Forming Her Activism


The influence of older generations

Joan's early years had a profound influence on her life. In particular, her mother, Dorothy Allan, and grandmother, Susie Coggins, were powerful role models for her. In 1945, when Joan was five years, her father Hugh Allan was discharged from the army with tuberculosis, when the family was living in Quebec. Her mother Dorothy brought the family back to Nova Scotia to get medical help, but her father was unable to get into the Kentville tuberculosis sanatorium as they were short of nurses. Dorothy, who was a nurse, arranged to work there if they would take her husband; however, since they felt he was unlikely to survive, Dorothy made arrangements for her three children to be cared for by family members. Even though her mother tried repeatedly, her father was never deemed eligible for a military pension.

And so it was that Joan went to live with her Grandmother Coggins in the rural area of Weymouth North. Her grandmother modelled reading and listening in order to be informed so she could be involved in the social issues of her time, which gave Joan a strong sense of the value of learning. Her grandfather, Lev Coggins, was the harbour pilot that led ships from all over the world into the Sisaboo River in Weymouth North to pick up lumber. Joan remembers her grandmother putting on Sunday dinners for the captain and crew and their stories of life in various countries told with broken English and hand gestures. Her grandmother was also called on to be a midwife on many occasions when the doctor could not make it in time for a delivery. She helped make ends meet by sewing and wallpapering. Joan learned from a young age how to do many things for herself.

When she was nine years old, the family was able to be together again. Joan remembers the excitement of meeting the plane at the Yarmouth airport. The importance of family has remained front and centre in her life.

The family lived in a home in Yarmouth that belonged to a friend of her father's, for although her father had been cured of his TB with a new experimental drug, he was left with a mental health condition that prevented him from working. Her mother worked as a night shift nurse in the Yarmouth hospital.

With the example of a mother and grandmother who were firmly connected to community issues, Joan paid close attention from a young age, and even as a pre-teen, wrote down the election results from the radio to discuss them with her brother Wilfred. They still share similar political perspectives.

Joan's mother Dorothy recalled how her mother would get involved in the community, for instance when hearing in the late 1920's that small country schools in Nova Scotia had to have a locked bookcase before they were eligible for school library funding, Susie wasted no time in getting her husband to approach a neighbour to build the locked bookcase. As a woman of that era, she had no voice in non-domestic matters, so her husband had to do the asking.

Dorothy was a strong influence on Joan's social development principles. After a few years of nursing at the local hospital, she was hired as the first Yarmouth school nurse, who became by default the guidance counsellor for children in various stages of crisis. It was a job that allowed her to work on a similar schedule as her children at a time when mothers did not work outside the home—and Joan recalls how her mother was criticized for not staying home. Her mother was not only a model for balancing multiple life-role commitments, but she also modelled empathy rather than an attitude of patronage towards families in trouble. She once told a young man, "There is no shame in being poor, but there is shame in not looking after yourself". This same man recounted this story when he later became the Mayor of Yarmouth.

At age 50, Dorothy went to Dalhousie to study hospital administration in order to become Director of Nursing at the new Yarmouth Regional Hospital. Although this entailed hardships for the entire family, she graduated from the program and began her new job as Director of Nursing in the early 1960s. In 2010, Dorothy was recognized by the Registered Nurses' Association at their 100th Anniversary for her innovative work at the School of Nursing and her leadership in nursing services for the province.


When Joan married, she lived outside Montreal where she taught school. When she became pregnant, she was immediately asked to resign, but Joan decided to fight and many parents showed up at a school board meeting to protest this policy. Joan kept going to school and a series of letters to the School Board ensued, demanding they put in writing the reason she should not be allowed to teach. At last, six weeks before the baby was due, she received a letter that made reference to her "illness" as the reason for her having to leave. By this time, happy to take leave, Joan responded that since her condition was regarded as an illness, she would take sick leave and keep her pay. The board hired a substitute to finish the school year and had to pay Joan as well. She returned to teaching the following September and from that time onward, no teacher was ever asked to resign if she became pregnant. This was the background to her feminist awakening.

While living in Quebec, Joan and some friends decided to form a local group of the Canadian Federation of University Women, where book discussions were part of their meetings. Betty Friedan's groundbreaking publication in 1964 of The Feminine Mystique made for provocative discussion:

That book was really interesting to read at that time. You have that awakening coming out of what you're reading, what you're discussing, so it just becomes part of you.

The need for a library in her school was pressing. With the discovery that McDonald College had a bookmobile that travelled to other rural areas, Joan called the college to inquire if it could make a stop at her school. It only took the issue to be identified for it to happen. Later, Joan helped to lobby successfully for a public library in her community of Beloeil, Quebec.

Back to Nova Scotia

In 1971, Joan's husband changed jobs and the family was able to return to Nova Scotia. They had two daughters and a baby boy. When Joan joined the board of the Dartmouth "Y" and began to chair the adult program committee, it became clear that childcare would help not only women like herself, but also Y parents, and Joan spearheaded conversion of a room into a child-suitable space. While planning various programs, she was invited to a discussion on emerging feminist issues gaining currency in the early 70s. Out of curiosity, she went to that meeting, and emerged a changed woman.

I got it right away. I was also going through a marriage breakup and feeling many of the inequalities. But I had a Mom who, when I look back, must have been a big role model without my even knowing it at the time.

1975 was International Women's Year (IWY) and Joan was appointed by the Nova Scotia Government to represent the Dartmouth area on the Provincial Steering Committee for IWY.

I think we have these role models we don't know we have at the time. It's subconscious—we just absorb it. You know that expression, "We stand on other people's shoulders"?