Labour of love takes centre stage

A study examining the central role women played in forming Canada’s mid-20th century labour movement is set to wrap up next year in a very dramatic way.

By Kirk Sibbald
Elizabeth Quinlan, associate professor of sociology, has long been interested in the work conducted by women's auxilia­ries of the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW). Comprised of the wives and mothers of miners, these groups were formal orga­nizations with their own consti­tutions and bylaws, united by a desire to usher in more fair and humane working conditions for all workers.

"These were women who were inspired by a vision of a better world. A world that was more just, where people had enough to eat, and the working conditions for their husbands, fathers, brothers—and everyone, for that matter—were safe," explained Quinlan. "Their work was driven by a vision as opposed to a paycheque."

Quinlan first began looking into the women's auxiliaries after receiving a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant in 2011. For this project, she and her research team travelled to eight archives across the country to collect historical data about the auxilia­ries. The aim of her most recent SSHRC-funded project, which officially began this past July, is to take what was uncovered during the first grant and present the findings theatrically.

To accomplish this, Quinlan has teamed up with Julia Jamison, an assistant professor in drama, and Jennifer Wynne-Weber, playwright and community fellow, Interdisci­plinary Centre for Culture and Creativity. The script for the play is in final stages of drafting. Auditions and the hiring of undergraduate drama students will begin next spring.

The play's first performance will take place during the National Day of Mourning, April 28, sponsored by the Saskatoon District Labour Council. Next the students will perform the play during Saska­toon's annual Fringe Festival. Lastly the play will be performed at the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour conference on occu­pational health and safety in September 2016.

The team has hired an undergraduate student to compile findings from the first study for donation to a selected archive. They will also hire a graduate student who will be producing a video on the play's development.

Women's auxiliaries existed for about two decades, from the 1940s to the ‘60s. In addition to advocating for labour-related issues such as higher wages and safer working conditions, said Quinlan, the auxiliaries were also central to the social life of their often-isolated communi­ties. "They would host Christmas parties, organize community dinners, put on plays … really a whole array of activities,"

The SSHRC-funded theat­rical production, also supported by Community Engagement and Outreach and the Department of Drama, is meant to shed light on the historical role women have played as labour activists and make Quinlan's scholarly research on this subject more publically accessible.

While there were many challenges faced by women's auxiliaries—such as being held under surveillance by the RCMP and, often, being restricted from travelling to the United States— Quinlan said these groups of women showed incredible perse­verance.

"The Cold War was very hot. Any group or individual who had been identified as left-leaning faced serious repercus­sions … You could very easily be labeled a communist when in fact you weren't, and as a result lose your job and be blacklisted from your community," said Quinlan. "Despite the risks, these women were committed to building a better world. Today, workers in Canada continue to benefit from the fruits of their efforts."

Kirk Sibbald is a communications officer in the College of Arts and Science.