David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

What Should We Remember of Our History?

Brandon Sun, July 16, 2018 – David McConkey

The past can be viewed as an on-going panorama, of which we glimpse but a few scenes. Not only is history on-going, but also the way that we see history is itself ever changing.

During the 100-year anniversary of the First World War, we have become more aware of that part of our history. There have been special exhibits at local museums and galleries. There are new memorials along Victoria Ave. between 10th and 11th streets. There is a new commemoration of Brandon’s war dead at the Armoury. And there is a new plaque at the site of the 1914-16 internment camp at 10th and Victoria. These community initiatives invite us to pause, learn and reflect on war – especially the Great War.

With any big event, we can pay attention to only some things. But I would like to draw attention to an often over-looked point of historical significance about our region and the First World War. Four of the most prominent social justice activists in Canada during that time happened to have come from Westman. These activists campaigned for women’s rights; they also wrestled with the morality of the war itself. They played important roles in discussing the big questions of their time and in Manitoba becoming, in 1916, the first province where women won the right to vote.

Who were they? They were the journalist and novelist sisters Francis Marion Beynon and Lillian Beynon Thomas, who grew up near Hartney; author and activist Nellie McLung, who grew up near Wawanesa; and clergyman and politician James S. Woodsworth, who grew up in Brandon. They were born in the 1870s or ‘80s. By the early 1900s, they all were living and working in Winnipeg.

Soon after the Great War broke out, McLung wrote about women, men and war in her book, In Times Like These. With her forceful language – spiced with McLung wit – she placed the blame for war squarely on men.

“Away back in the cave-dwelling days,” McClung wrote, “there was a simple and definite distribution of labour. Men fought and women worked. Men fought because they liked it; and women worked because it had to be done.”  

McClung described the sight at Manitoba train stations as men were going off to war. Men were happy, embracing the adventure. But they were abandoning their children, leaving their wives “crying bitterly.”

“War is a crime committed by men,” McClung concluded. But wars could be stopped if women had a say – and had a vote. Later, McLung adopted a more conventional understanding. War in general might be wrong; but this particular war was necessary, even a noble endeavour.

The other three remained critical of the war. Eventually they had to leave their jobs because of their views. Beynon and Thomas even chose to move to the United States.

Differing positions on the war created tension among them, especially between Beynon and McClung during the conscription debate of 1917. Beynon argued that no more Canadian lives should be sacrificed until Britain renounced its imperialist aims. McClung wanted Canadian men to be drafted to support those already in the trenches – like her own son, Jack.

We in Westman should remember these four activists of a century ago. They were talented writers, public speakers and political organizers. They marshalled not only facts, but also imagination and humour. They challenged prevailing assumptions, even when it was uncomfortable and unpopular to do so. They invited their fellow citizens to envision radical social change – like women’s suffrage – as a reality.   

How might we remember these Canadian leaders in social justice who had local roots? We could take a leaf from Winnipeg. There is a small park honouring McClung and a plaque about Thomas in the city’s West End. The provincial government Woodsworth Building is near the Manitoba Legislative Building.

For right now, though, I will visit a bit of the past with another historical walking tour. You can join me this weekend with Doors Open Brandon. The one-kilometre, one-hour stroll in the Brandon Cemetery will recall stories of individuals caught up in the Great War. Information is available at heritagebrandon.ca.

History is composed of a multitude of happenings; by necessity we can remember only a few of them. But what we choose to remember helps determine how we see the past, how we understand the present, and how we may act in the future.

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See also: 

Reflections on the Great War

Early Feminists Dreamed of a World Free of Alcohol, Drugs and War

Remembering Nellie McClung

Brandon's Messenger of Peace: J.S. Woodsworth

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Lessons from the Election of December 1917



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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