Manitoba History: Book Review: Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Indigenous Women, Work and History

by Patricia Harms
Brandon University

Number 80, Spring 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Indigenous Women, Work and History, 1940-1980. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014, 336 pages. ISBN: 978-0-88755-738-5, $27.95 (paperback)

Within the Canadian imaginary, Aboriginal women occupy a rather distorted place. On the one hand, they exist within fur trade lore and legend, though their contributions to the economic foundation of this country are frequently ignored or misunderstood. In the contemporary period, Aboriginal women are generally identified within the story of decline that encompasses Aboriginal communities. Within either framework, they are perceived as anti-modern and inconsequential to modern Canada, or identified within a locus of social problems that must be addressed. Indigenous Women, Work and History by Mary Jane Logan McCallum seeks to move Aboriginal women outside of these static and essentially inaccurate identities to uncover their participation within the 20th century economy.

Situating her study on the boundaries of Canada’s colonial past and the modern period, McCallum explores several critical and complex historical realities. Historians have been generally unwilling to acknowledge the role that colonialism played and continues to play in the lives of Aboriginal women. Believing its destructive impact is in the past, historians, McCallum argues, have created a false dichotomy between the colonial and modern period as two distinct projects. Instead, as she demonstrates, colonialism continued for Aboriginal women, as the state dictated education options, determined places of employment, and attempted to control women’s labour practices. Placing Aboriginal women at the center of the story, this work seeks to understand how women adapted, resisted, and strategized within the parameters of modern Canada.

McCallum has structured the book both thematically and chronologically. The first chapter, “Sweeping the Nation,” focuses on the role of domestic labour, arguing that some 36 to 57 percent of Aboriginal women participated in the domestic service labour market between 1920 and 1940. One of the gems of this chapter is how the author connects education available to Aboriginal women with the type of labour they were offered. Here she emphasizes that the meaning of traditional domestic labor was transformed by policy makers during the 20th century. Aboriginal women have historically engaged in a wide sphere of “domestic” work that included caring for children, gathering and preparing food, as well as making clothing, moccasins and snowshoes, cleaning and dressing furs, and canoe construction. Women were also essential within the fur trade, acting as guides, interpreters, and diplomats in trade. Despite the continuation of these tasks throughout the 20th century, these domestic chores become “pathologized” (McCallum’s word), and “the assimilation of Indigenous women to Euro-Canadian standards became a priority” (p. 23). The most visible effect of this policy is the emphasis within the federally-run residential schools on a curriculum designed specifically to educate girls and young women to the indoor domestic sphere. Given the fact that more than 60 percent of Aboriginal children attended the residential school system, a significant number of Aboriginal women were educated solely for the purpose of domesticity.

The second chapter, “The Permanent Solution,” focuses on the creation of the Indian Placement and Relocation Program. Using hairdressing as a lens through which to understand how gender was implicated in Indian policy in the mid-20th century, McCallum adeptly demonstrates the ways in which Indian Affairs attempted to control Aboriginal labour. Initiated in 1957, the Placement Program, McCallum argues, was part of a larger federal system designed to move Aboriginal people from the reserves to urban centers as part of an enfranchisement policy. “The idea was that, through permanent full-time employment, Indians would take a place in a laboring citizenry and serve the state, the city, and industry. The goal was…to integrate a class of working Indians into an idealized working-class culture of the department’s imagination” (p. 77).

The third and fourth chapters emphasize how Aboriginal women joined and then shaped healthcare, both within urban and reserve communities. During the early 1960s, new attempts at promoting Indigenous health were developed, including the development of health care promoters called Community Health Representatives. Despite some positive outcomes for both those Aboriginal women hired as medical promoters and the communities, McCallum argues that this program continued the legacy of colonialism. While it was designed to address health concerns within Aboriginal populations, it continued to ignore the root causes of poor health, such as poverty and colonial policy. Furthermore, these promoters were given neither the necessary resources nor adequate pay for their work. This Band-Aid approach to historical inequality and its racialized structure led directly to a new activism from within these ranks. In Chapter Four McCallum explores the creation and early years of the Registered Nurses of Canadian Indian Ancestry (RNCIA), initiated in 1975. Born within a broader movement for self-determination, this association became a site for political activism. Despite struggles from within and without, the author demonstrates how this association has become one of the most effective advocates for Aboriginal communities and their concerns. “By the 1980s, Aboriginal nurses across the country had articulated how nursing work by Aboriginal people could affect self-determination and had made the nursing profession responsible for shouldering in part the enormous responsibilities of decolonizing health care in Canada” (p. 224).

This deeply important work is not intended to create a comprehensive history of women and labour, but rather “is meant to challenge historians and others to think about twentieth-century Aboriginal women’s history in new ways and open new avenues for further scholarship in these and other ways Aboriginal women worked and lived” (p. 20). McCallum’s research focuses on women who are Registered Indians in continental, southern, Englishspeaking Canada. Most of the women were younger adults; most were funded or placed by Indian Affairs and declared themselves of Indian ancestry. Therefore, as the author acknowledges, this study is dependent upon a colonial system of identification that aimed to integrate, segregate, or penalize Aboriginal people. Many women, for a variety of reasons and in many ways, eluded avoided, and/or resisted this system (p. 14). Despite these limitations, this pioneering study is a critical development in restoring histories so long absent from mainstream history.

This book will be of interest to those in labour studies, Aboriginal and women’s histories, and even the medical field. Within the many contributions this study makes, one of the most critical issues that McCallum raises are the questions of Aboriginal identity, inclusion, and participation within the modern economy. She suggests that while Aboriginal women eagerly entered the labour force, it is our own discomfort with their participation that has obscured this historic reality. In other words, it has remained easier to assume they were not present within the contemporary economy rather than understand the complexity of a colonial system that continued to marginalize their efforts. This discomfort comes from our own complex relationship with both the people within this study and with the broader conclusion that Canada is a colonizing entity. In other words, Aboriginal women’s invisibility within the work force was not their inability to engage with modernity, but rather mainstream Canada’s inability and unwillingness to acknowledge their historically rich economic contributions and their potential for the future.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 July 2020