Sassy, smart, and subversive: this was She Named It Canada (SNIC), an early comic book or ‘graphic novel’ published in 1971 by the aptly-named Corrective Collective, a Vancouver-based feminist group dedicated to re-writing Canadian history for a popular audience. The Corrective Collective members included Karen Cameron, Colette French, Andrea Lebowitz, Barbara Todd, Cathy Walker, Dodie Weppler, Marge Hollibaugh, and Pat Hoffer: five of the women (Andrea, Barb, Marge, Pat, and Colette) continued on after SNIC, producing another iconic ‘herstory’ text of second wave feminism, Never Done: Three Centuries of Women’s Work in Canada.

The Corrective Collective women were already active in other feminist work, including the Vancouver Women’s Caucus, which was involved in publishing The Pedestal, a women’s liberation newspaper produced in the same city. However, the idea for SNIC originally germinated in response to the upcoming visit of American and Indochinese women to Vancouver for an anti-Viet Nam war conference, purposely staged in Canada as a more accessible, neutral zone for women from the two warring nations. Canadian feminists, who had attended a pre-conference organizing session in Portland, Oregon, were amazed at how little their American sisters knew about their Canadian neighbours to the north: some Americans seemed oblivious to minor things like a different currency, let alone major issues like a different political culture and history. As Judy Tzu-Chun Wu notes in her book, Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism and Feminism During the Vietnam Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), Canadian organizers returned home cognizant of the need to ‘educate their sisters and curb their sense of entitlement’ (237). The Canadian women resolved to create a popular introduction to Canadian history for conference participants who knew nothing about Canada.

The research, writing, and illustrations came together in a remarkably short space of time. Members of the Corrective Collective remember regular meetings where ideas were shared and the storyline was worked out, though five women took a leading role in the research, writing, and conceptualization. The illustrator, Colette French, an artist educated at Toronto’s Central Tech’s art program, who then taught art, managed art stores, and produced her own work, was not an ‘add on’ but was integrated into the planning and execution of SNIC from the beginning. SNIC was printed at Press Gang, a cooperative, left-wing press in Vancouver, but was then was picked up by Toronto’s James Lewis and Samuel Publishers for distribution, though the Corrective Collective, unhappy with them, also did its own promotion. SNIC went through four editions, circulated through radical circles, and was used in some high schools: 16,000 copies were sold, a remarkable achievement for this kind of alternative, radical publication.

Two themes shaped the narrative of SNIC. First, it traces the changing forces of economic development and political rule from above, including the empires shaping Canada (from France to Britain to the U.S.), and the changing ruling class, from ‘compact families’ and the Chateau Clique in the nineteenth century to the twentieth-century military industrial complex. The close connections between political and economic power, the entrenched male power of the Church, (especially in Quebec), and imperialist wars are all documented. Second, the day-to-day survival of working people, and the creation of opposition from ‘below’ are detailed, stretching from the resistance of the early fur trade coureur des bois through to demands staged by working-class, poor, union, and farm peoples in the modern era. At the time the Corrective Collective created SNIC, there was very little women’s history written; the authors drew on socialist, Marxist,and radical texts but attempted to integrate information on women wherever they could, always noting women’s indispensable paid and unpaid labour and their role in popular resistance. The comic book reflects the ideals and concerns of the women’s movement of the time – mobilizing the working class, recognizing revolutionary traditions, opposing American imperialism and war, and organizing against poverty – yet many of their historical observations stand up remarkably well over time.

While the issues discussed were serious, the treatment was humourous: ironic editorializing, plays on historical terminology, and illustrations that gently mocked historical events or personalities were used to create an alternative story of Canadian development. The model, remembered one person involved, was other ‘peoples histories,’ including a ‘peoples history of Cuba’ printed in the U.S. As Cathy Walker said in an interview with the Montreal Gazette, it was ‘a people’s history of Canada, with a basically socialist slant.’

The Corrective Collective worked against all odds to prepare the comic in time for the conference. The American author of Radicals on the Road claimed it was not done in time but circulated later through radical circles. In fact, the Corrective Collective remembers it differently: it was done at the last minute, ready to distribute on the very last day of the conference. A different American and Canadian version of women’s history may still be relevant in our own time.

Joan Sangster,
Vanier Professor, Trent University

President, Canadian Historical Association/Société historique du Canada

 

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