Politics of the ordinary important to our history
THE history of Manitoba can be found in the library, within dusty textbooks in dimly lit rows where students spend desperate, caffeine-fuelled afternoons researching the Red River Rebellion, the Winnipeg General Strike and the importance of an eagle feather, on a legislature desk, that killed the Meech Lake Accord.
These are part of the official history of how a province and a city grew.
But there’s an unofficial history to this province and it’s one that the Archives of Manitoba is interested in preserving, as well. It’s that unofficial history that can be found in basements and attics, in garages and in long-forgotten stashes. It’s the everyday history of Manitobans that often gets thrown in the garbage, but could contain interesting insights into the cultural and societal changes of the city and the province as it grew.
Doreen Pruden came across a treasure trove of unofficial history in June when she was clearing out a basement. She discovered binders of meeting minutes from 1951 to 1972. Binders that contained the minutes of a club called the River Circle.
As she describes it, the River Circle began in the late 1940s, when a new suburb was constructed in St. James along the Assiniboine River. This was the beginning of the baby boom, as men had returned home from the Second World War and women were staying in these newly built homes, enjoying enormous prosperity — at least compared to previous generations.
These women, according to Pruden, formed a club to meet occasionally, get away from family obligations and take on various projects. And they documented those meetings with great care in meticulous typewritten and sometimes handwritten records.
I had a chance to read those records which provided a bird’s-eye view of the small “p” politics — the politics of the everyday — in which these women were involved. They offer insight into the cultural changes that unfolded in Winnipeg during the 20-year period they document. These were significant changes that signalled a new way of looking at work, at society and the world.
For example, the minutes from a tour of the Great-West Life building in January 1964 read: “Most of us were left in a complete daze at the workings of numerous intricate IBM machines, card indexes, filing systems, etc., but could understand clearly where all our premium money is going after being shown through the executive offices.” Perhaps some things don’t change, but the sense that Great-West Life was on the cusp of changing the way work was imagined was very real and daunting.
The minutes also reflected the changing social environment. On Jan. 27, 1970, the River Circle members were polled to see “how they felt about housing and subsidies for unmarried mothers who wished to keep their babies. At present, the Home for Girls is supported by the Anglican United Churches and the United Way. Our members felt this was a forward step in social services.”
The River Circle also participated in international efforts in the midst of the Angolan independence movement, with its war of independence from
1961 to 1974. Tucked in the binders was a yellowed 1977 clipping from the Winnipeg Free Press, about a local missionary who had been released from a jail in Angola after spending three months there without being charged. Digging deeper, it turns out this was Edith Radley, a medical missionary the River Circle had been supporting for years. In 1962, Radley had contacted the Circle hoping for donations to help buy a motorbike to be used by a district nurse to travel within the community in rural Angola.
There were also detailed notes in the minutes of the contents of Radley’s Christmas package. In 1953, the group sent fruitcake and white cake mix, pajamas, shampoo, baby powder, soap, gum, candy, bobby pins, ankle socks and glace cherries, among other things.
Pruden wasn’t sure what to do with these bits and pieces of the unofficial history of Manitoba; the small “p” politics of the ordinary, which seem so mundane but, taken as a whole, are significant and important. So she reached out to the Archives of Manitoba, hoping they would be interested in these records — and boy, were they ever.
Julianna Trivers, who is an archivist for Government and Private Sector Archives, was very impressed with these minutes. “It is rare to see an organization that was so careful about documenting their meetings — for an informal group, it was really neat.”
Trivers says the Archives of Manitoba works with all Manitobans to ensure that our history is preserved. If you think you have something you want to donate, you can contact them to set up an appointment to speak with an archivist.
As for the River Circle, the Archives have now taken the minutes and are in the process of conserving them as necessary. They will then catalogue the records and eventually they will become part of an online database so others can access them and read more about a little group of women who didn’t set out to change the world, but just change their world — one street at a time — and in the process becoming part of Manitoba history.