Sojourning Sisters: The Lives and Letters of Jessie and Annie McQueen
November 4, 2013
Review By Suzanne Morton
JEAN BARMAN’S Soujourning Sisters is an important book that merits a wide audience, consisting of both those interested specifically in British Columbia and those interested in Canadian history writ large. It recasts the notion of nation-building and draws the spotlight away from politicians and business elite to focus it on ordinary people. Using rich and textured sources, Barman follows the lives and letters of two sisters who leave Nova Scotia in 1887-88 for the improved economic prospects offered by teaching posts in British Columbia. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 linked the interior of British Columbia and rural Pictou County in Nova Scotia, and created the opportunity for two young female sojourners to leave their family homestead yet still maintain a connection to it. While their actions were prompted by particular economic difficulties, their departure, and the exodus of other young women in similar strained circumstances, played a role in Canadian nation-building as local schools brought British Columbia into the Canadian nation in an immediate and direct way.
Barman argues that the disproportionate number of schoolteachers (and ministers) from Nova Scotia shaped British Columbia and, as a result, Canada. In placing teachers (and clergy) at the heart of nation building, Barman emphasizes the important role of church and school in incorporating British Columbia into the Canadian nation. She argues that “British Columbia’s absorption into Canada in the years following the completion of the transcontinental railway derived far more from inconspicuous women like Jessie and Annie McQueen than it did from the public pronouncements of fellow Nova Scotians like George Munro Grant” (129). Women such as Annie and Jessie McQueen gave a new nation its meaning.
As Scottish Presbyterians from Pictou County, the McQueen sisters came from a culture that emphasized literacy, religion, responsibility, and domesticity. Compared to the world they would enter in British Columbia, their world in Pictou County was “homogeneous and self-referential” (16), and some of the most striking aspects of Soujourning Sisters are Barman’s discussions of their encounter with “the other” – whether Aboriginal peoples or the frontier. As Barman regularly reminds us, Annie and Jessie took their cultural baggage with them. Jessie eventually returned to Pictou County to care for an aging parent and a sister; Annie, however, stayed in British Columbia, married, had three children, was widowed, gradually entered public fife as a reformer, and, in 1919, became the provincial director of the Homes Branch of the Soldiers’ Settlement Board.
The McQueen sisters give us a sense of the ties that reached across the new nation. People and goods travelled back and forth; lilac blooms for a wedding came from Saint John, cloth that was cheaper in the East than in the West was available locally, and used newspapers and magazines kept sojourners connected to Eastern events and people. People also moved back and forth with surprising frequency, and the McQueens’ British Columbia included cousins, old neighbours, clergy, and a niece. In the McQueen family, money flowed east as the BC teachers’ salaries helped support those in Pictou County. Barman con-standy emphasizes the enduring strength of a daughter’s obligations, which did not easily weaken, great distance and time notwithstanding. These filial bonds were cemented with guilt, duty, and respectability, and they were balanced by effusive expressions of affection.
It is not surprising that, as a Nova Scotian historian (who is also using many of the same letters for her own research), I would urge Barman to broaden the perspective of her conclusions. If schoolteachers such as Annie and Jessie McQueen helped absorb (or incorporate) British Columbia into Canada, then it is also important to note that the experience of going west also contributed to making these Nova Scotian women Canadian. In the end, I am intrigued, but perhaps not completely convinced, by the central argument. I remain sceptical about the ultimate influence of these Nova Scotian female teachers, as British Columbia’s domi-nantiy male, secular, and heterogenous culture appears to be the antithesis of the society from which these women came. It is not clear that British Columbia ever came close to conforming to the vision of Canada that these women carried, and both of them appear to be transformed by British Columbia at least as much as they may have transformed it. This reservation notwithstanding, Sojourning Sisters is a magnificent piece of historical interpretation and storytelling. Barman has original insights into British Columbia and the process of nation-building, and she skilfully translates the lives of Annie and Jessie McQueen into stories of nation builders.