Category Archives: History

Peace and Motherhood

My mother died in 2002, so I did not join the armies of shoppers all over North America this week, ringing up sales of cards, restaurant meals, chocolates or flowers. However, I did think about Mother’s Day (the modern one, not the British Mothering Day from which it originated, or the celebrations of the ancient Egyptians and Romans which honoured the goddesses and are the root of this celebration of women/mothers.)

The first North American Mother’s Day was conceptualized with Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870. Despite having penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic 12 years earlier, Howe had become so distraught by the death and carnage of the Civil War that she called on Mother’s to come together and protest what she saw as the futility of their Sons killing the Sons of other Mothers. She called for an international Mother’s Day celebrating peace and motherhood; she even proposed converting July 4th into Mother’s Day, in order to dedicate the nation’s anniversary to peace. Eventually June 2nd was designated for the celebration. In 1873 women’s groups in 18 North American cities observed this new Mother’s holiday. After Anna Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in remembrance of her mother and in honor of peace. In 1908, Anna petitioned the superintendent of the church where her Mother had spent over 20 years teaching Sunday School. Her request was honored, and on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebration took place at Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia and a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1908 a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, Elmer Burkett, proposed making Mother’s Day a national holiday at the request of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The proposal was defeated, but by 1909 forty-six states were holding Mother’s Day services as well as parts of Canada and Mexico.

Anna Jarvis quit working and devoted herself full time to the creation of Mother’s Day, endlessly petitioning state governments, business leaders, women groups, churches and other institutions and organizations. She finally convinced the World’s Sunday School Association to back her, a key influence over state legislators and congress. In 1912 West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother’s Day, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. The holiday flourished in the United States and flowers became very popular. One business journal wrote, “This was a holiday that could be exploited.” But the budding commercialization of Mother’s Day greatly disturbed Jarvis, so she vociferously opposed what she perceived as a misuse of the holiday. In 1923 she sued to stop a Mother’s Day event, and in the 1930’s she was arrested for disturbing the peace at the American War Mothers group. She was protesting their sale of flowers. Despite her efforts, flower sales on Mother’s Day continued to grow. (Anna Jarvis died in 1948, blind, poor and childless.)

The National Retail Foundation predicts Mother’s Day is a $14 Billion industry; Google spikes in search traffic for “Mother’s Day” in the US and UK. Florists see their highest sales in May. Restaurants claim that it is the busiest day of the year. Long distance telephone calls also peak on this day. According to Hallmark, 96% of American consumers take part in shopping on Mother’s Day, while retailers report it as the second highest gift giving day of the year behind Christmas
Many countries, regardless of the Western trend, continue attach much more symbolic and/or religious importance to their Mother’s Day celebrations.

I am releived that I no longer contribute to the North American industry known as Mother’s Day. Tomorrow, as some mothers are subjegated to bad breakfasts made by their children, to sitting in noisy restaurants, to opening expensive cards and over-packaged and equally expensive boxes of chocolates, to dutifully placing flowers into little-used vases dug out of the back of the kitchen cupboard, to receiving the only phonecalls of this year from their distant children or grandkids, I truly hope that those moms will smile knowingly, as my late mother would have smiled, and know in their heart of hearts that they are usually loved, sometimes respected, occasionally misunderstood, rarely appreciated enough, and almost ALWAYS doing the hardest and most important job in the world.

I echo the sentiments of Julia Ward Howe and suggest that we celebrate PEACE and MOTHERHOOD…furthermore, I think that we must work to resolve the conflicts in our world and stop the futility of Sons (and Daughters) killing the Sons (and Daughters) of other Mothers,


Spring Bouquet for Transit Driver

Yeah, yeah, yeah…it’s Saturday night and I’m going to take advantage of the fact that most people are out on the town, doing important stuff like smooching with their sweeties and I AM NOT! Sigh. Maybe it’s something in the spring air or the effects of drinking the HRM tap water, but I feel a burning desire to give one (I SAID ONE) Metro Transit bus driver a pat on the back, tip of my jaunty beret, nod of approval, and spring bouquet all rolled into one. Given the intense satisfaction I normally derive when I have the opportunity (and there are plenty of them) to blast Transit drivers (see earlier blogs), I feel oddly conflicted and confused about this new-found bus driver appreciation…but here goes; On Friday, I was riding the #14 bus, bound for the UU church on Inglis to rehearse a ‘green opera’ which I am writing and co-directing (don’t ask. I’ll tell you about it sometime). The driver was a little behind schedule, not unusual for a Metro Transit bus. It was past peak hours minutes (This IS Halifaxl) so the bus was not the packed sardine it can it can some times. I lulled into my typical bus stupour but remained minimally alert, which allowed my brain to count the turns that the bus was making (to figure out where to get off…driver had not asked me, and I thought he had sounded a tad frazzled and would probably forget to tell me anyway). It turns out that I need not have bothered. I also did not need a compass or GPS to realize that the collective, “Hey!” from passengers (Oh those eloquent St. Mary’s students!) meant that we had blown by Robie street without making the #14 route’s right hand turn off of South Street. The driver realized what had happened quickly enough (maybe it was the three panicky students who swarmed the guy within 2.749 seconds of realizing that the bus was off route). I listened to the following exchange between the driver and students ( they had quickly lurched forward to stand next to the driver, I-pods temporarily disconnected from their heads to allow their ears access to their cell phones;
Driver: “Sorry, I’m used to working the #41 route…it’s Friday….I’m so sorry.” (#41 goes right up South)
Student A: “Is this the #14 or not?”
Driver: “Sorry, I apologize…it’s Friday”.
Student B: “Are we going anywhere near St. Mary’s? I’m supposed to meet someone in…3 minutes” .
Driver: (sounding very tired) “I don’t know where to turn around”
Student C: “Are we going to go back to Robie Street or not?”
Old geek sitting across from me: “What the hell is going on?!!”
Driver: (to the driver of a passing bus he had waved over) “I have no idea what to do. Where can I turn around? What would you do? I’m ten minutes behind schedule as it is.”
Other Driver: “Just get back anywhere on the route. Happens to me all the time”.
Driver: “I don’t want to leave anyone behind on Robie or Inglis which is what’s going to happen if I blow off the route”.
Other Driver: “Do whatever you feel like” (he then left, helpful soul that he was)
Student A: “Is this the #14?”
Student B: “I’m getting off right now!” (at which point he leaped off the bus as though his pants were on fire)
Student C: “Is we still in Halifax? I’m not from here…”
Student A: “Is this the #14?”
Driver: “Everybody sit down please. I apologize…it’s Friday” (he then drove off as though his HIS pants were on fire).
We embarked on the most unusual of bus trips. We headed east, then maybe south and west…north even? I had no clue where I was, but I did not seem to mind (how unusual for me…hence my feeling of confusion). People cursed and grumbled and sighed and tisked all up and down the bus.
Me: “Can someone please tell me where we are?” (The driver was still busy driving like a man possessed).
Student C: “I don’t know where I am either”.
Old geek across from me: ” The son of a. is going back to Robie Street to pick up his route where he left off!”
Upon hearing this news, I felt an unexpected appreciation for this driver (who was still apologizing profusely as anyone got off his bus). When we finally reached my stop, (some 20 minutes off schedule by now and way too late for rehearsal),
I said to him: “Don’t worry, stuff like this happens all the time to me too….it’s Friday!”

Halifax Explosion’s Blinded Victims Remembered

Yesterday, I received a blog comment from a fellow named, George. It came for moderation and was directed off the ‘about Helen McFadyen’ page. George asked why I had not mentioned the significance of the day, particularly in light of the many victims who were killed, disabled, blinded…and my oft-spun blogs on the subject of blindness , “but being a PFA (Person From Away) it might not be familiar” to me….To tell you the truth, I did not ‘twig’ right away. I thought he was referring to the tragic news item from Afghanistan,  (100th Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan) and that he was in some sort of reminiscing mode about Veterans. I’ve been woefully overworked, and writing ‘real’ articles and documents like a woman possessed (actually I’m a woman possessed by deadlines). so much so, that I had a restless night (that and my killer joint pain from this lovely, damp weather). But then, it struck me. I was mentally calculating dates (Christmas and all the billions of pot lucks and other events that require attendance) when I  decided to get up and check my Braille calendar. Thank you for the wake-up call, George. Of course, I am very familiar with this significant piece of Canadian/Nova Scotian/Haligonian history. I obviously missed the radio news reporting on local ceremonies.

Yesterday’s date was December 6th.  91 years ago (1917) on this date,  at approximately 9 am, the city of Halifax experienced the biggest man made explosion the world had ever seen. It came to be known as the Halifax Explosion. Before the sun went down that day, more than 1000 people would die, 1000 more would die later, and 9000 would be severely injured or maimed. Any person (including PFA’s) who lives in Halifax for a little while, will learn about this event. It is marked by solemn ceremony every year, and the local media always attempts to cover it in a big way. What happened? Canada was preparing for war (the Big One). The Halifax Harbour was busy. A Belgian relief ship (Imo) was preparing to clear the Bedford Basin, bound for Europe and the war. As it was going through the Narrows, the French munitions ship, Mont Blanc and the tug boat, Stella Maris which was towing two barges, all converged. A flurry of whistles followed, as the ships tried to figure which was passing to which side. The result, was a collision between the Mont Blanc and the Imo. The Mont Blanc was loaded with TNT,  benzol fuel and picric acid. The immediate result of the collision was smoke and fire. The Mont Blanc drifted towards the shoreline as it burned and smoked.  This scene drew curious people to their home and workplace windows to watch.  The CBC sums up best what followed; …”The steel hull burst sky high, falling in a blizzard of red-hot twisted projectiles on Dartmouth and Halifax.” The aftermath also included a tsunami-like wash of water (as high as 18 meters) over the survivors.

Result of Halifax Explosion:

  • In the Richmond area,  the destruction was so total that people could not recognize where their homes had been.
  • In the North end, entire streets were in flames as wood stoves, lamps and furnaces tipped over.
  • Firefighters came within hours from Moncton, Springhill, Amherst and Kentville, but their equipment (hoses) would not fit with differently-sized Halifax hydrants.
  • By noon hour the  officials  had gathered at city Hall, and The Halifax Relief Committee was put together in 45 minutes to begin to deal with issues of shelter, transportation, finance, food. Later that day,  more committees formed; medical relief, mortuary, fuel and Dartmouth Relief committees.
  • Medical aid began to arrive to support local hospitals. Aid stations sprang up. Massachusetts was a significant contributor of assistance (Halifax continues to send a huge Christmas tree to Boston every year as a symbolic thank you). Emergency triage treatment included amputations,  lacerations, eye removal, and life-saving surgeries.
  • Eye injuries and blindness were experienced by many Halifax Explosion survivors. One reason for this, is the tons of glass shards that exploded out of windows where people watched as the Mont Blanc drifted. Doctor G. H. Cox, an ophthalmologist arrived from New Glasgow to perform 12 hours of non stop eye surgeries.  The explosion caused 600 people to suffer eye injuries and 38 were totally and permanently blinded.
  • Many of the 1500 who died that day, died as buildings collapsed and burned around them.
  • 12,000 buildings were severely damaged. 1630 were completely destroyed. 6000 people were homeless.


Thank you for reminding me, George.

Remembering Rosa Parks Today

53 years ago today, just 19 days before my mother gave birth to me, she would have sat quietly with  bulging belly, and listened to a New York City station on the radio. (Mom loved to tune in New York City because of the great dance tunes). She would have heard the following item on the evening news report that night;

“A colored woman in Montgomery, Alabama was arrested by police today, after refusing to give up her seat to a white person. Mrs. Rosa Parks faces a fine for breaking the segregation law. It is not the first time that Mrs. Parks , a seamstress who works at the Montgomery Fair department store, has defied the law on segregation. In 1943 she was thrown off the bus for refusing to leave by the back door reserved for black passengers. She became known to drivers who then would refuse to let her on. Ironically, Mrs. Parks recognized James Burke today, as the same driver who threw her off the bus some 12 years ago. Mrs. Parks is a youth leader in a local branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Her husband, Raymond takes part in voter registration drives. The NAACP and Mrs. Parks have been  involved in raising money to help defend 15 year old, Claudette Colvin, removed from a bus earlier this year for a similar segregation law-related refusal.”

Five days later, (just two weeks before I entered the world) mom would have heard another related news story on her radio, about the thousands of black citizens of Alabama participating in an organized boycott. A young man, named Martin Luther King spoke to the crowds that night and urged them to continue with the boycott. Almost all of Montgomery’s 40 thousand black residents did so for 381 days, crippling the city’s transportation system and signaling the start of the modern civil rights movement in the United States. On December 20th of 1956 (my 1st birthday), the Supreme court upheld a lower court decision to end segregation on Alabama busses. Mrs. Parks was fired from her job and  then moved to Detroit in 1957 because of harassment. She worked for Democratic congressman, John Conyers until her retirement in 1985. Rosa Parks died in October of 2005.

A Play To Remember

Last night I attended a performance of Eastern Front Theatre’s production of ‘Vimy’. Vimy was penned by critically-acclaimed playwright, Vern Thiessen. (FYI The Battle of Vimy Ridge -first wave: April 9, 1917- is considered the turning point of the Great war leading to the victory of the allied forces.  Four Divisions of Canadians fought at Vimy.  97,000 Canadians were assembled to prepare for the Battle of Vimy Ridge. 3598 Canadians died, and a total of 10,602 casualties.  Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian soldiers who fought at Vimy. One in three Canadian men fought in World war I. 3,100 Canadian women served as nurses in the Canadian Army Nurses Corp during WW I. 46 of them died.)

The special treat of the evening was the audience ‘chat’ after the performance with Mr. Thiessen and the cast. Also present was the niece of the woman who is dramatically portrayed as a character in the play ( Nova Scotian nurse at a WWW 1 field station in France). She brought along a hand-written diary belonging to her Great Aunt, and presented a page of it to Mr. Thiessen, but not before actor, Kate Lavender (played the role of Clare) emotionally read a poem which had been entered into the diary some 90 years before. Her great aunt had allegedly included this poem in her diary,  shortly after it had been  written and discarded by John McRea.

Canadians of my generation have a long history of reciting  in school and elsewhere, “In Flanders Fields”, the poem written in the field by Lt. Col. John McRea  during WW I.  The day before he wrote his famous poem, McRea’s friend had been killed in fighting and had been buried in a makeshift grave marked with a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were already blooming.  He gave all the dead a voice in his poem. The poem eventually appeared in Punch Magazine in England in 1915.  It quickly came to symbolize the sacrifice of all those fighting in the First World War.  (the poppy became the flower of remembrance for Britain, Canada, The United States, France, and the Commonwealth countries)  This poem found its way into the Canadian identity as the singular most important reflection of Canadian military sacrifice. Here it is, because Remembrance Day is coming up, and no matter what we think about the morality of war, we can never remember enough…

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow

between the crosses, row on row.

That mark our place; and in the sky,

the larks still bravely singing fly,

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead.

Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn,

saw sunset glow,

loved, and were loved,

and now we lie in Flanders Field.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw the torch,

be yours to hold it high,

If ye break faith with us who die,

we shall not sleep ,

though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.”

John McRea  (1872-1918 )You can visit McRea House in Guelph, Ontario.

John McRea is buried in Wimereaux France, just north of Boulogne near Flanders Fields. At his funeral, McRea’s horse, Bonfire, led the burial procession with McRea’s riding boots reversed in the stirrups.

“Bone and Blood is the Price of Coal”

I doubt that Bono and U2 really have any kind of understanding about what they sing about…except maybe that they make an opportunistic buck from it. “Springhill Mining Disaster” is a song U2 have performed, but was written by a woman, named Peggy Seeger.

A miner’s life is a dark, dangerous one, carried out in the depths of the earth, far underground- and in the case of Nova Scotia miners, frequently in dank tunnels stretching miles beneath  the Atlantic Ocean. Sweat from the miner’s brow has often been mingled with blood.

Here in Nova Scotia, we remember (emotionally) today, the miners who perished 50 Years ago on this day.  The coal miners of Springhill, Nova Scotia were “in the pit”  on October 23rd, 1958 when the “bump” or underground seismic event occurred. the “Springhill Bump” as it is known,  was actually the most serious mining disaster in North America mining history.  Three shock waves, each resembling small earth quakes occurred.  Draegermen (rescue miners) and barefaced (no breathing apparatus) miners descended to attempt to rescue the trapped miners and encountered deadly gas.  Of the 174 miners working in the #4 Colliery on that day, 100 were trapped and later rescued, and 74 were killed. This mining disaster was the first major international news story to be covered by live television broadcasts, capturing the horror, despair and pain as families and miners waited on the surface for days and weeks in hopes of seeing the trapped miners rescued.   The controversy about the indifference and irresponsibility of the mining company persists to this day.

It was not the first mining disaster in springhill.  In 1891, an horrific explosion in the #1 and 2 Collieries killed 125 miners and injured many others.  A second Springhill mining explosion occured in 1956, killing 39 men. We should remember them all as  we flick a light switch or use any electrical appliance…it is, afterall,  the coal that such miners sweat and toil to obtain (at great risk to their health and lives) which fuels the hydorelectric plants and generates our power.

I Am a ‘Person’

Eighty years ago today, women in Canada became “persons under the law”. Canadians Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Laura Crummy McKinney, Henrietta Muir Edwards, and Irene Parlby (know first as the Alberta Five, then the Famous Five), fought for the recognition of women as persons under the British North America Act. The ground breaking ‘Persons Case’ was brought before the supreme Court of Canada in 1927, and decided by the Judicial Council of Britain’s Privy Council in 1929, Canada’s highest court at the time. The Persons Case remains their most significant achievement, though the Famous Five dedicated their lives to improving their communities in immeasurable ways. They have come to represent an entire generation’s political activism, including an earlier national campaign for women’s suffrage. More recently, the Person’s Case has generated controversy. Some see the Famous Five as a symbol of women’s political rebellion and progress, and human rights in general. Others have criticized some members of the group as racist and elitist, somewhat tarnished by their connection to the  eugenics movement. Reaction to  the Famous Five have varied widely, but undoubtedly, they are recognized as significant figures in  the Canadian Women’s movement.  A bronze statue of the Five, entitled “Women are Persons!” was created by Edmonton artist, Barbara Paterson in 1999 and unveiled and dedicated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2000.