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
** “Oral history interview with Anna Wajcblum Heilman,” 10 August 1994, USHMM oral history collection, RG-50.030*0258, a four hour video-taped interview, <http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504752>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazis Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 ( London: William Heinemann, 2004).
Judy Cohen, an interview with Rose Grunapfel Meth, “Women of Valour: Partisans and Resistance Fighters” 2001. <http://www.theverylongview.com/WATH/valor/rose.htm>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Norman Davies, Rising ’44 The Battle of Warsaw (Toronto: Penquin Books, 2003).
Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1996).
Richard J. Evans, “The Anatomy of Hell,” a review essay, The New York Review of Books, 8 July 2015, <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jul/09/concentration-camps-anatomy-hell/?pagination=false&printpage=true>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Bernie M. Farber, “The heroines of Auschwitz,” The National Post, 27 January 2012, <http://news.national post.com/full comment/bernie-m-faber-the heroines-of-auschwitz>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Anita Gates, “A Salute to Personal Acts of Resistance Against Evil,” a movie review, The New York Times, September 10, 2004, <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/10/movies/a-salute-to-personal-acts-of-resistance-against-evil.html>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Martin Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 2008).
—, The Holocaust : The Jewish Tragedy (London: Fontana Collins, 1986).
“Giving Women their Place in Holocaust History,” a panel discussion presented by the American Jewish Historical Society and the Remember the Women Institute, 13 November 2014. <http://www.rememberwomen.org/Events/2014/7oct1944_panel.html>, retrieved 2 December 2015.
Sandra Martin, “Auschwitz saboteur, resistance hero persuaded to tell her story in moving memoir,” The Globe and Mail, 16 July 2011, <http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20110716.OBANNAHEILMANATL/BDAStory/BDA/deaths/?pageRequested=all>, retrieved 24 January 2016.
Gladys Strum, who made an exceptional contribution to political life in Canada, joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) two years after the first convention in Regina in 1933. A down-to-earth farm woman from Windthorst in southeast Saskatchewan, she became a CCF candidate in seven elections, when women politicians were “vastly out-numbered,” between feminism’s first and second wave. In 1945 Strum became the first woman to be the president of a Canadian political party when she was elected to that office in the provincial CCF. She became the first woman Member of Parliament (MP) to sit for the CCF, sitting for the Qu’Appelle constituency from 1945 to 1949, as Canada’s fifth woman parliamentarian. She memorably summed up sitting alongside 244 men as supplying the pork “in a can of pork and beans.” Service in Ottawa was followed by four years (1960-4) as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Saskatchewan, the fifth woman member in its history. A long-time advocate of better health care services, she voted for the Medical Care Insurance Act in 1961. She described this moment, which established medicare in Saskatchewan, North American’s first universal health care program and the model for later Canadian initiatives, as the high point in her political life. (See Taylor, “Mothers of Medicare” on this site.)
What created this political dynamo? Gladys was born to Sarah and Luther Lamb on a Manitoba farm “almost in the hen house.” Chores were a way of life. A bright diligent student, she was hired in 1922 to teach all eight grades in a one-room rural school near Windthorst. In November of 1929 she married Warner Strum, a farmer who chaired the local school board. This intelligent appealing man was raising his five orphaned brothers and sisters. Warner, who was often very ill with pleurisy and pneumonia, was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) when Gladys was a bride of three months. Over the years he faced periodic stays in the sanatorium and recurring surgery. She became his advocate and an avid supporter of the superintendent of the Fort Qu’Appelle Sanatorium and the Anti-tuberculosis League in Saskatchewan.
Because Gladys was very busy with domestic work, including caring for their infant daughter Carol (born 1930), and outside farm work she did not join in the frequent discussions of politics between Warner, whose family had supported the left-wing Non-Partisan League in North Dakota, and their neighbour who was an advocate of Fabian socialism. During the 1930s, however, as their family battled dust storms and barely managed economically, while their neighbours were forced onto relief, she began to show an interest in politics. Much of her activism was channelled through the local Homemakers’ Club, the equivalent of the Women’s Institutes in other provinces. In 1935 when CCF missionary Louise Lucas came to Gladys’s district for a Homemakers’convention she was billeted with the Strums. The Lucas family, who also lived in southern Saskatchewan, faced eight successive crop failures during the 1930s. Regarded by many as the provincial “mother of the CCF,” Lucas toured tirelessly speaking and urging voters to put “Humanity First” by voting for the CCF. An agrarian socialist, she spoke in hundreds of rural school houses and was reputed to have made more speeches than any CCF speaker in Canada. Lucas was so impressed by Strum that she predicted a great future for her. She proved an extremely effective political mentor who taught Strum the “ABCs of socialism.” Later Strum recalled that it was only with this basic knowledge that she could understand Warner’s discussions of socialism. Well before Lucas died of cancer in 1945 she had groomed Strum to contest male-dominated politics.
With Lucas’s mentorship, aided and abetted by Warner, Gladys became a key CCF speaker and organizer in three constituencies. An assertive, forthright, country woman, she never learned to flatter men in the party hierarchy. Some of the organizers were paid, but she was not. In 1941 she told the CCF provincial executive it was “slowly dawning” on her that she was:
practically a full time CCF organizer – without pay…. This morning I am about to do the family wash – which I couldn’t do last week because I spent the entire week in Souris-Estevan … God knows what I am going to talk about [at the meeting in Highview]. Perhaps I’ll warn women to stay out of politics … Somebody is crazy – I’m beginning to suspect its me … I must get busy at the washing – the water’s hot. I’m eating breakfast and interspersing these paragraphs with toast and coffee…. I have … two solid weeks and two days of CCF meetings ahead. I’ll have to be put on as an organizer or quit. After all I have a husband and a family. Yet. Does the CCF ever contest divorce suits as correspondent?
Eventually the executive paid her expenses, but such confrontations offended some male party leaders.
The former teacher was a formidable CCF educator, undertaking youth work, teaching in CCF organizational schools, and speaking frequently. In 1938 Gladys lost as a sacrificial candidate for the CCF against the Liberal premier W.J. Patterson in the Cannington constituency. Warner’s health was so bad they contemplated moving to New Zealand so they cashed in an insurance policy to finance an exploratory trip by Gladys. While there she interviewed MPs and officials in the Labour government, which was establishing a comprehensive welfare state. With the prospect of the Japanese advancing in the Pacific, the Strums decided to stay put, but the experience left Gladys more enthusiastic than ever about democratic socialism.
During the 1944 provincial election Strum toured the province with T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, the CCF’s popular new leader. She also ran against Patterson again, losing by a mere six votes, but her party won in a resounding victory forming Canada’s first democratic socialist government. Strum’s moment to be provincial party president came in 1945 when most of the leading men in the party were in the legislature and the party constitution prohibited MLAs from holding this office. That year she also contested the federal election in a close three-way race in the Qu’Appelle constituency against Ernest Perley, the long-standing Conservative MP, and General Andrew McNaughton, the charismatic Second World War general and the federal Liberal Minister of Defense, who had been parachuted into the riding. Strum later recalled that when she won McNaughton said that he “would rather deal with an atom bomb” than with her.
In Ottawa Strum, the sole female MP, was immediately hailed by the press as a mother and, contradictorily, as a “maid with a million men.” Rejecting the idea that women should go “back to the kitchen” when the war was over, she told the Commons “no one has ever objected to women working. The only thing they have ever objected to is paying women for working.” (Commons Debates, 4 October 1945.) The CCF had anticipated a breakthrough, but Ontario proved a disappointment. There were, however, 28 CCF MPs, 18 from Saskatchewan where strong riding organizers like Strum made a difference. In Ottawa Strum was welcomed by M.J. Coldwell, the CCF federal leader, her caucus generally treated her well, and she was highly visible at party functions. She often spoke on behalf of Canadian women, from whom she received many letters, and she was the CCF MP who met delegations of women lobbying on the Hill. Strum also had support from Yukoner Martha Black, a Conservative MP from 1935 to 1940, who had replaced her husband while he was ill. During Strum’s term he was back in the House and Martha was free to befriend Gladys and give her valuable advice. Strum went down to defeat in 1949 when only five CCF candidates won in Saskatchewan.
She returned to the farm and teaching, attending university when she could to up-grade her credentials thereby increasing their family income. In 1952 the Strums moved to British Columbia where the climate was better for Warner. There she lost again as a sacrificial candidate. She could not find a job teaching in BC, likely because of her politics, so the Strums ran a motel. In 1955 they returned to the farm near Windthorst. Gladys resumed teaching locally and attending university at times in Saskatoon, while operating a boarding house to finance her education.
In 1960 Gladys ran for the CCF in Saskatoon, a three member constituency where each elector could vote for two men and still have a vote left for a woman. This was the only time she was nominated in a seat the CCF thought it could win. She was elected, but her term in Regina was not as pleasant as her term in Ottawa. In 1945 in Ottawa most of the CCF MPs were new and willing to welcome a woman, but 15 years later in Regina most of the caucus had been there a long time and were more rigid and misogynist. Strum was compared unfavorably to Marjorie Cooper, the only other woman in the caucus, who was elected in1952 when a new conservatism was fashionable. Douglas, who had been the premier for 16 years, and the other men in the caucus preferred Cooper’s lady-like accommodation and treated Strum like an intruder. Focused on establishing medicare, they saw Strum, who insisted on raising uncomfortable questions about inequality, as an annoying, trouble-making feminist. Not surprisingly Strum was not given a cabinet post by Douglas or by Woodrow Lloyd, who replaced him as the premier.
The medicare legislation passed in November 1961, provoking a divisive battle between the government led by Lloyd and the medical doctors who opposed medicare and the Liberals. The doctors withdrew their services and Saskatchewan split into two warring camps. After a bitter battle the doctors grudgingly returned to work at the end of July 1962. In 1961 the federal party had joined with unions to form the New Democratic Party, although the provincial party continued to call itself the CCF until 1967. Douglas, who had resigned as the premier a few days before medicare passed, became the NDP federal leader. During the 1964 provincial election campaign, the CCF was on the defensive so Strum spent time outside of her riding speaking on behalf of desperate CCF candidates. The Liberals led by Ross Thatcher were victorious and Strum went down to defeat after a suspense-filled recount. She was soon scapegoated by the Saskatoon CCF in a blame game that drove her out of politics. The Strums returned to the family farm, new drugs having cured Warner’s TB. Gladys, who by then had a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Arts degrees, was hired as the principal of a nine-room school in a nearby town. In 1968 the Strums retired to Penticton, the home of their daughter and her family.
In 1981 I taped a lengthy interview with Gladys and talked to her and Warner over numerous cups of tea. Feeling unfairly treated in part because she had criticized Douglas, often regarded as a saint, she used the opportunity to tell her side of the story. Gladys had seen herself as a “socialist” during her years as a politician, but by 1981 second-wave feminism helped her identify strongly as a feminist. She concluded that she had been “born too soon.” Warner continued to support Gladys wholeheartedly until his death at the age of 84, just short of their sixtieth anniversary. On February 4th 2004, in celebration of her 98th birthday, Gladys was recognized in the House of Commons for her strong advocacy of women’s equality.
Saskatchewan Archives Board, Women in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Collection, 32 taped interviews by Georgina Taylor R-5827 to R-5874, R-8130 to R-8166. See in particular the interviews with Anne Blakeney, Frank Coburn, Marjory Cooper, Elsie Gorius, Eloise (Lucas) Metheral, I.C. (Toby) Nollet, Gladys Strum, Pemrose Whelan, and Thora Wiggens.
Unless otherwise noted the direct quotations are from this eight hour interview with Strum or from Taylor, “Equals and Partners?”
Taped interview with T.C. Douglas, 15 June 1982, in possession of the author.
Evelyn Eager, Saskatchewan Government Politics and Pragmatism (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980).
“Gladys Strum,” Library and Archives Canada, <http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1341-e.html>, retrieved 20 December 2015.
Stuart. Houston, R.G. Ferguson: Crusader Against Tuberculosis (Toronto and Oxford: Hannah Institute & Dundurn Press, 1991).
David McGrane, “A Mixed Record: Gender and Saskatchewan Social Democracy,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes, 42 (1) Winter 2008, 179-203.
Thomas H. McLeod and Ian McLeod, Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1987).
Brett Quiring, “The Social and Political Philosophy of Woodrow S. Lloyd,” Saskatchewan History 56(1) (Spring 2004).
Joan Sangster, Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left 1920 -1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1989).
Georgina M. Taylor, “Equals and Partners? An Examination of How Saskatchewan Women Reconciled Their Political Activities for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation with Traditional Roles for Women,” M.A. Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 1983.
—, “Gladys Strum: Farm Woman, Teacher and Politician,” Canadian Woman Studies 7(4) (Winter 1986): 89-93.
—, “Homemakers’ Clubs and Women’s Institutes,” The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, ed. Patrick Douaud, ((Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center University of Regina, 2005): 460-461. <http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/homemakers_clubs_and_womens_institutes.html>, retrieved 20 December 2015.
—, “Mothers of Medicare, ” on this site.
—, “‘The Women Shall Help to Lead the Way’: Saskatchewan CCF‑NDP Women Candidates in Provincial and Federal Election, 1934 – 1965” in Building the Co‑operative Commonwealth Federation, ed. J. William Brennan (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1984), 141-160.
Medicare is Canada’s most popular social program and various men have been identified as its progenitor including T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, Emmett Hall, and Paul Martin Sr. Although the charismatic Douglas is most frequently cited as the “father of medicare” in Canada, he did not see himself as a lone heroic man. He was fully aware of the many women and men who made critical contributions. Canadian medicare, which originated in Saskatchewan, came into being as the offspring of both female and male activists. The popular myth of a solitary hero needs to be balanced by focusing on medicare’s maternal forebears. Farm women were at the heart of the movement for accessible health care services.
The social movement that resulted in the establishment of medicare in Saskatchewan began in 1915 when Violet McNaughton and the Women Grain Growers (WGG) launched a campaign for “medical aid within the reach of all.” (See Taylor, “Violet McNaughton” on this site.) Saskatchewan had very high rates of birth and maternal and infant mortality. McNaughton and others in the WGG were very concerned about thousands of white settler mothers who were giving birth without trained mid-wives, nurses, doctors, or hospital care.
McNaughton knew firsthand about the medical shortcomings in the rural areas of the province. In 1911 she had an emergency hysterectomy after a long trip to a Saskatoon hospital 60 miles from her family’s homesteads. Although she was dangerously ill, her husband could only afford one visit during her two months in the hospital. This experience and post-operative damage were “burned” into her psyche. She understood that thousands of farm women faced conditions that were often worse and many died or had damage from childbirth. McNaughton and the WGG were determined to relieve “the sufferings of our prairie mothers.” (McNaughton, “Our Welfare Page,” 1916.)
To push the government into taking action McNaughton toured the province in 1916 speaking to the 15 district conventions of Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association (SGGA) and the provincial conventions of both the SGGA and the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, the province’s two most powerful organizations. She convinced them to advocate “medical aid within the reach of all.” Therefore, in 1916 and 1917 the provincial government passed legislation enabling local governments to levy taxes for municipal nurses and doctors and to establish union hospitals for three or more neighbouring municipalities.
Many farm women belonged to the Homemakers’ Clubs sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan. It did not allow the Clubs to engage in political work that might antagonize the provincial government. However, once the legislation passed, McNaughton persuaded them to work with the WGG and other activists in local campaigns for the plebiscites that enabled municipalities to levy taxes to hire municipal nurses, to sign employment contracts with doctors, and to build union hospitals. At first these local campaigns were painstaking slow, but the number of successful local campaigns increased when the militant United Farmers of Canada, Saskatchewan Section (UFC) replaced the old SGGA and the Farmer’s Union in 1926. Annie Hollis, a democratic socialist who worked closely with McNaughton from 1917 onward, was the first Woman President of the UFC and an adamant supporter of better health care services.
In 1925 McNaughton, a suffragist and an agrarian feminist, became the women’s editor of The Western Producer, the most widely read farm paper in the West. (See Taylor, “Valentine’s Day 1916” on this site.) For 35 years she used its pages to promote better healthcare services and other causes. Saskatchewan farm women were active in the SGGA and the WGG from 1914 to 1926, the UFC from 1926 to 1949, the Saskatchewan Farmers Union (SFU) from 1949 to 1969, and the National Farmers Union (NFU) from 1969 onward. Women in these groups, such as Zoa Haight, Sophia Dixon, Elsie Hart, Annie Hollis, Louise Lucas, Beatrice Trew, and Thora Wiggens, read The Western Producer religiously. They campaigned for better health care services from within these farm organizations and through other community groups like the Homemaker’s Clubs, the Anti-tuberculosis League, and the State Hospital and Medical League. The municipal contracts with doctors varied a great deal so some rural people had better coverage than others. Nevertheless, by 1950 173 doctors were being paid by Saskatchewan municipalities, many more than the numbers paid by governments elsewhere in Canada.
Many women in farm organizations took their commitment to improve health care services into the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) after its creation in 1933. These women included Lucas, the Woman President of the UFC from 1931 to 1933, and Dixon who held this office from 1933 to 1934. Both attended the first convention of the federal CCF in Regina. When the provincial CCF was elected in a landslide in 1944, with Douglas as the premier, it began to work toward a universal medicare program by implementing new services, such as an Air Ambulance and hospitalization, as funds became available. CCF women politicians such as Beatrice Trew, a farm woman from Lemsford, and Gladys Strum, a farm woman from Windthorst, advocated better health care services. (See Taylor, “Gladys Strum” on this site.)
CCF proponents of medicare were often elected provincially and federally because Saskatchewan farm women were superb political organizers. These organizers included Elsie Gorius a farm woman from the Assiniboia area in southern Saskatchewan who was regarded as one of the best political organizers in Canada, Olive Wells from Tuxford also in the south, and Gertrude Harvey from central Saskatchewan. Harvey was the long-time campaign manager for M.J. Coldwell, the CCF MP for Rosetown from 1935 to 1958 and the leader of the federal CCF from 1942 to 1960.
Decades of such commitment were recognized in 1961 when Trew, then the Women’s President of the SFU, was appointed to the Thompson Commission that recommended a universal medicare program for Saskatchewan and the medicare bill passed in the legislature. It came into effect on 1st July 1962 when Douglas was a New Democratic Party (NDP) MP and Woodrow Lloyd was the CCF Premier. In the House of Commons, Douglas and other NDP MPs, argued for a national medicare program. In 1966 the federal government established the Canadian medicare program based on the popular Saskatchewan program. Organized farm women in Saskatchewan, such as Nettie Wiebe of the NFU, remained ardent champions of further improvements.
Alfred Gleave, a farm activist from 1932 onward, was the president of the SFU in 1962 when he played a pivotal role during the tumultuous implementation of medicare. Active in the CCF-NDP for decades, he was a key observer of the contributions to the movement for better health care services by farm women from McNaughton onward. He did not succumb to celebrating the “fathers of medicare” while forgetting its “mothers.” His book United We Stand, a history of the farm movement, gives Saskatchewan farm women the credit they deserve. (Gleave, 185.)
Photo: Violet and John McNaughton in front of their Saskatchewan sod house, likely taken in 1910
Saskatchewan Archives Board (SAB), Women in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Collection, 32 taped interviews by Georgina Taylor R-5827 to R-5874, R-8130 to R-8166. See in particular the interviews with Sophia Dixon, Elsie Gorius, Elsie Hart, Eloise (Lucas) Metheral, Gladys Strum, Olive Wells, and Thora Wiggens.
A taped interview by Georgina Taylor with Rose (Ducie) Jardine, July 1991, in possession of the author. A taped interview by Georgina Taylor with T.C. Douglas, June 15th 1982, in possession of the author.
Alfred P. Gleave, United We Stand – Prairie Farmers 1901-1975 (Toronto: Lugus, 1991).
Nanci Langford, “Childbirth on the Canadian Prairies 1880-1930,” Journal of Historical Sociology 8(3) (September 1995): 278-302.
Tracy Leigh Steele, “Efforts to Reduce Infant and Maternal Mortality in Saskatchewan During the Setlement Period,” M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, 2013. <http://hdl.handle.net/10294/3644>
Georgina M. Taylor, “The Campaign for Medical Aid Within the Reach of All,” chapter 7 in “‘Ground for Common Action’: Violet McNaughton’s Agrarian Feminism and the Origins of the Farm Women’s Movement in Canada, ” Ph.D. dissertation, Carleton University, 1997, 376-467. <http://amicus.collectionscanada.ca/s4‑bin/Main/BasicSearch?coll=18&l=0&v=1>.
—, “Equals and Partners? An Examination of How Saskatchewan Women Reconciled Their Political Activities for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation with Traditional Roles for Women,” M.A. Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 1983.
—, “Mothers of Medicare” a three part series in “Western People” the magazine supplement of The Western Producer 16, 23, 30 July 1998.
—, “Violet McNaughton,” “Valentine’s Day 1916, a Day of Triumph for Saskatchewan Women,” and “Gladys Strum” on this site.
Nettie Wiebe, Weaving New Ways (Saskatoon: National Farmers Union, 1987).
Barry Wilson, “Alfred P. Gleave,” in Brett Quiring, ed. Saskatchewan Politicians Lives Past and Present, (Regina: University of Regina Canadian Plains Research Center, 2004), 88-89.
National Farmers Union, http://www.nfu.ca/; “Emmett Hall,” <http://www.canada-heros.com/hall_emmett.html>; “Paul Martin, Sr. Biography,” Society for the Recognition of Famous People, <http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/paul-martin-5051.php>; Margaret Conrad, “History Idol: Tommy Douglas,” Canada’s History Magazine, <http://www.canadashistory.ca/Magazine/Online-Exclusive/Articles/History-Idol–Tommy-Douglas.aspx>; downloaded 30 November 2015.