No Laughing Matter: Adventure, Activism and Politics
November 4, 2013
Review By Anne Edwards
For some readers, Margaret Mitchell’s title will bring to mind a turning point in Canadian feminists’ struggle for women’s equality: an outrageous uproar of male shouting and laughing when Mitchell, MP for Vancouver East, told the House of Commons that “one in ten Canadian husbands beat their wives regularly.” She was reporting only one of the findings of a parliamentary committee that had heard input across the country for months. The furor cost the Speaker a major effort to calm the House and amused mostly male MPs until the evening, when the incident topped the national news. The video clip itself became part of a nationwide campaign to protect women from spousal abuse, and it brought Mitchell nationwide recognition. An NDP MP for fourteen years, Mitchell was a devoted supporter of equality for women. When women formed the Ad Hoc Committee that forced the entrenchment of women’s equality in the Charter of Rights in 1982, she loaned them her assistant, her phone, and her office. Both incidents typify her dedication as a politician, although that career takes up only one part of her life and book.
Her memoir begins in small-town Ontario, where she was born and raised, follows her to Japan and Korea, to Vancouver, then to Vienna, and back to Vancouver (all this before she became involved in politics). She also tells of her life after retirement, when she travelled extensively. Mitchell’s adventurous spirit first prompted her to get a social work degree in Toronto, the training that landed her a job with the Canadian Red Cross (CRC), which involved working with Commonwealth troops serving in Korea. On travels in the South Pacific, she met her future husband before going to Vancouver to do what was then called “group work” rather than “case work.” It was the dawn of community development in Vancouver, and Mitchell returned there after having another stint with the crc in Vienna, working with Hungarian refugees, and getting married and having a motorcycle honeymoon in Europe.
At the age of thirty-two, Mitchell suffered ovarian cancer, which meant that she could have no children; however, she returned to her social work with enthusiasm. One of the rewards of her book is reading her description of how she learned community development by activating individuals, of how communities can be motivated into action in order to get better housing, schools, playgrounds, and other amenities that too often escape the poor and dependent. Mitchell was central to the work done in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and she credits her acquaintances and experiences there with her successful run for Parliament in 1979. As an MP, she continued to encourage people to help themselves by pushing for the creation of environments within which they could work. She refers to herself as someone who is “usually an indirect facilitator.”
Mitchell’s story is ordinary in that she comes from a middle-class family and marries a man from a working-class family: no putting on airs. She is direct about the fact that her husband’s showy personality did not always mesh with her quieter manner, but they had a reciprocally loving marriage. She was fortunate to have many nieces and nephews to nurture, and her sense of humour shows through in many occasional details.
Her ordinary background belies her achievements both as an activist and as a politician. She reports that Harold Winch, a long-time member of the CCF-NDP and CCF-NDP leader in British Columbia, once told her, “Never be humble.” While she found that advice impossible to follow, she wisely eschews any false humility in her memoir, and readers will enjoy her satisfaction as she relates her accomplishments in working for the disadvantaged not only in Vancouver but also across the country.
All proceeds of the book will go to the Margaret Mitchell Fund for Women, which she founded with the money that accumulated when she opposed an MP pay raise that was nevertheless approved by Parliament. Women who live in Mitchell’s former riding, Vancouver East, can apply for scholarships and self-help programs. Because Mitchell self-published this book, it is not in all bookstores, but it is available at www.granvilleislandpublishing.com.