At the deepest roots of Saskatchewan’s success over the last century lies an unexpected cause. It is convention to imagine that tireless men breaking the land, bold industrialists and traders, and possibly even visionary politicians were the foundation of the prairie economy. Indeed, all three were critical to the mix. But there was something vital, and largely underestimated, that saved the prairie experiment in agriculture and settlement from self-destructing—the sustained activism of prairie farm women. Violet McNaughton was one female force behind many of the causes that changed the province forever.
If ever there was a woman whose physical stature seemed certain to be overcome by the massive Canadian prairie, it was McNaughton. The arrival of her tiny frame in 1909 was likely unremarkable as there were so many from England settling in Saskatchewan at the time. But an upbringing in the English co-operative movement, and an astonishing energy for work, would push her to create standards for family well-being that are the bedrock of the province’s prosperity today.
After marrying John (Jack) McNaughton and moving to the Harris area, her own experience as a farm wife was a quick, painful lesson in the hardships faced by her peers. Long days of farm labour and home management made her acutely aware of what farm women everywhere endured in the settlement era. A hysterectomy at a young age meant she never had children but she saw the difficulties in childbirth and rearing that hurt women and children.
For Violet McNaughton, the time was absolutely perfect for action.
The early 1900s were a watershed for social legislation in Saskatchewan. Between 1908 and 1911, Children’s Aid Societies were established across the province. The Mother’s Pension Act of 1918 was another direct attempt to overcome poverty in the new world. The transition from church and community-based social intervention to state-driven welfare was well under way.
For McNaughton, the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association (SGGA) was a logical means to advance the well-being of farm women and their families. The only difficulty was that at the time it was a male-only organization. F.W. Green, secretary-treasurer of the SGGA, asked McNaughton to help organize a women’s meeting at the 1913 convention. “I feel quite sure,” wrote Green, “there are thousands of women on the prairie that have more snap in them and more intelligence than many men.” That’s unrestrained praise for the time. McNaughton stepped up as the first president of the newly minted Women Grain Growers Association (WGGA) in 1914.
Her first objective was to directly improve the health of women on the farm. She crusaded for trained midwives, more nurses, and affordable doctors in close proximity to farm families. In 1916, legislation was passed that would lead to the founding of union hospitals, municipal nurses, and municipal doctors. In her 1916 presidential address she outlined the further objectives for the WGGA that included women’s suffrage, the establishment of libraries, co-operative buying and selling of farm products, and making farm life more attractive. Medical aid, district nurses, pure food, the role of women in the rural school problem and in the prohibition campaign also made her priority list. These are issues that, with nuanced exceptions, should still be high on the list for rural Saskatchewan.
The role of midwives was particularly important in rural Saskatchewan when McNaughton led the WGGA. And it, too, was an issue that really isn’t that different from our own time.
By 1910, midwives were outside the medical system simply because women could not attend medical college. Technically, right up until 2008 when legislation passed in Saskatchewan regulating the profession, midwives could have been charged with practicing medicine without a license. So why were rural health advocates like Violet McNaughton still arguing for their role in the community?
“Most of the time you would see midwives working among the lower classes,” says Jessica Bailey, a registered midwife with the Saskatoon Health Region. “Probably she [McNaughton] recognized that at the time, doctors wouldn’t travel out to rural areas. Provincially, midwifery was practiced everywhere—regulation had no effect at all.”
Bailey wrote her graduate thesis on the experience Canadian women have had with midwives. “They were all lay midwives, they apprenticed with their mothers or a relative from the age of 10 to 15 years old. Roughly 140 years ago, a lot of family doctors learned obstetric skills from the midwives.
“There was an economic motive for doctors to take over that work. Doctors were paid when they had patients. Delivering babies meant families were more likely to stay with the doctor’s practice.”
Midwives have been considered a-legal, as opposed to strictly illegal, for the last century or so. In 1691, the government of Quebec established three autonomous branches of medicine: doctors, surgeons, and midwives. That was a high point of formal recognition for midwives that hasn’t seen its like until the passage of recent legislation. In 1872, certification of midwives was compulsory in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
Despite the widely varied laws governing midwives in different provinces, midwifery was commonly practised in rural areas and among lower income families even into the post-war era. There was, quite simply, a high demand for it and many people remained comfortable with the idea.
“The fact is,” says Bailey, “no midwife in Canada has ever been prosecuted. There have always been midwives in Saskatchewan and they would travel really long distances to provide care—as much as four hours by car.”
Between the 1960s and the formal passage of the Midwifery Act in 2008, there was a constant demand for midwife support though the vast majority of births took place in hospitals. According to Bailey, demand for midwifery support is much higher than the level of service current funding will allow. Certified midwives under the act who work for urban health authorities are not permitted to travel into rural areas. Currently there are no rurally based midwives who are provincially funded.
This means that farm mothers who want service have to travel from the farm to the city.
The sound you just heard was Violet McNaughton slapping her forehead.
“The problem is the level of funding,” says Bailey. “To be honest, it’s still a long road. Government has to understand that we are valuable in the health care system. We take a financial burden off because we are providing care before, during, and after the birth.”
Throughout McNaughton’s career as a leader in a number of organizations, and as a beloved founding columnist at the Western Producer newspaper, she had one core message: Empower rural people with health, education, and self-determination and they will prosper—and benefit the whole province. She did it through direct advocacy for legal change and through her conversations with farm people about their own lives.
She, along with her female colleagues, recognized that farm issues are women’s issues. This, in our day, has become a cornerstone understanding among those working on behalf of farmers around the world. Women’s access to education, economic freedom, and the opportunity to bear children in a healthy environment with good medical care is still a crusade that will save any society from self-destruction.
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