With Our Own Hands: Margaret Fairley and the 'Real Makers' of Canada

David Kimmel, Gregory S. Kealey
1993 Labour (Halifax)  
MARGARET FAIRLEY was undoubtedly one of Canada's most accomplished Communist intellectuals. Her important editorial work on various projects associated with the theoretical and cultural work of the Communist Party of Canada, however, has gone almost unnoticed by historians of the Canadian left. In the hope of stimulating more interest in both Fairley and other Communist intellectuals we present a brief introduction to her life and work followed by three examples of worker life histories
more » ... e histories solicited by her in the early 1950s. THEUFE FAIRLEY WAS BORN Margaret Adele Keeling in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1885, the youngest of nine children. Her father, the Reverend William Hulton Keeling, was an Anglican canon and served as headmaster of the prestigious Bradford Grammar School. His status nudged the Keelings into the English upper-class. The family, however, was a group divided by politics: some siblings remained well-placed, aristocratic conservatives, indeed her brother, Sir Edward Herbert Keeling was a Conservative member of Parliament, Mayor of Westminster, General Manager of the Turkish Petroleum Company, and author of In Russia Under the Bolsheviks (1920), a critique of the new Soviet government. 1 Others, including Margaret, 'Data from entry in Who Was Who, 1951-60. David Kimmel and Gregory S. Kealey, "With Our Own Hands: Margaret Fairley and the 'Real Makers' of Canada," Labour/U Travail, 31 (Springl 1993), 253-85. LABOUR/LE TRAVAIL strayed -some near, some far -into the left-wing. Her own politicization was sparked by a year spent as a teacher-in-training in London's impoverished East End. She had come fresh from the cloisters of Oxford and quickly became a shocked witness to the appalling conditions of working-class life in the modern city. Yet Oxford had inequities of its own. Margaret had finished there at the top of her class in English literature but was, because of her gender, refused the degree she earned. Nevertheless, she remained at the university as a tutor, eventually to leave in contempt, abandoning for good "that celibate life" as she called it. 2 In 1912, Margaret travelled abroad hoping to find some rewarding work in women's education. Eventually the fledgling University of Alberta offered her a position as well as a B.A. for the work she had done at Oxford. In Edmonton she met Barker Fairley who had just begun his long and illustrious career as a German literary scholar. They married in 1913, and as was then the practice, Margaret was forced to resign her university duties. Something during that period revived in Margaret Fairley a sympathy for left-wing politics. She wrote a small number of "progressive" articles in Canadian Forum during the 1920s (and served as the Forum's associate editor for a time), but it was several years later that the articulate Marxist critique characteristic of her life's work emerged. This was largely the result of a four-year sojourn in England. In 1932, her family moved to Manchester, where the poverty and other injustices of industrial society -made worse by the Depression -"deeply affected" Fairley, rekindling in her a life-long desire to struggle for democracy, peace, dignity, and other progressive causes. Under the tutelage of The Worker's editor Barbara Niven, Fairley joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. A final move, this time the return to Toronto in 1936, did not diminish her commitment to political pursuits, and immediately upon her arrival she joined the Communist Party of Canada and began contributing to the Marxist journal New Frontier. Later, she founded, edited, and contributed articles to New Frontiers, the Labor Progressive Party's literary journal which subsequently became The Marxist Quarterly, and later Horizons and Communist Viewpoint. Rounding out her written legacy are several poems, plays, longer political statements, and two anthologies. The Selected Writings of William Lyon Mackenzie and The Spirit of Canadian Democracy? 2 Fairley discussed her experiences at Oxford in the October 1912 issue of the University of Alberta journal The Gateway, (M.A. Keeling, "Women Students in Oxford," 49-51). Other biographical details are drawn from interviews with relatives and friends, an obituary published in Horizons (Spring 1968), J.G. Greenlee's 1979 interview with Barker Fairley, and Paul Duval's quasi-biography Barker Fairley (Toronto 1980). 3 The Selected Writings of William Lyon Mackenzie 1824-1837 (Toronto 1961); 7%« Spir of Canadian Democracy. A Collection of Canadian Writing from the Beginnings to th Present Day (Toronto 1946). The Margaret Fairley manuscript Collection, which contains the bulk of her extant research and writing notes, is located at the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library. WITH OUR OWN HANDS 255 Margaret Fairley died in Toronto in 1968. A park in the city's overcrowded working-class Spadina district is dedicated in her honour and memory. THE PROJECT FOR A TIME in the 1940s and 1950s, Fairley followed her original vocation, teaching those not privileged enough to gain a university education. She taught Canadian literature courses in left-wing and working-class circles, always encouraging her students to supplement their understanding of Canada by reading the work of Stanley Ryerson, Tim Buck, and other diligently selected Canadian writers. But the work of intellectuals and published literati never stood alone in Fairley's lectures; she was too much a supporter and defender of both the common person and of what Maxim Gorki termed "real life." For example, in one of her finest essays, Fairley criticized Canada's Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (1949-1951). The report of the Massey Commission bemoaned the state of Canadian culture and merely described in its conclusion what was missing. Fairley asked "Why not examine more carefully what is there, find out its worth, and discover why, if such is the case, it has been hidden?" In her estimation, Canada enjoyed (or had the potential to enjoy) one of the world's richest cultural heritages. Canadian history was a chronicle of constant struggle, and this produced "a culture which seeks to record, adorn and change the real life of men [sic] in our country.... Canadians have transformed their country with their own hard work.... We have had a tough experience, and have accomplished much with brain and muscle." 4 In late December 1946, Stanley Ryerson, the chair of the Labor Progressive Party's Education Committee, sponsored a National Affairs Conference on Marxist Studies of Canadian Development. The conference centred on presentations by Ryerson, party leader Tim Buck, and Fairley. A number of permanent committees were set up to carry out the work which the conference had organized. Fairley became Secretary of the overall organizing commitee and chair of the "People's History" Committee. No doubt, it was in this role that she devised her next work. 3 Early the following year, shortly after the publication of her first anthology, The Spirit of Canadian Democracy -and undaunted by the ban put on it by the Toronto Board of Education -she began to conceive of another collection. "The idea" for the book, she told her class in the Toronto Writer's Group, "came when I looked in vain in histories of the CPR for any account of the people who actually built the railway." A history of the "hand-making" of Canada, from accounts 'Margaret Fairley, "Our Cultural Heritage," New Frontiers (Winter 1952), 1-2. ( 1982), 103-70. No doubt her title, "The Real Makers of Canada," was intended as a sarcastic critique of the pre-World War I "Makers of Canada" series which focused on the biographies of statesmen, politicians, and generals. 256 LABOUR/LE TRAVAIL written by the "Real Makers" themselves had the potential, in Fairley's opinion, "to build up pride and confidence, and to illustrate in a direct personal way the class struggle." To this end, she gathered the papers of early settlers, transcriptions of interviews with escaped slaves, letters from a Saskatchewan farmer and a late eighteenth century Quebec doctor, and evidence given by workers in 1827 and 1828 government reports. 6 A stroke of genius, however, was Fairley's idea to solicit new autobiographical accounts written by "old-time" workers and settlers still alive in the 1950s. The notice she published in The Tribune garnered several responses, the best three of which (printed below) were to be included in the book. Unfortunately Fairley never completed the project she called With Our Own Hands. Had the book appeared, Margaret Fairley would now be remembered as a pioneer herself, both in the writing of Canadian labour history and in the use of oral history methods. Somehow she sensed that there were unusually strong affinities in Canada between oral history and labour history. "Canada," she commented, "is one of the few countries in the world where it might be possible to get such an entirely first-hand account of its making from virgin forest and plain and mountain." 7 For their part, Fairley's contributors seemed to feel that they were in some way incapable of expressing themselves. One wrote, I have not made a very good job of expressing my opinions of life's history, hope you can understand it -you may find something worth while [sic] but I could do no better as I have never done any writing.
doi:10.2307/25143677 fatcat:gz7qo5obazaqrmdgng2lws44ku