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Let them howl.

In Nothing Less! by ami

“History as its eyes on you…”

99 years ago today… 

On May 24, 1918, female Canadian citizens (not included under racial or Indigenous exclusions) aged 21 and over were awarded the right to vote in Federal elections. 

A hard-won victory, yes, but there was still much work to be done. 

We often abbreviate history into a series of sound bites, tantalizing lists, and anniversary dates. We see them flit through our social media feeds on a daily basis. We assign them appropriate emoticons, and move on.

I couldn’t let this date go by without writing a few words that I hope will illuminate the history of women’s suffrage in Canada in my own small way. You see, the cause wasn’t tied up with a pretty bow on a single day. May 24, 1918 was one date on the continuum of a decades long struggle.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that struggle as I’ve been immersed in the research and writing of “Nothing Less!”, a new play I’ve co-created with Ken Schwartz, artistic director of Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company. The play takes place in rural Nova Scotia in the spring of 1918, just before most women in this province were awarded the provincial vote. (The bill awarding most women the federal vote would come a month later.) The women in the play are united in their cause, but at odds as to how best to see things through. Some are passionate and impulsive, others are pragmatic and a bit world-weary. (Anyone who has ever been part of grass-roots activism knows the drill.) Above all else, they and their male allies are determined to make a difference. Great changes were happening in the world, (WWI was still raging overseas) and the future of this young country felt unsure, yet full of possibility.

1907 issue of Freyja, a suffragist monthly magazine published by/for the Icelandic immigrant population in Manitoba.

A long time in the making… 

The history of women’s suffrage in Canada is, in a word, complex. The movement as a whole was something of a hybrid of the efforts that were happening at the same time in the UK and the US. While the militant efforts of Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes may have been impressive, and the crowded marches in New York and Washington appealing, such grand actions weren’t necessarily feasible within Canada’s vast geographic terrain. Canadian women had to come up with tactics of their own.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first black woman publisher in North America, used the “Provincial Freeman” (published in Ontario form 1853-1857) as a platform for abolition, women’s rights and suffrage.

Never retract.

Canadian women saw suffrage as a way to effect change. Women at the forefront of education and healthcare reform eagerly embraced the cause. Women’s rights and social reform advocates who were striving to end poverty and violence against women and children also saw the benefit of women getting the vote. A patchwork of women’s organizations, (large and small) endorsing women’s suffrage quickly grew across the country in the late 19th century: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Council of Women, the Canadian Women’s Press Club (to which Nellie McClung belonged), the Women Grain Growers Association, the Toronto Women’s Literary Club, the Local Council of Women of Halifax, just to name a few.

The National Council of Women at Rideau Hall, 1898.

Get the thing done…

Their tactics were as diverse as the landscapes in which they lived.  They filed hundreds of petitions and lobbied for legislation. They held bake sales and published “suffrage cookbooks.” They gave lectures in parlours and on legislature steps. They wrote letters to the editor and published papers and tracts of their own. They wrote and performed “mock parliaments” and other forms of political theatre. Victories came in fits and starts, first by gaining the right to vote and hold seats on school boards and municipal councils, then by winning the provincial vote one province at a time. Manitoba (1916), Saskatchewan (1916), Alberta (1916), British Columbia (19 17), Ontario (1917), and Nova Scotia (1918) all awarded most women the vote ahead of the Federal mandate.

Canadian nurses (or “bluebirds”) voting during WWI.

Politics as usual? 

In 1917, Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, pushed both the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act through Parliament largely in an effort to gain support for conscription. The new laws gave military nurses and close female relatives of military men the right to vote. At the same time, these measures also disenfranchised immigrants from enemy countries who had become citizens after 1902, as well as conscientious objectors. Borden had promised leaders in the suffrage movement that giving women the franchise was a priority for his party, but many women saw these acts as mere political posturing, and remained skeptical that universal suffrage would come to pass any time soon.



All those opposed…

Opposition remained fierce in communities across Canada as well as within Parliament itself. When the 1918 federal bill was brought to the floor for debate, MP Jean-Joseph Denis argued: “I say that the Holy Scripture, theology, ancient philosophy, Christian philosophy, history, anatomy, physiology, political economy, and feminine psychology, all seem to indicate that the place of women in this world is not amid the strife of the political arena, but in her home.” 

(We pause now to let the expletives fly…#$%*&* *&&^%!!!)

Suffragists in Newfoundland, who gained provincial suffrage in 1925.

She persisted.

The 1918 bill was a victory, but it was far from perfect. It awarded women the Federal vote, but only so far as the property restrictions of each province allowed it. In Nova Scotia, that meant that if a man or woman didn’t own $150 worth of land (or personal property that counted as such, like fishing gear etc.) then you were out of luck. (This would change after 1920.) The 1918 Federal law also excluded Asian women and men, (until after WWII) and Indigenous women and men (until 1960.) These discriminatory exclusions are part of our history too, and should not be forgotten.

A Canadian contingent gathered in 1913 to join their US sisters in the ‘Women’s March on Washington” to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” – Nellie McClung

As I mark this day, I think of the rights our dear sisters of the past fought to win, and of the work that still needs to be done. I think of stories forgotten and those yet to be written. As Nellie would say:

Never retract, never explain, never apologize – get the thing done and let them howl!

People, places and things mentioned in this post:

Nothing Less! premieres this summer at The Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. Reserve your tickets today! 

More on the 1913 Women’s March on Washington via the fabulous Canadian organization, Women’s Suffrage and Beyond. 

For a more detailed overview of women’s suffrage in Canada visit the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Coming soon: more behind-the-scenes posts about Nothing Less! (The Nova Scotia suffrage movement, protest music past and present, rural suffragettes, and more.) 

Women’s March on Washington – Halifax 2017




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Ravens and riddles

In The Witches of New York, Uncategorized, Witchy Wednesday by ami

Odin’s Cove #25 from the amazing photographer Beth Moon.

I love ravens. A “conspiracy” of them dwells in the woods behind my house. When I stand on the balcony outside my writing studio in the loft of our barn, my “perch” puts me nearly eye to eye with them. I talk to them daily and delight in any squawk, chortle, tuck or caw the give in reply. They may not always respond, but they’re always watching.

It was inevitable that one of these intelligent, beautiful creatures would come to inhabit the pages of one of my novels. Enter, Perdu, the magical raven who lives with The Witches of New York. For fear of spoiling his part in the story, I won’t say much more about him here, but rather show you some of the things that inspired his character.

Grip the raven and Barnaby Rudge

Charles Dickens was also fascinated by ravens. During his writing career he had not one, not two, but three ravens in succession he called “Grip.” Grip the First apparently had quite a large vocabulary and was the inspiration for the raven of the same name that appeared in Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge. A letter to his friend George Cattermole in 1841 speaks to this: “my notion is to have (Barnaby) always in company with a pet raven, who is immeasurably more knowing than himself. To this end I have been studying my bird, and I think I could make a very queer character of him.” 

Grip the Second was dear to Dickens, but less so to his children. His daughter Mamie wrote that the bird was “mischievous and impudent.” Grip the Third was known to have regular stand offs with the family dog, a large mastiff who would back down and surrender its food to the bird.

It is the general belief of literary scholars that “Grip the Raven” from Barnaby Rudge in turn inspired Edgar Allan Poe to pen his famous poem, The Raven. Poe had reviewed a few of Dickens’ novels, including Barnaby Rudge and wrote that he found Grip to be “intensely amusing.”

A stuffed and mounted specimen of Dickens’ first beloved Grip (it once hung over the author’s desk) made its way to the U.S. sometime after 1870 and now resides in the Free Library in Philadelphia.

Grip the raven now resides in Philadelphia.

As for Perdu from The Witches of New York, he too has become a mythical figure that dwells in the imagination of more than one artist. The talented painter Holly Carr is a dear friend who is just as obsessed as I am with ravens. During the years that I was researching and writing Witches, she put together a show that featured several paintings with ravens. Her vivid, fantastical work captured my heart and I wound up keeping a small painting of one of her ravens on my desk as I wrote.

Perdu with a blue marble in his beak.

After the ARCs of the Canadian edition were finished, I gave Holly one as a gift. Because of our shared adoration for ravens and all things witchy, I couldn’t wait for her to “meet” Perdu. A few months later, just after Witches was released, she contributed several pieces to a new show at the Harvest Gallery in Wolfville, NS, called “WhichCraft.” Every piece featured ravens and magical items and one of them (my personal favourite) was simply titled: Perdu.

Perdu, by Holly Carr.

In addition to observing the real-life ravens that live behind my house, I watched online footage of trained ravens and read many accounts of human interaction with corvids. There’s loads of wonderful stuff out there concerning research with these amazing birds, but one of my favourite videos is this one. (I imagine Poe would’ve liked it too.)

Another online sensation I fell in love with while writing Witches was Merlina, one of ravens that lives at the Tower of London. Beautiful, bright and cheeky, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I freely admit that my descriptions of Perdu and his mannerisms are largely modelled after her. She and the rest of the Tower’s resident ravens are looked after by Yeoman Warder, Chris Skaife, the Ravenmaster, and I’m happy to say you can follow him, Merlina and the rest of the ravens via social media.

Merlina on Facebook, via the Ravenmaster, Chris Skaife.

But…Who is Perdu? 

If you’ve already read The Witches of New York you may have gotten to the end of the book and asked the above question. Again, I don’t want to give any spoilers. What I will say is this: the answer can be found in the pages of the book.

109-112 to be exact.

Ravens, people, places and things mentioned in this post:

Beth Moon Photography

More on Charles Dickens and Grip

Holly Carr, artist

The Ravenmaster on facebook

The Ravenmaster on Twitter 


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A picture is worth…

In The Witches of New York by ami

“An Evening of Clairvoyance” by Stephen Mackey

While working on a project, (whether a novel, play, or piece of non-fiction,) I surround myself with images that relate to the writing. This part of my process becomes especially important with historical fiction, since I’m striving to create a world that I hope readers will “experience” as they read the book.

With The Witches of New York, I wound up with loads of period photographs and illustrations that I pinned to the walls of my writing studio or kept on my laptop for inspiration. A few of the images even found their way onto a thumb drive that I carried with me during my recent cross-Canada book tour where I presented a digital version of a “Magic Lantern Show” during many of my readings. In fact, I had so much fun giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at my writing process, I’ve decided to share a few more of the images over the next few months in a series of blog posts relating to my research.

An Evening of Clairvoyance

First up is the image you see above, “An Evening of Clairvoyance” by the painter Stephen Mackey. I discovered Mackey’s work online a few years ago and instantly fell in love with the way he mixes a masterly painting technique with gothic or fairytale-esque subject matter. While I’d long been a fan of his fantastical paintings, “An Evening of Clairvoyance” (2015) absolutely blew me away. I’d already written much of Witches at that point, so when I saw the painting and how closely the woman resembled one of the three main characters in the novel (who happened to be a one-eyed witch,) I was absolutely gobsmacked. I even sent Mr. Mackey an email to let him know that I couldn’t help but think he’d somehow gained access to the wild imaginings of my brain.

“Your painting looks so much like I’ve imagined her, it’s amazing!”

I never heard back from Mr. Mackey, so I figured either I’d sent the message to an out-of-date email address or he’d made it a policy not to respond to writers who send wacky emails about shared imaginations and serendipity.

“La Tapada Limeña.” (A veiled woman of Lima.) It was popular for women in 19th century Lima to wear a veil with only one eye exposed.

Virginia Odoini 1866

I’d collected other images of 19th century women showing only one eye—the enchanting Las Tapadas Limeñas; Virginia Oldoini, the Countess of Castiglione being seductively cheeky—but it was Mr. Mackey’s painting that stayed with me as finished writing the novel. (So much so, that I included it in a blog post I wrote after I’d completed the final draft.)

A short while later, as I began working on the U.S. edition of Witches with the fabulous editor, Erin Wicks of Harper Perennial, she, too, expressed her affection for the painting, even commenting, “wouldn’t it make a great cover?”

Of course I agreed with her, but didn’t think it possible. I didn’t know how such things worked and didn’t want to bother Mr. Mackey any more than I already had. So I carried on with edits and promptly shelved the thought.

A couple months later, (while still dreaming of “An Evening of Clairvoyance”) I sent Erin the photograph of Virginia Oldoini, thinking she might find it interesting and possibly of some use for the design team at Harper. The Canadian and UK covers were already set and I’d been completely wowed by both, so I was excited to see what the designer in the US would come up with for the Harper Perennial edition.

Much to my surprise, I got the following response from Erin…

“I do have something to confess: we’ve already secured rights to the Stephen Mackey painting!”

My response to her was, of course, “WOW!” (I’m still pinching myself over the whole thing.)

And now for those of you who may not have already seen it…the cover of the Harper Perennial U.S. edition of The Witches of New York. (Due July 11, 2017 but available for pre-order now.)

The Witches of New York, US edition.

People, places and things mentioned in this post:

Stephen Mackey, artist.

The history of Tapada Limeña

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 

Pre-order the U.S. edition of The Witches of New York