Pioneer Ladies [of the evening]: Remembering women on the margins in Western Canada, 1878-1916

Take a peak at the Alberta incarnation of the exhibit here in CTV’s coverage of the show!


Who do we remember in the history of Canada and why? The old saying that “history is written by the victors” reminds us that power shapes the way we see the past. The saints of Western Canadian popular history, European “pioneers,” are still depicted as Canada’s founders and unceasing cause. They receive almost endless tributes in parks, street names, school projects, heritage villages, and museum exhibits. Yet, such depictions obscure the complexity of settler populations in Canada, including their close (and ongoing) ties to colonialism, crime, and violence. As Lesley Erickson reminds us, beyond livestock theft, White settlers accounted for more than 80% of all recorded crimes committed in the Northwest Territories (now Western Canada) between 1878 and 1885.[1]

Through monuments we continuously encounter certain versions of history in everyday life. Their mission is to transmit historical values into the present by encouraging us to form emotional ties to the faces they portray; brave White pioneers, dead soldiers, frumpy Prime Ministers, fearless “explorers.” Monuments make hierarchies of human value. By their very nature they also tell us whose histories we should forget and which people have no historical or emotional value in the national story. In Winnipeg, still erect beside the Manitoba Museum stands the “Volunteer Tower” that commemorates the White soldiers who died fighting Métis and First Nations forces under Louis Riel in 1885. On East Hastings in Vancouver, “ground zero for missing and murdered women” in Canada, one of the largest, well-maintained monuments to the loss of human life is devoted to World War Two soldiers. Far from simply remembering the past, monuments create histories and presents where the valuing of certain categories of human life over others appears natural, inevitable, and even traditional. As scholars of genocide, memory, and colonialism have well illustrated, dehumanization and dehistoricization (the writing of people out of the history books) go hand and hand.

Using historical research and rare photographs from the Winnipeg Police Museum, this exhibit explores the challenges that criminalized women pose to our understanding of history and heroism in the Canadian West. The fixation with noble settler-pioneers in Canadian heritage campaigns contributes to the amnesia surrounding violence against women on the margins in the past century. Thousands of women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since 1912, with high concentrations of violence against impoverished and Aboriginal women. In Canada, as activists have well-illustrated, the deaths and disappearances of these women have long been dismissed and normalized through profiling by officials and perpetrators alike using ideas about race, gender, “at-risk” lifestyles, family “troubles,” tragic “romance” or criminal involvement. Also missing has been an understanding of the historical gravity of this ongoing period in Canadian history in which the conditions for mass violence against certain populations endure and thrive often without punishment or intervention.

Resituating these arresting images of our regional ancestors at the centre of our historical attention, this exhibit responds to popular portrayals of the “inevitability” or naturalness of the victimization of women on the margins using the pioneer figure or trope. Here, alongside biographies of lady pornographers, brothel-business leaders, and broomstick-wielding vigilantes are other “traditions” and chapters in the history of women in the Canadian West. Here criminalization was not a permanent feature. Here police officers continually defended the tradition of safer red light districts. Here the “red blooded men” of Western Canada were renowned throughout the continent for their “tenderness and courtesy” towards sex trade workers. Here ambitious but impoverished women forged their own way in life in spite of discriminatory legislation that attempted to restrict their movement and livelihoods. In this exhibition and in new histories of the West, women on the margins are honoured for their ambition and resistance to racist and sexist systems of inequality.

Focusing on these women’s compelling use of fashion and notions of portraiture in their sometimes-defiant confrontation with the police cameras that “captured” their image, this exhibit profiles a different “famous five.” It joins historical scholarship that promotes a new critical tradition in which women on the margins receive the same legal, social, and historic consideration as historical elites honoured in marble, limestone and bronze. More than simple shots of captivity, these images are about the possibilities we inherit when we honour the complex but remarkable lives and histories of marginalized women.

Click HERE for more images from the show

See Uptown’s review of the show and discussion panel featuring Deborah Cumby, Rhonda Hinther, and Shawna Ferris here.

Kind thanks to: Christine, Laurence and Stephen Bertram, Caitlin Brown, Derek Dunlop, Holly Kariboo, Debby Cumby, Shawna Dempsy, Dalnavert, Maya Fontaine, George and Helga Gerrard, Nelson Gerrard, Katla Guðmundsdóttir, David Guillas, Rhonda Hinther, Margot Keith, Labworks, Andrea Ladouceur, Lisa May, Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, Joanne McFadden, Kegan McFadden, Rakel McMahon, The Manitoba Museum, Mandy Malazdrewich, The Núnanow curatorial committee, Platform Gallery, The Strathclair Museum, Roland Sawatzky, Jack Templeman and The Winnipeg Police Museum.

[1] Lesley Erickson, Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011, 45.

Pioneer Ladies [of the evening] opens Friday, May 4, 2012 at PLATFORM Gallery in Winnipeg following a lecture on mugshots and shadow archives at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA). The exhibit travels to the University of Alberta in Edmonton in September 2012.

Image: Winnipeg Madam, 1904, Winnipeg Police Museum Archive.