The Role of Women in Timmins History – by Gregory Reynolds

This column was originally published in the Late Summer, 2011 issue of Highgrader Magazine which is committed to serve the interests of northerners by bringing the issues, concerns and culture of the north to the world through the writings and art of award-winning journalists as well as talented freelance artists, writers and photographers.

The City of Timmins is celebrating its 100th anniversary by spreading events over the four most important years in its development, 1909-12. While it is true that men made the important mineral finds that became mines and then the economic backbone of the area, they were not alone.

The role of women in the settlement, development and growth of the various communities that today make up the city has been ignored for most of the100 years. It is a forgotten chapter, actually many chapters, of local history.

A few residents find it shocking, even disgraceful, that little attention has been paid over the decades to the contributions of women. Very few. And they are not vocal. There are two reasons why women are forgotten when talk turns to pioneers: Men usually write the histories; and people and events get lost under the pressure of living today and worrying about tomorrow.

Does anyone today recognize the name of Miss Laura Keon? She was a hero, one who should be held up as an example to every school child in Timmins. Instead she is forgotten. In November of 1918, the Spanish Flu began its two-year deadly sweep around the world, killing between 20 and 40 million people. In Canada, 50,000 lost their lives. When it struck this area, Miss Keon was one of the first volunteers to tend to the ill by entering the packed boarding houses and hotels where the mainly single miners and bush workers lived.

She was also among the first to die. She gave her young life to try and help people she didn’t know and who often spoke languages strange to her.

Many people were reluctant to help for fear they would catch the deadly bug. Timmins town council thought highly of her brave deed and especially her example of helping at a time when hundreds of people were dying.

Councillors voted in December 1918 to erect a monument to her. Where is that monument today? Was it ever built? No one knows. There is a project for a teacher: get her class to find out what happened to the monument.

The flu killed people so quickly the area ran out of coffins. The bodies were wrapped in
blankets, taken in wagons to the several existing cemeteries and dumped into trenches until the epidemic was over and proper burials could be conducted.

Here is the story of another hero, one who never got mentioned in the records of a municipal council but one of the thousands of women who overcame the hardships and desperation of pioneer life.

In those early days of the Spanish Flu attack in 1918, a young girl of 14 lost her mother
and father within one day of each other. She was left on her own with two younger
sisters to care for. There was no orphanage, no children’s aid society and no welfare.
Relatives, friends, neighbours, even strangers, helped the three by accepting them in their households. But economic conditions for families often changed and the three lived in a succession of houses.

They got through two years until the oldest girl was old enough to get a job. She became a telephone operator in the South Porcupine exchange, today the site of the Airport Hotel at the foot of Bruce Avenue.

The three children slept in the exchange as did the other telephone operator. The two operators worked 24 hours a day, one a 16 hour night shift and one an eight hour day shift. The night shift operator had to be present at lunch time so the day shift operator had an hour to eat. Both operators were supposed to be there at all times in case of sickness or an emergency.

Of course they were not, having to shop and do other things but on the whole they were
virtually tied to the job for $60 a month. The exchange was on top of the fire hall so when there was a fire no one got any sleep. I came across the story of the three orphans in two different books while researching this story. The oldest girl eventually married and became Mrs. Townsend, living in Schumacher.

The word hero covers acts of bravery and courage, often beyond the common definition.
There was Eva Desora, an Italian immigrant and midwife who had to make a horrible choice involving the fate of her sick daughter. In the early years only employees and families of workers at the Hollinger Gold Mine were entitled to service at the local hospital.

It had been established by the mine and when the workforce grew, deductions were made
from the pay of employees to help pay for its operation. The girl had acute appendicitis and in desperation Eva appealed to Noah Timmins, the head of Hollinger and for whom the community was named.

He granted special permission to go to the hospital but the primitive institution had neither a surgeon nor equipment to deal with the girl’s condition. To avoid the long and expensive trip to Toronto, Eva sent a telegram to a Dr. Lowrey in Englehart asking for his help. He met her on the Englehart train platform and examined the child. He predicted she would die before the train reached Toronto but he could not perform the required surgery. He said her only hope was for Eva to see a Dr. Mitchell performing operations in nearby Cobalt. She met with the visiting surgeon and he said he would require $50 to stay over in Cobalt to save her daughter.

It was a lot of money but Eva agreed and after successful surgery, she asked for her bill.
Dr. Mitchell then proposed in exchange for cancelling her bill that she give her daughter to he and his wife. When Eva refused, the doctor explained he knew how poor she was and what a good life he and his wife could give the child. They were childless and overnight they had become attached to the child. Eva refused again, saying “I will give her the best I can. She could not ask for anything more.”

Eva managed to pay the bill. In a twist of fate, many years later Eva ran into Dr. Mitchell in a Toronto hospital and reminded him of the time he tried to barter for her daughter. “Yes,” said Dr. Mitchell sadly, “and I think of her often.” These women are but a small representation of those who carried an equal burden in life with their husbands and lovers during the early days.

To take a quick look at history, the first gold was discovered in 1906 in what was to become the Porcupine Gold Camp. There were women in the area from then on, although few in numbers, until the discovery in mid-1909 of the big three of Canadian gold mining, the Dome, Hollinger and McIntyre. That led to the famous gold rush that gave birth to a number of communities that ended up as Porcupine, South Porcupine, Schumacher, Mountjoy and Timmins.

So why, and how, did women arrive here and what did they do to create the sustainable
communities that have reached 100, and likely another 10 decades of life?

Prior to the arrival of the railway in Porcupine in 1911, the men and women who headed out for the gold fields of The Porcupine had to walk, paddle a canoe and occasionally ride a horse or sleigh part of the way. The railway ran from Cobalt to Cochrane so groups could ride to Kelso, a stop near Matheson, and then face dense bush, dangerous water bodies and mud trails to get to the gold fields.

In the winter there was the cold, snowstorms and treacherous ice on water bodies to
overcome and in summer there were the black flies, mosquitoes, horseflies and numerous other biters who wanted their blood. What you needed to live was carried on your back and women had to carry their share.

If the man could use a rifle, he could kill game which was plentiful, otherwise he had to
acquire supplies from individuals if he ran out of his original items due to weather or accidents along the way.

A canoe tipping over was a major disaster when everything a family owned was in it. For reasons known only to the governments of the day, municipal, provincial and federal, a false picture was developed of the first 20 years of existence of The Porcupine. It was aided and abetted by the men who worked for mines, lumber and paper companies and the railway. The image was created of an all male society, where men faced danger daily in the mines and bush, overcoming all hardships through their bravery and perseverance.

This myth was fed also by visiting journalists who wanted Northern Ontario to be the same as the Wild West of the United States. Stories about gun fights, brawls in the streets every day and pitched battles between the lawless elements of society and authorities were either grossly exaggerated or downright false. I am going to quote from a book called “Changing Places” that looks at the history, community and identity of Northeastern Ontario.

I quote: “It would be wrong to suggest that women had no role in the area before the First
World War. There were in fact several hundred women and they were highly visible in the mushrooming population precisely because of their limited numbers. The arrivals, departures, and activities of women were noted in the local press; they could be found in every sector and in a surprising number of occupations. An examination of the sources produced during the early settlement years shows that women were an important part of the new economy and society. Only in later years, as a mythology grew up around these times, was the presence of women downplayed.” End quote.

At various times, governments wanted settlers in the region and at others they didn’t, politics as always being a strange game with individuals as pawns.

It is said history belongs to the recorder and since mostly men kept the records and wrote the books it is little wonder few facts are available to shine a light on early women. Since women could not join unions, they found themselves in strange positions. When bush
workers struck, the female cooks and helpers were out of work as well but when the men won their raise, the women didn’t get it. Since many women had their children with them in the camps, a strike created huge financial problems.

The father was on the picket line and the rest of the family was homeless. When the miners struck against the mines, the women marched carrying signs, prepared meals for those on the picket lines and attended rallies. They had to also perform miracles to stretch meagre strike pay into enough to feed their families.

Life for women here started in a tent, perhaps a lean-to and ended in a shack of wood, usually two rooms with an outhouse close by. As a family grew in size and wealth, the house could become larger and amenities increased. Ethnic groups tended to live together and it took time to break down barriers of language and custom but it did happen. Still, what one member of a group had, another wanted and housing improved over the years.

People came North for better economic opportunities and work became the focus of life.
These opportunities were different, however, for men and women.

Under Ontario law, women could not work as miners or bush workers but that did not mean they sat at home. Not that anyone had time to sit at home in the first couple of decades because taking care of a husband and children was an 18-hour day.

There was wood to be chopped, water to be hauled from a well or nearby creek, floors to be scrubbed, meals to be prepared, fires to be kept lit, clothes to be washed and a dollar to be stretched to keep everyone fed and clothed.

Outside the home there were eight main categories open to women, teaching, nursing,
working in retail operations, being secretaries to mining executives or businesspeople, waiting in restaurants, doing laundry, owning or working in boarding houses and being cooks or helpers in bush camps.

The number of such positions was small and often there were no jobs for a woman seeking work. Also, there were three illegal activities that women engaged in, being prostitutes, operating blind pigs and running a house of prostitution. And women did all these things, although the number of women in any of these professions varied with the economy.

Since the majority of the men in the area were young and single, they sought sex, gambling and drinking as a means of relaxation. While there were hotels, blind pigs (the name given to places where illegal alcohol was sold), were a source of extra income to families in certain ethnic groups.

Since mines and lumber operations ran six days a week and legal liquor was not available on Sundays, men of a certain background would go to a home of a friend and speak his own language and drink traditional alcohol while learning of events in their homelands or just enjoying comradeship. Women had to serve the drinks and often provide food, meaning there was no such thing as a day of rest in their lives.

Without a social net, a work accident that took a husband and father’s life usually left a family destitute. The same thing happened if he was seriously injured or developed a crippling disease. The wife had to cope and breaking the law was often the only way to survive and to raise the children.

Little has been recorded of the hardships, trials and small victories of such families.
Relatives, members of their ethnic group, church organizations and sometimes just caring people, helped such families to survive. Still, many families existed in grinding poverty in this area, forced to remain because they lacked the funds to return to their homeland or
even to reach Montreal or Toronto.

This was true even where a healthy male headed a family because the loss of a well-paying job at a mine or in a bush camp was sufficient to destroy a family’s economic base. As well, there were many jobs that barely paid a survival wage. Women had to be the glue that held such families together.

Northern women realized that they had to make their own fun, usually in a way that did not cost money. They organized groups, whether it was to sew, play cards, sing, hold plays, support their ethnic organizations or assist a church. My wife Barbara, who recorded activities for The Daily Press for over 50 years, recalls at one time over 250 women’s clubs, organizations, auxiliaries and other groups helped create a rich social fabric. She also remembers writing the history of many groups and the needs that existed to give birth to them.

Yet, today there is no central list of all those organizations. Newspaper files back to 1910
exist but the task awaits someone interested enough to compile such a list.

When money is short and entertainment opportunities few, fun is where you find it. In the
early days, the magistrate’s court always attracted a full house. Banter between Magistrate Atkinson, the crown attorney and the accused was not only permissible but encouraged. The magistrate usually was a tough man, sentencing one female operator of a house of ill repute to three months in Haileybury District Jail, but showed unexpected
compassion one day.

A young woman was picked up by Timmins police in a sweep of bawdy houses. When told she had left her husband and two children only the day before, Atkinson dismissed the charge and told her to go home to her children. A man charged as a found-in beat the charge with his story that he had just gone into a bawdy house to light the stove. The spectators applauded that one when Atkinson dismissed him.

Down the years, there were some notable achievements that are in danger of fading away.
Women got the vote in Ontario in 1917 but the first woman elected to a municipal council locally was Josephine Thomas in 1927 as reeve of Tisdale Township Council.

The first elected to Timmins town council was Ellen Terry in 1939. No woman was ever elected to Whitney or Mountjoy township councils. The first woman to head the City of Timmins was Jamie Lim, elected mayor in 2002.

Clair Bernardi was an exceptional golfer. She won the ladies Hollinger Golf Club
Championship several times and also won the Spruce Needles Ladies Golf Championship a couple of times.

She won the Ladies Northern Ontario Golf Association Tournament Championship Flight at least once. She used to be invited to play on Saturday and Sunday at the Hollinger when women were only allowed to play Monday to Friday.

Mrs. Harvey Graham taught classes on nutrition to women in town during World War Two long before television and the food channel. At that time there were groups of women throughout the area knitting for the troops, just one example of the many contributions by women during the two world wars.

A Book Club started in the 1930s continues today. Club member Evelyn Rymer has the minute books dating back to the beginning and she reads some of the entries at its meetings. The Porcupine Art Club is over fifty years old and is part of the Northern Art Association. Long before television they would raise enough money to bring recognized Canadian artists to town to give art lessons to club members and judge art shows.

The Porcupine Music Festival has played a significant role in local history. Timmins has produced numerous talented musicians and the festival encouraged them to go on with their careers, many becoming professionals. We have a long history of dance schools in the area. The wife of Dr. Lewis was one of the teachers. She also was noted for sitting at the piano wearing outrageous hats that every little girl in town loved.

The wife of Dr. Graham Lane was another instructor. She was a dancer who married Dr. Lane and moved to Timmins. She taught in the 1950s. Many of the dance teachers were, and continue to be, trained at schools “down south,” including the National School of Ballet.

We had two convents that provided many teachers for both the separate school systems and private piano and music theory lessons. They were the Grey Sisters and the Sisters of Providence. The latter group operated the original Hollinger Mine Hospital.

Women teachers, to be properly dressed for school, used to be allowed to wear only dresses and skirted suits. Mary Warnock was teaching at Queen Elizabeth School in the 1950s and Hank Bielek (later a municipal councilllor for many years) was the principal.

She was the first woman teacher to wear a pant suit to work when they hit the fashion scene. She carried her skirt to school in a bag in case the slacks were deemed unsuitable and she was told to change. Hank, however, accepted the change in fashion. In the late 1940s and 1950s a well dressed woman always wore a hat to church, to many social events, and even to go uptown. These hats were often expensive. Gloves were required at all high society social events.

Madame Plouffe for a number of years taught ladies’ classes on how to make hats. This was before she went on to start her own shop and later a health food store. The Porcupine has its own tartan, designed by a Mrs. Connors for the Timmins Chamber of Commerce, something few remember and even fewer wear.

I know there are histories of many organizations that have been compiled over the years,
some in book form, but few such documents have found their way to the Timmins Museum: National Exhibition Centre. It would be nice to see the historical bank of the museum strengthened through more information on women.

The accomplishments of ordinary housewives, outstanding business people and female
athletes are being lost as people die and diaries and scrapbooks get tossed out. Our life partners deserve better.