Project Origins


As a "come-from-away" to Atlantic Canada in 1993, I had no idea that the region I would call home for the next eighteen years had such a vibrant tradition of women activists. Of course I was aware of the rich traditions associated with the Antigonish Movement for social and economic change, and perhaps expected to find a more organized and overt collation of social change activism in the region. But profiles of prominent contemporary women social activists were at a premium, and only gradually did I discover that while some activists were well-known inside their own province, with a couple of notable exceptions, their renown did not exceed these boundaries. So who was documenting their life work and achievements as they accumulated the incomparable wisdom of experience?

How many activist women in Nova Scotia, for example, would know the work of their counterparts in Newfoundland and Labrador? As I began to consult throughout the region, I discovered that the documentary function of the Let's Teach About Women project that focused on the women's movement between 1970 and 1989 in Newfoundland and Labrador was the exception rather than the rule. As I came to know the region better through my own academic, personal, and activist networks, I discovered women engaged in forms of social activism too numerous to fit neat designations; their work overlapped feminist issues but could not in all cases be contained by them.

Inspiring regional role models

When I was still working at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), Joan Hicks of Nova Scotia became an adult education colleague. After I was based in Fredericton in the mid-1990s, Eileen Travis and Sue Rickards appeared on my horizon. Before her death in 2005, Eileen was a fearless, strategic, community-change agent in Saint John. She once explained to my graduate students how her change strategies worked in practice. The Honourable Margaret Norrie McCain was also an inspiration as she educated Canadians about family violence issues and the need for better early childhood education; not to mention significantly changing the role of New Brunswick's Lt. Governorship to be more relevant to citizen interests and community-defined issues. Eileen, or Sue, and I would exchange stories from our activism; when Sue began teaching a popular community development and change course for the University of New Brunswick's Adult Education program, she casually mentioned the names of activist peers. I took note but no more action, because a two-year work stint in Sweden was looming.

Precursor research: the experience of elders

Then a detour occurred that taught me much about interviewing and the perspectives of elders at retirement age and beyond who possessed significant experience in a specialist field of practice. Between 2004 and 2007, with funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), I documented aspects of the career experience of 44 elders, whose work in the second half of the 20th century enhanced the accessibility of credit-based higher education via distance education technologies. Every one of these distance pioneers was indisputably an activist in challenging traditional systems to become more open, flexible, and adapted for adult learners.

Being just a bit younger myself, I knew many of the mostly retired distance pioneers, and I was eager to collect their wisdom, spurred on by an intimation that seniors in the field were being by-passed as lacking pertinent knowledge. None had been interviewed to capture their skill-informed wisdom and insightful reflections on change in their field.

The results of the study, which included both women and men, were presented as composite qualitative analyses highlighted with colourful narratives, lessons, and aphorisms. (Burge, Elizabeth. Flexible Higher Education: Reflections from Expert Experience, Open University Press, 2007.) The depth and breadth of thought these elders brought to bear on their life's work was impressive. Significantly, as retirees, they had clearly felt free to speak their minds without fear of censure, which added an important dimension to their knowledge. Post-publication, I was somewhat surprised at the enthusiasm from younger colleagues who told me they gained grounding wisdom and reinforcement for their own developing principles; not to mention their relish at deliciously frank stories about what went on behind the scenes.