Travels and Tales of Miriam Green Ellis: Pioneer Journalist of the Canadian West
Edited and with an Introduction by Patricia Demers (pictured left)
University of Alberta Press, 215 pages, $39.95
Reviewed by Myrna Kostash
Very few readers of newspapers and magazines notice or remember journalists’ by-lines. Even those journalists–think of Doris Anderson or Barbara Moon or June Callwood–who once were memorable soon fade from public memory as a new generation of readers arrives. Such oblivion has doubly been the fate of women journalists in the early twentieth century who never wrote a book and who laboured under the heavy hand of paternalism in newsrooms. Journalists such as the all-but-forgotten Miriam Green Ellis (1879-1964) wrote over a period of four decades in such publications as the Edmonton Bulletin, Grain Growers’ Guide or the Family Herald and Weekly Star, but managed to stay away from the dreaded Women’s Pages. Ellis was an agricultural reporter when this was undreamed, of until E. Cora Hind came along in 1901 at the Manitoba Free Press where she became a noted journalist famed for the accuracy of her crop estimates. Ellis and Hind liked to scandalize Toronto high society by showing up in breeches at the Royal Winter Fair.
Ellis also kept diaries and gave public lectures, to horticultural societies, University Women’s Clubs and the Canadian Women’s Press Club. She had a life-long commitment to the press club’s ideals as cited in its Constitution: “To improve and maintain the status of journalism as a profession for women and to provide counsel and promote understanding and assistance among press women.”
University of Alberta professor Patricia Demers has recovered Ellis for new readers by delving into the twenty-two boxes of Ellis’s archives bequeathed to the Special Collections of the U of A Library. Demers has edited this representative selection of her writings and photographs as well as providing the book’s Preface and Introduction. She makes the case that, in reconsidering the life and work of Ellis, we encounter “reflections of a past and culture that continue to inform our understanding.” In the manner of academic scholarship, Demers’ own reflections turn to what philosopher Jacques Derrida had to say about archives, to a defense of Ellis the travelogue-journalist as one who “enacts the drama of departure and return, without overlooking experiences of frustration and disjuncture,” and to a characterization of her as a “liminal figure.”
But the point of this edition of Ellis’s work is the work itself, and here the reader is in for a real treat. Demers has chosen a judicious selection of travel writing (the lively 1922 account of Ellis’s trip from Edmonton to Aklavik which she took on her own, her editor at the Bulletin refusing to assign the story); unpublished fiction based on reported events; agricultural reports in the 1930s full of human interest as she travelled the drought-stricken prairies: “By July the water holes had all dried up . . . stories were told of farmers shooting their animals.” Included are such miscellanea as an observation of a Sun Dance at Hobbema–“I felt saddened that I was to witness what would, in all probability, be the last Sun Dance ever to be seen in the West,” and an account of a visit to the Banff Fine Arts School, as it was known then in 1947.
Demers sizes up Ellis as “a self-sufficient woman eager to tell a story, by turns candid and sharp-tongued, intuitive and curious.” In other words, the compleat journalist.
Edmonton writer Myrna Kostash is author of Prodigal Daughter: A journey to Byzantium.