Practicing Social Activism


Marian's activism took an exponential leap after her husband died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1968. She began work as a Field Representative for the Alcohol Education Division of the New Brunswick Department of Health, one of only two staff in Saint John and the first woman in the province with this responsibility. Their basement office caused her co-worker to comment, "The only way to go is up!"

Three beliefs guided Marian's work: First, that recovery is possible for most alcoholics although some will not live long enough for it to happen; second, that when families seek counseling first, the person suffering from addiction is more apt to go for treatment earlier; and third, that a concerted effort was needed to reach professionals and policymakers who were in a position to create helpful change.

Marian and her colleague Fred Paschal, who was experienced in the field of addictions, worked together doing education in the schools, community organizations and churches, as well as with professionals; they used radio and television to get the message out. Working long hours each week, they also conducted home visits as well as counseling alcoholics in their office. Marian's children were even enlisted to help with preparations for various events.

Fuelled by determination to raise public awareness on the issue, as well as gaining high-profile expert support, Marian entered into provocative discussions in the public media:

I think I was bolder and accomplished more when I was a novice, working without direct supervision, ignorant of the restrictions by which one is controlled as a lowly civil servant.

In October 1969, Marian attended a major seminar on alcoholism in Fredericton with leading expert Dr. J. P. Chiasson from Sherbrooke University. Afterwards, she wrote a letter to the Telegraph-Journal, New Brunswick's provincial newspaper, posing the question as to why such a key event would go unreported. As a result, Marian became the subject of an article in the paper that gave her exposure to a large readership, raised awareness of her work in Saint John and provided a platform for education on the effects of alcoholism and the need for supports to the family. Another action she took was to write a letter to the Minister of Health at the time, whom she visited later on a trip to Fredericton.

In 1971, Marian presented a detailed brief to the Study Committee on Alcoholism headed by Dr. George Everett Chalmers. She described "the dismal and dreary office space from which we try to dispense light and hope to clients." After a change of government in 1973, the Minister and Deputy Minister actually came to see the "dismal space," and Marian kept up the pressure for reform. Not long after this, the government opened the Alcoholism Treatment Centre at 1 Hazen Avenue in Saint John. An uptown location with better office space and greatly improved services, the Centre offered a detoxification unit, rehabilitation groups, and the community education program. At the beginning, there were no beds for women, but eventually a small section was set aside for them. Despite the fact that the services of Lonewater Farm had been available to men for some time, there were no rehabilitation groups or longer-term programs offered to women. Almost 50 years later, there is still no comparable place for women, as far as we know.

The need for extended and improved services finally prompted the government to take action, and at the close of 1979, the treatment services were moved into beautiful new surroundings at South Bay, the Ridgewood Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre (now Ridgewood Addiction Services).

We were so excited and happy at the prospect of being able to offer help to more and more people in this therapeutic environment. One thing that I am proud of is that I started the Family Program at Ridgewood in 1980 and it is still being held.

Challenges in alcohol addiction activism

We were as welcome as ants at a picnic, but we persevered.

The climate of the times was that alcohol addiction was not generally treated as an illness, but rather something to be ashamed of that must be hidden. The more there was at stake socially or professionally for victims of alcoholism, the greater the efforts that were mounted to conceal the problem.

At the level of medical care, there were other problems of status and attitude to face:

We constantly encountered not only indifference, but a kind of dismissiveness. For example, as soon as people heard we were workers in the field, those on a higher professional level would proceed to tell us their views about alcoholism without any interest in having a discussion with us.

These were barriers she confronted when medical professionals were unwilling to expedite diagnosis and treatment for their alcoholic patients, beyond medication and detoxification. At the time, there was a lack of community resources such as continuing care following detoxification for alcoholic patients. In the late 1960s, alcoholics were still being admitted to Centracare, the Saint John hospital for patients with mental illness. Marian says, "There is still a great need for long-term rehabilitation for someone whose illness has advanced—especially women."

At a summer meeting of the New Brunswick Medical Society (NBMS) in 1972, Marian distributed information on an upcoming conference. The conference, organized by the Alcoholism Seminar Committee in Saint John, would take place in the fall and feature national alcoholism treatment expert Dr. Gordon Bell of the Donwood Institute in Toronto. Her reception at the NBMS meeting was cool: "We were as welcome as ants at a picnic, but we persevered." However, the conference garnered a full house, including senior government leaders.

While the lack of interest on the part of the medical community presented its own challenges, addiction workers had to deal with entrenched ignorance and apathy on the part of helping agencies and the general public. Marian played a significant role in founding the Alcoholism Seminar Committee in 1971, which consisted of representatives from the University of New Brunswick Saint John, the City of Saint John, the New Brunswick Telephone Company, Alcohol Education Division, Marian and other employees, and volunteers. Seminars were targeted to business leaders, nurses, teachers, and clergy, to name a few, with the idea of educating those in a position to influence others with power to take action.

Motivated by the need to be sufficiently well informed to counter common misconceptions on alcoholism, Marian continuously upgraded her own knowledge by reading professional literature, training at the prestigious Donwood Institute in Toronto, listening carefully to practitioners and clients, organizing educational seminars, and attending national conferences. When she attended the workshop given by Dr. J. P. Chiasson of Sherbrooke University in 1969, Marian was deeply impressed with his message: "You don't work just with knowledge, you work with heart."

A high point of Marian's activism was establishing the Family Program in the newly opened Ridgewood Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre in 1980. Designed especially for loved ones of clients in the Rehab program and open to any interested persons, Marian is not surprised that this program continues to be needed:

My thinking has changed in that solutions are not as simple or clear as I once thought. As more and more young people fall victim to addiction, the situation has been greatly exacerbated. Also, the problem of denial unfortunately hasn't changed a lot, as it seems that families would rather think their loved one is mentally ill than admit there is a drinking/drug problem. Consequently, they do not seek help, eventually resorting to divorce or rejection of the sick family member.

Advocating for women in prison: the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John (EFSJ)

What these women in prison are experiencing is having an impact on their children. There are social repercussions—crime and poverty and addictions are social problems that result when people don't have the advantages that everyone should have in our society.

Realizing she would need to acquire a relevant university degree, Marian took advantage of decentralized courses offered by the Maritime School of Social Work through the University of New Brunswick Saint John. As her field project, she chose the establishment of the Elizabeth Fry Society in Saint John, and was awarded a Bachelor of Social Work degree in 1987.

The mission of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John is to help women who are marginalized, victimized, criminalized or at risk of becoming so. In 1985, Marian invited women working in Corrections, Probation, and Parole Services to attend a meeting for the purpose of forming a committee to establish a chapter in Saint John. In the fall of 1986, the Volunteer Centre put out a public call for volunteers to join the committee, and on April 2, 1987, The Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John was officially organized. Marianna Stack was one of those who responded to the call and has been the guiding force in EFSJ ever since then. Marian has been a volunteer since the inception of EFSJ, continuing to this day.

While the challenges in this field were similar to those encountered in alcohol addiction, they carried a greater negative impact:

There is even less acceptance of addicted women who happen to be in prison, and the penal institutions are resistant to change even if another approach might make their work easier and produce better results.

Given access to women in the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, Marian and other volunteers have visited them weekly since 1987. The first year they gave them a Christmas party and initiated a Christmas gift program for their children—both have become traditions. When Marianna Stack retired from teaching, she initiated programs such as the anti-shoplifting program for Grade Five students in two school districts, as well as the highly successful Read-Aloud Program for incarcerated mothers to read books on tape for their children. The book, the tape, and an audio player are then sent to the child. Other programs provided by EFSJ volunteers include Bingo, craft nights, one-on-one counseling, and pet therapy sessions that help the women to relax.

In the early years, EFSJ volunteers attempted to run a program developed by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS); however, it was designed for longer-term prisoners and did not fit those with relatively shorter confinements. The volunteers decided they would just listen to the women as they talked about their needs:

Their needs are so great and there is so little help available. There should be more counselling for them, and addiction programming. Most of the women are so into addiction that they should be in intensive therapy, not in a jail.

Marian has made many other jail visits, for instance on several occasions to see Maritime women who are incarcerated in the Prison for Women (P4W) in Kingston; and since it opened in 1995, regular visits to women in the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, Nova Scotia. At present, EFSJ is contracted with Correctional Services of Canada to provide the Read-Aloud Program for women at the Nova Institution in Truro, and books are mailed both inside and outside Canada.

Challenges in Advocating for Women in Prison

We are just volunteers so it doesn't matter how much experience we have—we're not regarded as any authority at all by the government. Also, I think they don't want to spend money on helping these people because there is not the political will to do it.

Most prisoners seen by volunteers with Elizabeth Fry Saint John have been convicted of fraud and shoplifting offenses that are related to the pressures associated with poverty and addiction.

We believe the emphasis should be on healing, not on punishment. People should be given the option to enter rehabilitation, and if they choose to do so, their progress would be assessed, and after a reasonable amount of time, if they do not show inclination to adopt a new way of thinking and behaving, they will be transferred to regular incarceration.

Marian feels that prison is beneficial only if the environment supports the possibility for healing; but for the most part, jails are far from therapeutic. All too often a person is still in the throes of drug withdrawal when jailed, and should be more appropriately treated in a detoxification centre.

Volunteers with EFSJ still have to clarify their position, which is that they are not trying to abolish prisons entirely, since there are people who are a danger to society and to themselves who must be locked away. And while there is finally some attention being paid to people with mental health problems, especially youth, EFSJ is concerned for all those mentally ill adults who still languish in jail.

Highlights of Activism

Expressing myself in singing has sustained me through some dark times. The fellowship of my church choir and my faith community, the love of my children and grandchildren, and the affection shared with my friends, and women in prison, bring me great joy and satisfaction.

Marian's satisfaction from the work with EFSJ comes from several sources. High on her list is what she describes as the privilege of talking sympathetically with hundreds of women on a one-to-one basis. After more than two decades of advocacy work, EFSJ still exists mainly on contributions from generous donors, along with occasional foundation grants. The community support is very gratifying; however, a permanent staff person is urgently needed. If there was a source of stable funding, EFSJ could hire a former prisoner for full-time employment.

Those who have taken the leadership have brought the Society to a high level of achievement in organizing the Mother/Child Read-Aloud Program in provincial and federal prisons, the Christmas gift program for children of incarcerated mothers, the anti-shoplifting program in the schools, and many other endeavours.

Most disappointing for Marian has been the government's refusal to take action on suggested improvements; in particular, she notes the lack of support from female members of the Legislative Assembly.

Alcoholism and drug addiction reach victims in all levels. The concern that we show for others might come back and be a benefit to us someday.