A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen

Book review

A Great Restlessness
The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen
By Faith Johnston
University of Manitoba Press, 2006

A July 1940 photograph in A Great Restlessness shows an attractive mother with three smiling children posed under a tree near Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. Who, seeing the photo, would guess that a few months earlier, the family was “on relief” in northern Saskatchewan, and that the woman was under RCMP surveillance?

Dorise Nielsen, the woman in the photo, was the Member of Parliament for North Battleford, Saskatchewan, from 1940 to 1944. Biographer Faith Johnston shows us a woman’s life that involved several drastic changes of circumstances. Born in London, England, in 1902, Dorise grew up during the turbulent World War I years, attended teachers’ college, and, at 24, came to teach in northern Saskatchewan, unprepared for the pioneer environment and harsh winters.
Dorise married a farmer, Pete Nielsen, and raised three children in a two-room house with no modern conveniences. While working dawn-to-dusk in the home and on the farm, she wrote letters about economic conditions to the Western Producer, and got involved in grassroots political movements. “By 1932, average wheat prices were a third of what they had been in 1929, and there would be no recovery until 1943,” notes Johnston. “Everyone with a conscience was thinking about politics.”

In several northern Saskatchewan ridings, the C.C.F., Social Credit and Communist supporters joined forces as “United Progressives”, and Dorise, recently recruited by the Communist Party, ran under the “United Progressive” banner. She campaigned in overshoes because her shoes had worn out, and was elected just as the bank foreclosed on the Nielsen’s mortgage.

In Ottawa, she found that Parliament was focused on war funding, which far exceeded any social spending during the Depression. M.P.s from the smaller parties had been elected on domestic, economic issues, but, in raising these matters they “seemed out of place”. Dorise’s main concerns were poverty, children’s welfare and civil liberties. Much in demand as a public speaker, she urged that the post-war family allowance cheques be issued in the mother’s name, and called for a federally funded day care program to assist women to stay in the work force.

Defeated in 1944, she then worked in Toronto for the Communist Party, but found her talents undervalued. The leadership regarded her as a prairie populist who “lived by emotion rather than by knowledge,” not grasping that her personable warmth was an asset. Eventually Dorise found other employment and returned to England from 1955 to 1957. Then, in another sea change, she and mining engineer Constant Godefroy moved to Mao’s China, where she taught English and lived until her death in 1980.

Well-researched and with keen attention to detail, A Great Restlessness brings to life the story of a fascinating personality on the move during a tumultuous period of our history.

Ruth Latta’s most recent novel is An Amethyst Remembrance (Baico, 2008).

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