Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I’m so honoured and proud to announce that my most recent book, A Radiant Life: The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk Scientist, Sports Icon and Stateswoman (University of Regina Press) was both nominated for, and won, the 2021 Saskatchewan Book Award USask President’s Award for Non-Fiction. My biggest thanks to the Saskatchewan Book Awards and to the three judges in my awards category: Anne Budgell, Annahid Dashtgard, and Ariel Gordon.

The other nominees are luminous, with critically important and/or really fun books:

Genocidal Love: A Life After Residential School (University of Regina Press) by Bevann Fox.
Flat Out Delicious: Your Definitive Guide to Saskatchewan’s Food Artisans (Touchwood Editions), by Jenn
Sharp (photography by Richard Marjan).
Loss of Indigenous Eden: and the Fall of Spirituality (University of Regina Press) by Blair Stonechild.
In Search of Almighty Voice: Resistance and Reconciliation (Fifth House Publishers) by Bill Waiser.

If you’re so inclined, and didn’t get a chance, I recommend that you take the time to watch the two videos created by the Saskatchewan Book Awards for the event. The first is the video for the shortlist, so you can stock up the next time you’re in a bookstore:

Saskatchewan Book Awards: Shortlist 2021

The second is the video with this year’s chosen award winners and gala:

I’m absolutely gratified by the nomination, and then by the win, in part because I had such an unexpected hiccup while writing the biography. I came to the biography by way of friendship with C. Stuart Houston, a Canadian radiologist, medical historian and ornithologist. He had the idea that Sylvia’s biography should be written, and that he thought I should take the lead on that and he would help. Our partnership was not in writing (my job) but in background research, as Stuart spent a bit of time searching out some of Sylvia’s published journal articles, and spoke with several of her colleagues. It soon became clear, though, that we had quite different visions for the book. I was deeply interested in Sylvia’s sports and volunteer history, as well as her medical research after her groundbreaking cobalt-60 work and her role as the first female USask Chancellor and first female Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor. She had a huge life, well-lived, that deserved time and energy. Stuart’s focus tended to the firsts, lists of her many accolades, and would often veer into side biographies of men and women that Sylvia hadn’t necessarily worked with or even met. I pulled him back, and off he’d go again. Even so, those differences were navigable, more or less, until we hit a rather large snag.

That large snag was the story of USask student, Christopher Lefler. Lefler came to Saskatoon to pursue a masters in art, and he was a cutting edge student doing avant garde artistic installations which regularly pushed audiences to places that they hadn’t expected to be. As I went through Sylvia’s files in the archive, then pored through newspaper articles and W5 CTV segments and documentaries and spoke with people, the connection between Lefler and Fedoruk was impossible to ignore, and impossible to leave out of the biography.

In essence, the story is simple: Christopher Lefler created artistic installations that worked to ‘out’ Sylvia Fedoruk as a gay woman, while she was the head of government as the Lt Governor of Saskatchewan. The result was a university, a provincial media, and a provincial government who moved entirely in lock-step to protect her: removing and censoring the art installation, retracting Lefler’s funding and supervisor, eventually expelling him from the university; media refusal to publish her name in connection with the story and censorship of the student newspaper (The Sheaf) when they aimed to publish the story; and the provincial government rescinding a jury-awarded Saskatchewan Arts Board grant to Christopher Lefler, the only time in Saskatchewan history that an awarded grant has been rescinded.

It was a huge, huge story and Stuart did not want the book to include it. A sentence or two, a paragraph at most, he declared. It didn’t deserve more. Stuart and I were at an impasse. I knew something was a bit wrong when he tried, on a regular basis, to steer me away from speaking with certain people, people that I knew had been close with Syl. It’s only in hindsight that I managed to put it all together: Stuart thought that even including this story would give readers the indication that Syl was, indeed, a gay woman. I, on the other hand, didn’t care at all about trying to ‘prove’ one way or the other Sylvia Fedoruk’s private life and sexual identity. I saw the story instead as one of power, of how it moves and can be focused, how it is actioned and how it protects and ostracizes. It also was a story that, in the end, showcased just how much Sylvia Fedoruk meant to the province: its government, university, media and the general public. Stuart said, vehemently, that he did not want to be part of a book that included that story. So we broke the planned co-authorship and I continued writing. It was a sad time, yet I knew I couldn’t make any other choice, and neither could he.

Even so, with the chapter fully written, I worried: should I include it? Would it overpower Sylvia’s story and her many contributions? So I asked my Mom, who in 2018 was dying from metastatic lung cancer. Mom, this is the story. Should I include it? Yes, she said, with fervor. Yes. You must include it. It’s when we see the dark parts of Sylvia’s life, Mom argued, that we also see how bright she shone. The book was dedicated to my Mom, Mary Kirychuk McGowan.

When I submitted the too-large manuscript to the press and asked for some help and direction in cutting the thing down to manageable size, I started to wonder: are they reading it? Had they got to the Lefler chapter yet? I had politely enthusiastic responses and some vague directions. Then BANG: my phone started to hop with texts and emails. A ha, I laughed. They got to that chapter. My editor was retired newspaper journalist Sean Prpick, and we meshed as a team over that chapter, in long phone calls and discussions, some cajoling, and some recalcitrant stubbornness to polish that chapter and make it as smooth as we could.

When I submitted the draft manuscript to the publisher in January of 2019, I also took a copy to Stuart and Mary Houston, for their review and editing. I gave them two different coloured pens, and instructions that I wanted both of their comments, but in different pens. It’s clear that Stuart read it first, with copious comments in red in the margins, especially about the medical history contained in the book. Mary’s pen was green, and hers made me laugh uproariously. If Stuart made a comment with which she disagreed, the green pen would gently stroke out his red exhortation and calmly say, ‘no’. It was a masterclass in editing, and in marriage.

There were no pens, of either colour, on the Lefler chapter. I wasn’t expecting them.

When the book finally went to press in 2020 and the author copies came in July, I drove to Saskatoon to take one to Stuart. Mary had, to everyone’s sadness, passed away in 2019 but Stuart and I toasted the book with a drink. Then I left and he read it, again and again and again over the course of the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021. Every few weeks, there would be another phone call and either a long chat or a message on my answering machine: I’ve read the book again, and underlined so much, and I only underline what you got right, and now the whole book is full of underlines. His praise meant so much.

On one of those calls, he quietly admitted that he saw why I included the Lefler chapter, and recognized that it belonged, even if he didn’t like it. It was, for both of us, a warm ending.

When A Radiant Life was awarded the Saskatchewan Book Award for non-fiction in late June of 2021, I tried calling Stuart. No answer, and a full voice mail so I was unable to leave a message. I kept trying, for weeks, covid still keeping restrictions on visitation. I never got through. At the end of July, I learned that Stuart had suffered a stroke and seemed to be recovering, but on July 22nd, he slipped away to join Mary. We never got that chance to connect and celebrate the win — but, I think, he knew.

I am intensely proud of this book, and I hope each and every one of you takes a chance on it, and reads it. Sylvia Fedoruk was a life force; her energy still radiates. I welcome you to come and meet her — you won’t regret it.

The University of Saskatchewan hosted the online book launch for A Radiant Life in September 2020 — with Merle Massie and Dr. Vera Pezer

So, something quite odd happened on social media in early January.

My dad, Sargent McGowan (born in 1938) had a somewhat viral social media post.

There are two reasons why that was odd. One, the post was written by Dad back in 1969.

Two, Dad passed away from cancer in 2005.

Welcome to social media, where time is a loop and somewhat irrelevant. After all, we can see hand-written pages of Shakespeare’s plays and Egyptian papyrus on the internet alongside posts from mere seconds ago around the world.

Nonetheless, it’s not the time loop that sent his post shooting through social media, but its content.

In 1969, Dad was the principal of Gronlid School outside of Melfort. As per usual, he wrote the annual Principal’s Message for the school yearbook.

One of the people who had a copy of that yearbook – Val Rilkoff – was sorting through pictures and books. When she reread the Principal’s Message, she said, she found it very moving, especially after the events in the US.

So she snapped a picture and posted it to the Facebook group, Old Saskatchewan.

Old Saskatchewan is a great place to share old photos and time capsule pieces and stories. Anyone from the Gronlid area might enjoy the walk down memory lane.

Soon, my phone was hopping with texts and messages: you have to read this post on Old Saskatchewan. It’s by your Dad.

Sure enough, I opened my phone and there is Dad’s voice coming through the typewritten pages from over 50 years ago, with words to share that sound incredibly prescient.

They are worth reporting in full.

He opens with a quote: “Paper will put up with anything written on it.”

He then continues: “This quotation is credited to one Josif Vissarionovich Djugashvili, better known to the world as Joe Stalin.”

“While his claim to fame is certainly not based on his literary accomplishments, he did not hesitate to make use of papers and the press to distort the truth and glorify himself.”

“Alas, Joe Stalin is dead; but if God in his Wisdom and Man in his Ignorance could combine to produce such a one as him, they are certainly capable of creating another.”

“Indeed, unless people become more adept at disseminating substance from style, fact from fiction, wisdom from irrelevancies; then the future of mankind is bleak indeed and the opportunities for tyrants are vastly improved.”

“I must feel depressed today to think such dark thoughts and draw them to the attention of my favourite people – but the challenges of the future are not all connected with outer space, racial relations or population explosions.”

“I foresee where the greatest difficulty which will confront mankind will be in the selection of its leaders.”

“It is to this difficult problem I would alert the students and graduates of this year.”

He then signed it: Sargent E. McGowan.

Over a thousand people on that Facebook site have liked the post, and hundreds more have commented: “Wise words.” “Great message so relevant for today.” “Powerful.”

I decided to cross-post it to Twitter, as a bit of a counterpoint to the news coming out of the US.

Again, hundreds have liked and shared Dad’s words. “A timeless message.” “So honest to young people, zero cliches, beautifully written.” “Wow! Amazingly prophetic!”

My favourite responder said, “Inspiring words, written with care and elegance. That is wisdom! You must be so proud of your father. Thanks for sharing this with the rest of the world.”

I am quite proud of Dad (even though I’m pretty sure he should have said discerning instead of disseminating – that’s the kind of argument we could have had – word nerds). He was a talented teacher, a farmer, a reeve, a reader and a deep thinker.

But it really is a uniquely modern accomplishment to deliver a post from fifty years ago, and have it resonate so strongly today.

Never underestimate the power of words. Or try to imagine or predict when they might come around again.

One of the most interesting projects to ever land in my lap is the new Women For Saskatchewan site.

Back in August, I was contacted by the one and only Winter Fedyk . She said, I have this idea. I want to build a website and invite Saskatchewan women to write posts. The posts can be about anything they want, but with a view to giving policy suggestions for Saskatchewan. What do you think?

Well, when an opportunity like that drops into your lap, you say yes, and fast!

I was smack dab in the middle of the release and online launch of my most recent book A Radiant Life (I have a blog post or two about that story…) so I was a bit busy to start with. Then, things really got rolling and the site launched on October 1st.

What a whirlwind! I had a post on the site right off the bat, from the launch. It’s my challenge for Saskatchewan’s new Chief Firearms Officer, and it’s not what you might think. People see the word ‘firearms’ and they think ‘gun control.’ But that’s not what I call for. It’s a really personal story. I talk about my family’s walk through gun suicide, and what I think we, as a gun community, can do to help address that issue. The post started as a Twitter thread; the blog version is tighter, tougher, and direct.

The blog post led to a call from CBC Saskatchewan — would you please talk about this idea on the radio? So there I was with Stefani Langenegger, chatting on CBC Morning.

A week or so after the first post, I had another post drop into the site. This one also has a story, and argues that Saskatchewan has a map problem. It’s a piece that I had in my mind from the minute that Winter contacted me: Merle, what policy issues would you bring up? I thought: Saskatchewan has a map problem. And that became the title, and the argument.

Then, things somehow started to snowball. First, Loleen Berdahl, the new Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, asked me to join a lunchtime political panel hosted by the Department of Political Studies at USask. I stepped in at the last minute as one of the panelists came down with an illness, but it was nonetheless an illuminating and really fun event.

My task was to bring in a farm and rural perspective to the debate, so I did — pointing out that a few things look quite different from the farmgate versus the city. The points caused a lot of head-nodding, and a few ‘I never thought of that’ comments. The “I never thought of those points” responses were reiterated a couple of days later during a Women for Saskatchewan editorial meeting. I thought … hmmm… I seem to be onto something. So another tweet string erupted!

The tweet string brought lots of comments, retweets and likes, which always indicates when I’ve hit a bit of touchstone. So the Women For Saskatchewan Editorial committee decided, hey, let’s make this into a podcast!

So we did…

It’s been an absolute joy to be a part of this amazing initiative — and I’m excited to see where it’s going to go. Please, please, take your time and go through the Women for Saskatchewan site. There are so many excellent, visceral, deeply intriguing or painful or sharp or insightful articles. I promise, they are well worth your time.

Live book launch link

The University of Saskatchewan hosted an online book for A Radiant Life on September 15th 2020.

A Radiant Life Launchhttps://youtu.be/qyylYhMvFF4

It’s here! It’s here! It’s here!

A-Radiant-Life-cover 1

The University of Regina Press has released my new book, A Radiant Life: The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk Scientist, Sports Icon and Stateswoman. 

Isn’t that the most spectacular cover you’re ever seen? At first I was, hey, it should be green! She was Saskatchewan’s best and loudest cheerleader and that’s our provincial colour. But my son said, Mom, she was the lieutenant governor. The Queen’s colour is purple. And I thought — that’s right.

It’s been such a journey. I began thinking about the book along with Dr. Stuart Houston in about 2013, and began writing in 2015, off the side of my desk in the bits and drabs of time I could give. In 2018, I was awarded a Saskatchewan Arts Board Independent Artist grant, which gave me four months of concerted time. A full manuscript in January 2019 (much too long) got edited (40,000 words cut) at a writers’ retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster in early May 2019. A lot of polishing, editing and copyediting, choosing photographs, typesetting and printing and ta-dah — it’s here!

The team at University of Regina Press has been absolutely stellar. From Karen Clark who gave me encouragement to keep going, to Kelly Laycock the managing editor, Sean Prpick who was my original editor (I could tell when he got to certain chapters — he got really excited!), Duncan Campbell the artistic director, and ZG Stories who has taken on the marketing and publicity for the book, I just couldn’t be better served by a Saskatchewan-based publisher — and I know that’s what Sylvia Fedoruk would have wanted.

I have an invitation for you: The University of Saskatchewan (which is both my and Sylvia’s alma mater) is hosting an online book launch on September 15th at 7pm. You can register for the event here, and an email link to the online launch will be sent to you in about a week. Please join us!

Timeline of Sylvia Olga Fedoruk: 

Born: May 5, 1927 at Canora, Saskatchewan

4. Sylvia and Annie 1927

Annie Fedoruk and Syl, 1927

Schooling: Chaucer and Scotland Schools, near Wroxton Saskatchewan. Then move to Walkerville, Ontario during WWII.

3. Sylvia in 1945 riding a bike

Syl Fedoruk, Walkerville Ontario 1945

Sylvia Fedoruk returned to Saskatchewan with her family in 1946 and entered the University of Saskatchewan. She took medals on 12 intervarsity sports teams, and won the Spirit of Youth Award at Convocation.

In 1951, Syl would make a Canadian scientific splash as the female Saskatoon team member of the cobalt-60 therapy breakthrough for cancer treatment. Dubbed the ‘cobalt bomb,’ it would become Syl’s best-known scientific accomplishment.

14. Sylvia showing the cobalt bomb treatment head, 1951

By 1960, Syl was making waves in the Canadian curling scene, playing third for Joyce McKee. Their team won the first Canadian ladies curling championship.

Once her sports career finished, Syl turned her attention to building the game and was instrumental in bringing Canadian ladies’ curling on par with men’s curling in the 1970s. By then, she was both a professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the college of medicine, and Director of Physics Services for the Saskatchewan Cancer Association. Elected as the first woman to the Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada, she retired from all of her positions in 1986 — but didn’t stay retired. She was elected as the first woman chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan in 1986, followed by her appointment, in 1988, as the first woman Lieutenant Governor for Saskatchewan.

Syl was also awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, the Order of Canada, and became a Dame of the Order of St. John. She served twice on the board of Governors for the University of Saskatchewan, and was awarded five honorary degrees — the last, in 2006, from her own University of Saskatchewan.

In her spare time and for fun, Syl could be found with her dog (in her lifetime, she owned three: Tinker, Charli, and MaxC), gardening and canning, playing poker, fishing up north, collecting curling pins, cheering at Huskie games while screaming at the refs, taking photographs and videos, or cooking — though she would send all the leftovers home with you.

Everyone in Saskatchewan who had the honour and joy to meet her, found an impressive mind, a warm spirit, an earthy humour, a no-nonsense viewpoint, and a new friend.

Syl Fedoruk passed away at age 85 in 2012, and was given a state funeral in Saskatoon.

7364580

It has been both an honour and a pleasure to be the first to delve into Sylvia Fedoruk’s files in the archives of the University of Saskatchewan, and to bring you this amazing story of a truly unique, truly Saskatchewan woman.

Listen to Merle Massie discuss A Radiant Life via these media stories: 

With Peter Mills on CBC August 29th 2020

With John Gormley: John Gormley – Merle Massie August 28th 2020

1918 Flu in Biggar

This is not the first time that Saskatchewan has been ravaged by a major pandemic.

The so-called Spanish Flu, now thought to be a derivative of H1N1, set the entire world on fire in 1918-1919. It was a killer, with a virus that linked to a bacteria, leading to influenza infection then bacterial pneumonia, then death.

The death rates were high: in Canada, about 55,000 Canadians died. In Saskatchewan, its grim death toll by the end of 1918 was nearly 4000 people, and it continued to stalk rural, remote and northern regions until about 1922. The death toll likely reached well over over 5000 people, but records are patchy and we’ll never know for sure. What is known is that the impact on Saskatchewan’s First Nations population was worse, and the disease and Saskatchewan’s efforts to combat it took over everyone’s life in the fall of 1918.

The flu came to Canada with the soldiers, those returning home from the WWI war front, but in reality, it raced ahead of them. The first recorded death from the Spanish Flu was Robert Callander, a drayman in Regina who was sick for a week before succumbing.

What made the Spanish Flu so frightening was its rapid transmission, and its targets. It killed the healthiest working people — soldiers, farmers, teachers — in the prime of their working lives. Its death rate were described as a ‘W’: those aged 0-5 were highly susceptible, ages 5-20 less so, ages 20-50 were very susceptible, then 50-65 less so and another surge in deaths for the elderly population.

2020-03-18 (3)

Calgary Daily Herald October 7, 1918

It also came in three waves. The first wave came in the spring of 1918 and was dubbed the ‘three day fever,’ since people were very sick for just a few days, then mostly recovered. This wave was less noticeable in Canada when compared to other regular grippes, flu bugs and the regular items of a Canadian winter. It was the fall 1918 surge that was the killer, while spring 1919 saw another resurgence, but less severe.

In Biggar, Saskatchewan, we have a more limited view of the fall of 1918. While our local newspaper, the Biggar Independent was then (and remains now) in operation, we have few copies of newspapers from that killer fall — likely because people destroyed newspapers rather than risk them being contaminated with the killer virus. We have a newspaper from September 5, 1918, then nothing until November 21st 1918 (side note: they were five cents per copy!)

September 5th saw no mention of the virus or the disruption to come. A circus was coming to town on September 11th, promising local kids and adults alike some smiles and delights.

2020-03-18 (2)

Biggar Independent, September 5, 1918

But what happened after, throughout the rest of September and October, is unclear. What we do know is that we had local disruption, much the same as we are having now in 2020 with Covid-19. Schools, the pool halls and bars, the Biggar Majestic Theatre, and all churches were closed. And, people died.

2020-03-18 (5)

Biggar Independent November 21, 1918

The article actually lists seven deaths, including an infant and Percy Talbot from Oban region, who died in Calgary — and that’s just from the past week. In all, it could be estimated that as many as fifty people from Biggar and surrounding regions died throughout October and November of the scourge year.

One of the things that the Town of Biggar had to fund was an ’emergency hospital’. In the November 21st copy of the Biggar Independent, the town’s financial report listed over $60 put toward the emergency hospital.

Ernie Hoppe of Biggar said that his mother told him stories of the 1918 epidemic. Their home, 14 miles north and west of town, was “where the sick came for help,” and it’s probable that it became a rural triage and emergency space for those stricken with the awful virus. “Many people died in their home,” he added. I have yet to discover where the town emergency hospital was located, but if you know, reach out.

But by November 21st, things were starting to ease back. The ‘ban’ on gathering had been lifted, and the Biggar Majestic Theatre, along with churches and the pool room, could once more reopen.

2020-03-15 (7)

“Theatre Thoroughly Disinfected” Biggar Independent November 21, 1918

By November 28th, there was a town annual meeting. One of the things discussed: “Those who were present however helped along the urgent need for a hospital one step by appointing S. H. Curran J. T. James and S. E. Shaw as a committee from the town to interview the Council of the Rural Municipality of Biggar with a view to building a Union Hospi­tal in Biggar next year and of continuing the operation of the present emergency hospital until a more permanent building can be arranged for.” [Biggar Independent, “Citizens Show Lack of Interest”, November 28, 1918].

The churches came back: the Methodist church resumed services on November 24th, with St. Paul’s Anglican — the same building we see today — resuming morning and evening services, choir practice, and Sunday School on December 1st.

It took longer to reopen the schools. School terms were more fluid at the time, and could shift according to local need, particularly those in rural areas. It was a disconcerting prospect for many, to consider not only the schools not reopening, but the absence of Christmas concerts and other timely entertainment.

2020-03-15 (8)

Biggar Independent November 28, 1918

But even as life started to return to normal and people moved more freely in the town, the flu and its aftereffects were still to be seen.

2020-03-15 (10)

Biggar Independent November 28, 1918

With only patchy newspaper records — we have no extant papers from December of 1918 from the Biggar Independent — the record ends there. But those interested in reading for themselves, and following the stories told through newspapers should find their way to the Saskatchewan Historical Newspapers Online and the Google Newspaper Archive.

Whether you’ll be relieved, or horrified to know that we’ve been here before, is entirely up to you.

In August of 2017, I was contacted via email by a researcher from the United States, Hilary Ament. She was on contract with the producers and production crew of the movie First Mana biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Based on a biography written by James R. Hansen, the movie focuses less on the moon landing and more on Armstrong’s life and relationships and family. Armstrong is portrayed by Hollywood megastar Ryan Gosling, and his wife Janet by the cool beautiful Claire Foy.

One of the storylines, a moment which created a particular sad trajectory in the Armstrong family, was learning that their young daughter Karen had brain cancer. Ever the scientist, Armstrong worked feverishly to find a cure. The movie was set to include a scene where Karen would undergo treatment using the cobalt-60 machine, known as the cobalt ‘bomb.’ Originally developed and designed in Canada, the cobalt machine was the first deep-seated cancer radiation technology designed specifically for clinical application.

Hilary Ament’s email said: “the set designers are building a machine similar to this model, but are having a little bit of trouble understanding the order of the procedure itself, showing what should be on the control panel and dials, and maybe any notes doctors would take.”

Hilary found me via the University of Saskatchewan and the Western Development Museum, where the original Saskatchewan-built cobalt-60 machine is on display. Searching desperately for technical insight, she came to me.

I had been working intermittently on a biography of Saskatchewan physicist Sylvia Fedoruk (of ball, curling, and Lieutenant Governor fame) who had been a graduate student working on the original cobalt bomb project. Syl’s files, along with those of Harold Johns at the University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections, were a treasure trove of information.

I sent a short description, taken from my in-progress manuscript on Sylvia Fedoruk, about cobalt-60 and how radiation works to fight cancer. I also sent along a description of the treatment room constructed at the University of Saskatchewan which housed the original cobalt-60 unit, along with schematics. The original room featured a ten inch thick glass window, where technicians would monitor the patient during radiation.

As well, I passed along descriptions of the way treatment technicians would design special padding or apparatus to hold a patient in place. For a young child like Karen, holding still was paramount, and the technicians would have worked with both Karen and her parents to make the little girl comfortable and at ease.

Of course, Karen would have been given multiple radiation doses, not just one, but a major Hollywood movie has time constraints. All of this work would go into just one scene.

Hilary Ament replied, “This is beyond what we had hoped for. The set designers are very happy with the research that we’ve collected, and are on a solid track now. Between reading the articles you sent, diagrams, and video we’ve been able to get a pretty good idea of how these operated! The scene is fairly short, so they’re thinking they have enough to go on…”

I was thrilled to help, even in this small way for a tiny scene. So of course when First Man hit our little Majestic Theatre in Biggar in the fall of 2018, I was in the audience, bright eyed and ready to see what it all looked like.

There’s nothing like watching a movie in a small, community-owned theatre in rural Saskatchewan. The Majestic is our local site for all things arts. Built in 1909 and rescued from oblivion, it hosts music festivals, live concerts, plays, dance festivals, and musicals, as well as movies on Friday and Saturday night, along with the popular Sunday afternoon matinee. Run by volunteers, it’s one of the focal points and gathering spaces for our community.

In the audience, scattered alongside and all around me, munching popcorn and slurping drinks, were friends, neighbors, and relatives. In the city, a movie experience is rather impersonal. Sure, the audience laughs together in all the right places, but we don’t necessarily know our neighbors or the ones who sold us the ticket or handed us the popcorn or took a quick bathroom break in the stall beside me before the opening credits.

In a small community theatre, the vibe is completely different. We don’t need a lot of previews or games on the screen. We’re busy chatting: do you have enough stuff for the raffle table at the hockey game? Are you hauling wheat this week? Can you curl for me next Wednesday night? Once a movie starts, you recognize the different audience laughs — brother in law Ryan, good friend Tina. We count how many people are there and celebrate a movie that’s going to make a profit. And lots of us have learned to clean up behind ourselves, taking garbage out on our way back through the lobby.

The night I went to see First Man, there were plenty of friends and relatives in the audience, many of whom knew about my encounter with Hollywood, and had almost as much anticipation shivering through them as I did. We could experience it together.

The cobalt-60 scene comes early in the movie, and I sat forward to watch every detail as it shimmered on screen. With Karen’s neck supported, her head exposed and her body gently strapped in place, she looked just as I had imagined. The Eldorado-style machine looked like a miniature version of the space-age rockets Armstrong was working on. The treatment room had no windows, with thick concrete walls lined with lead. Neil and his wife Janet watch from behind the thick glass window helplessly, overcome with hope that the treatment would succeed.

It was an amazing moment as a researcher. I had helped to shape the way a movie looked, the way the actors moved, the set design, and the whole feel of the scene. I was jubilant.

But Hollywood has a way of surprising you. My work, offered to Hilary Ament and to Universal Studios, had not just shaped the visuals. It had actually changed the script in the movie. My mouth dropped in shock at the next scene. In it, Neil Armstrong is on the telephone to the doctors at the hospital. He asks [and this is my memory, not a direct quote], Did you call Dr. Johns? Dr. Harold Johns? The doctor in Saskatchewan who invented the treatment? 

I couldn’t help it. Even though this is a scene of great pathos and sadness, learning that the much-hoped-for treatment didn’t work on his daughter, I was lifted right out of my seat, cheering. My poor husband was hushing and pulling me down, but others were just as jubilant: hey, they said Saskatchewan! Tears leaked out, both for the memory of a little girl full of sunshine whose life was cut short by cancer, and by my own personal victory: I had had an influence on a Hollywood movie script. A whole scene, then another, shaped by my research and insight. And Saskatchewan got a mention.

First Man is up for four Oscars at the 2019 Academy Awards, one of which is production design. I’ll be watching with delight, hoping for a win. After all, I do have a little bit of skin in this game.

I wish I could say that I found my name in the credits. Several of my friends and neighbors, and my brother and sister-in-law, went close to the screen (none of us are youthful) to try and find my name. Nothing. Nonetheless, I have the paper trail and the emails, and the movie scenes themselves to back up my story. Hollywood, if you’re listening, come again. Saskatchewan has a few more hidden stories for you. But next time, I’d like to be in the credits, please.

And yes, I’ll be watching it at The Majestic.

fedoruk.1

Green is the Colour

In the fall of 2016, I was approached by C.P. Champion, editor of The Dorchester Review, to join a chorus of other writers offering short commentary pieces in response to the question: “How can we strengthen our traditions?”

An innocuous question, and not particularly specific, but then again, that was the point. It’s the context where that question found its legs: throughout 2017, there was a Canadian — and worldwide — conversation around statues, building names, and colonialism that sent tempers soaring, municipalities running, and social media humming.

Campion’s original email set the tone: “Casting a wary eye over the current wave of iconoclasm, statue-toppling, quasi-forced resignations, and all-round history-purging…”. So, the point of view is ‘wary.’ Huh. So I had to really think: Is this the genre of scholarship where I fit, especially since I’m no longer a practicing scholar?

The Dorchester Review receives mixed accolades, and that’s just fine by me. I’ve never been comfortable with the scholar-as-activist model, I do believe that there are points to be made on many sides of a lot of issues, and by the way, they offered to pay me — which is something no ‘scholarly’ journal has ever offered for my work.

Published twice per year by the Foundation for Civic Literacy, The Dorchester Review is a literary and historical journal that deliberately challenges concepts of political correctness. There are a lot of older white men propounding in the pages, and at times I read little more than a more refined version of the same arguments that fill the air at the local John Deere dealership, but even so, gems can be found. If you’re an armchair military historian, there will be much to enjoy. A lot of it is an uncomfortable read for me — but, I’m OK with that. Discomfort is important. If we only read the stuff we already agree with, what exactly are we learning?

The forum is called Safe-Guarding Traditionswhich includes thoughts from twenty-three writers, including me. And — here was the publishing dream — my name is on the top-row, between two authors whose work I enjoy: David Frum and Noah Richler. How about that! I enjoyed Brigitte Pellerin‘s call to “Be the Change,” to strengthen our own ability ‘to converse with others in the political arena’ while listening to points with which we disagree. Noah Richler’s “The Healing Circle” wants Canadians to tear down our existing house of Parliament to construct a new one. That was a bit of a hard pill for me, a past member of the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation. Yet the central point is exquisite: our leadership (MPs, elders and senators, and the Canadian people and press gallery) should sit in three concentric healing circles in a new space without colonial history. David Frum asks us to rename the August long weekend holiday to commemorate the battle of Amiens, a turning point in World War I. That, too, bears thought.

But I wrote something completely different. I started on the expected route, examining “How can we strengthen our traditions?” and how I might answer it. My preference has always been for buildings, bridges, and other social landmarks to be named for anyone or anything other than politicians (plants, animals, birds, heck, insects would be better in some cases); and I’m in favour of more statues, not less (supports the broader arts community, gives a focal point for public spaces, and a place for birds). But, were these points truly unique? No. So…delete delete delete.

Moments before the deadline, I had a bit of an epiphany. I didn’t have to write about statues, parliament, pieces of paper or names on buildings. What were some of our Saskatchewan traditions…and how could we in Saskatchewan make them stronger? Campion’s invitation arrived in fall, it was CFL season, and the Riders were top of mind. So, I thought, there is my hook. How can we in Saskatchewan make our Rider traditions even better?

I came up with a little piece I call Green is the Colour.

Green Is the Colour

For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce the whole thing here. But here’s the final call (while crossing my fingers which I’m hoping will not be slapped too hard):

green-is-the-colour-2.jpg

So… Federated Co-operatives Limited, that’s your next project: create for us a potion. And sell it at the co-op. That is how we’ll strengthen a major Saskatchewan tradition.

 

I have long been a member of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History of the Environment. It is a cross-Canada (and international) network of environmental historians and historical geographers.

In response to the growing realization that only about 20% of PhDs land tenure track positions within leading universities, NiCHE editors have created Rhizomes, a blog series about alternative and post-academic career paths. 

This is my contribution: http://niche-canada.org/2017/12/06/rhizomes-an-interview-with-merle-massie/

Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation

The new homepage of the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation https://www.saskheritagefoundation.com/ 

Well, it’s happened: I’m mentioned in the Hansard! (See page 32, under Bill 90, and keep reading).

If you’re not a historian, the Hansard is the record of what is said in the Saskatchewan legislature. It contains the debates, transcribed, as well as the record of visitors, bills being put forward, and shows the province’s political leaders going about the business of government. It’s a great resource to know what’s happening, and to track political debate over time.

So, how did I get there? I wrote an op-ed about the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation that was published in the Star Phoenix. This op-ed is all about the disparity in support for heritage projects around the province, as well as criticism of the way the current bureaucracy in the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport (where the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation is connected) has been running roughshod over the Foundation.

It’s a hard-hitting piece. I was on the Board of the SHF for three years, and I had a lot to say about heritage in Saskatchewan, and the way the SHF board has been working hard to protect, and fight for, the groups working on heritage projects across the province. In the end, I called for those currently running for the leadership of the Saskatchewan Party to look into the debacle, and get things straightened out.

I’ve since spoken about the issue to sitting MLAs and Saskatchewan Party leadership contenders, because this is an issue that transcends party politics. The SHF has been in existence, helping the people of Saskatchewan for more than 25 years. Heritage is not about politics. It’s about dedicated people fighting hard to save their heritage buildings and cultural landscapes, from north to south, and from east to west across Saskatchewan. Every political party and MLA has a heritage project in their backyard. And the current Ministry officials in the department of Heritage for the province of Saskatchewan are not doing a good job of supporting the SHF, its board, goals, and by extension the people of Saskatchewan.

I’m glad to see some traction on this issue. I understand that the pressure will continue, and I’m encouraged to know that it’s now in the Hansard as a permanent record — even if they accidentally thought that I’m a male, not a female historian.

To sitting and incoming MLAs: keep this on your radar. The people of Saskatchewan expect it: Do better.

%d bloggers like this: