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nellie

Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray. Penguin Canada, 2008.

Charlotte Gray’s biography of Nellie McClung belongs to the Extraordinary Canadians series. Edited by John Ralston Saul, the series of more than a dozen titles covers a wide range of Canadians, from politicians such as Trudeau and Tommy Douglas to artists such as Emily Carr and writer L. M. Montgomery. Each title is written by an accomplished Canadian writer.

Rather than just reciting the details of McClung’s life, Gray does a good job of putting her achievements into the context of her era. Truly, Nellie McClung led an extraordinary life for a woman of her time, and indeed, any time. Born in Ontario in 1873, she moved to Manitoba with her family at the age of seven. In a day far removed from our modern world of convenient travel, they carried their entire household of belongings with them, using two slow-moving oxen carts to complete the final 200 kilometres of their journey. The family, with their five children, arrived just in time to settle into a remote, small, drafty cabin before the onslaught of the prairie winter. It was a few years before a school was built close enough to allow Nellie to begin her education and she learned to read at the age of ten.

From these difficult circumstances, Nellie went on to become a teacher herself and married a young pharmacist. Together, they raised a family of five children, first in a small Manitoba town, and later in Winnipeg and Edmonton. Nellie’s mother-in-law, who with her “fearless, radical” mind was so very different from Nellie’s own conservative, conventional mother, no doubt played an important role in helping Nellie to find her voice.

As a young woman, Nellie joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. First established in the United States in 1874, it spread rapidly through Canada because drunkenness was a serious problem everywhere. We tend to dismiss the notion of prohibition now as the ideal of over-zealous religious types. But in 19th-century North America, a time when people lived hard, difficult lives and men often drank freely in public, alcohol presented a threat to wives and children, who had no protection from abusive husbands and fathers under the law. Prohibition ultimately changed societal mores before it was repealed.

It is hard to even imagine now the complete lack of status women held a century ago. An unmarried woman remained with her father or brother. If a woman was trapped in an unhappy marriage, she was a failure. If she left her husband, she had no right to her children or a share in their joint estate. Sons inherited land. Daughters did not. The temperance movement offered women a vehicle for change in a time when much of society could not even imagine women voting.

Nellie became an inspiring speaker and through her writing and speaking engagements, played a significant role in the first wave of Canadian feminism. The three prairie provinces were the first to grant women the vote in 1916. Ontario and British Columbia, and the federal government followed a year later, with the remaining provinces gradually following their lead. However, even after the vote was won, women were barred from the Senate because they were not “persons” under the law. Nellie and the Famous Five succeeded in their quest to change that in 1929.

Charlotte Gray’s biography is a lively presentation of Nellie’s life and accomplishments, and well worth reading. Gray wonders how Nellie came to be so different from her more conventional family, what drove her, what made her the determined campaigner she was. Gray offers no clear answer, but makes Nellie come alive for a new generation who enjoy the fruit of her achievements.

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victoria1

The Spencerville Mill Foundation has produced an excellent guide to a walking tour of Spencerville. Many town buildings have an interesting history. I found the background behind two former hotels of particular note. The building above, now a private home, was once the Victoria Hotel. The guide offers this entry about the Victoria Hotel:

Originally constructed by David Spencer in 1837 the Victoria Hotel provided accommodation, food and drink to travelers. The hotel boasted an upstairs ballroom and a secret passageway to a store of liquor in defiance of the 1878 Temperance Act. In the late 1800s it became a private home and the ballroom was converted into seven bedrooms. The home has changed hands several times and undergone many interior renovations to modernize and enhance the oldest stone building in the village.

Secret passageway! Cool! The temperance movement in Upper Canada began in the first half of the 19th-century. By 1851, the region had a large membership in the Sons of Temperance organization. On June 21, 1854, there was a public excursion on the new Prescott-Bytown (Ottawa) railroad from Prescott to Spencerville by the Sons of Temperance. This archival report of the outing and other details of the local temperance movement was reprinted in the Prescott Journal.

The following is from a report in the Prescott Telegraph: “At 9 am many Prescott and Ogdensburg people left Prescott on a train hauled by the Oxford, of which R.C. Graves was conductor and John Lufkin engineer. The ladies had busied themselves the previous day with the result that the Oxford was almost hidden under wreaths of flowers. On the forward part of the engine was a particularly handsome wreath with the words ‘Ladies’ Interest’.

“In the centre and directly above it was a pair of antlers, highly ornamental and surmounted by a crown. The Union Jack, Stars and Stripes, Temperance banners and bunting floated from the different cars. After a run of about 30 minutes Spencerville was reached… At five o’clock (after a day of celebration under the Sons of Temperance banners) the whistle of the Oxford sounded for the return trip, and Prescott was reached in satisfactory time.”

victoria2

The Canada Temperance Act of 1878 gave local governments the right to prohibit the retail sales of alcohol. It wasn’t until World War I that the temperance movement reached its peak. In 1915 and 1916, all provinces of Canada except Quebec banned the retail sale of alcohol (Quebec banned the sale of distilled liquor briefly from 1919). Most provincial legislation was abandoned during the 1920s. As prohibition continued in the U.S. into the 1930s, Canadian liquor interests found a large, illegal market for their product.

Prohibition must have been a sticky issue in the region as the town of Prescott was home to the J. P. Wiser distillery, which contributed significantly to the town’s economic well-being. In fact, in 1858-59, there were 4 distilleries in Prescott, as well as beer brewers.

Just down the street from the Victoria Hotel was the Exchange Hotel, of which the guide notes:

In the mid 1800s the Exchange Hotel and Stagehouse for Bytown (Ottawa) and Prescott was considered a comfortable house with livery service. Ten years later, under new ownership, it was renamed The Temperance Hotel. Prior to the 1960s, the post office was located here.

Presumably, the Exchange Hotel offered alternative accomodations to those sympathetic to prohibition who might not have wished to stay at the Victoria Hotel. The old Exchange Hotel building is pictured below.

exchange2

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