Stories of Passion, Persistence, and Public Service

Photo of Shauna Butterwick
About the Author

Shauna Butterwick is a Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research and teaching interests focus, in part, on community-based adult education, feminist approaches to social justice, and women's learning across various contexts including social movements.


Women Social Activists of Atlantic Canada: Stories of Passion, Persistence and Public Service

I must begin by thanking Liz Burge for the invitation to comment on the narratives of women activists of Atlantic Canada and for her vision and dedication to this important project. To the women she spoke with, I thank you for giving your time to speak with Liz and, more particularly, for the years you have devoted to making the world a better place. While these stories are relevant to Canadians, international audiences will also benefit from examining these profiles as they offer many case studies of making a difference and challenging injustice. These profiles offer much wisdom for advocates working with a wide variety of issues: adequate and affordable housing; public health; urban planning and historic restoration; services and rights of seniors; preservation of Aboriginal culture and language; violence against women; the economic and social costs of alcoholism and addiction; francophone education; and homelessness and anti-poverty initiatives. Readers will also learn about the work of many voluntary women's organizations that receive little public attention and about the history of social change in Atlantic Canada. (Mirth, 2003.) What did these women accomplish? Let me offer a quick snap shot. Many of these activists were devoted to social justice through their religious service including Sisters Angie Martz, Kathrine Bellamy, Joan O'Keefe and Dorothy Moore. These women and others, including Phyllis Artiss and Viola Robinson, also advocated for services and self-determination of Indigenous communities. Working in community development to counter racism and marginalization of the Black community in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick was important in the activism of Yvonne Atwell and Sue Rickards. The extensive involvement of volunteers across multiple arenas of life is evident in Shirley Chernin's narrative. Many of these women were actively involved with Councils for the Status of Women including Ann Bell, Stella Lord, and Mary Lou Stirling. Other women's organizations such as Women's Institutes, the YWCA and the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW) were also the sites of activism as evident in the profiles of Joan Hicks, Elizabeth Lacey and Kathy Sheldon. Betty Peterson's peace activism led her to working with Muriel Duckworth and the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW). Two of the women gave their hearts and time to correcting the marginalization of the Francophone community in Atlantic Canada: Maria Bernard and May Bouchard. Several women saw women's representation in union decision making and involvement with political parties as crucial: Ann Brennan, Shannie Duff, Nancy Riche and Edith Perry. Nursing proved to be an important site for activist learning for Ann Bell, Olive Bryanton and Madeleine Gaudet. Anti-poverty work and the provision of adequate services to distressed and economically poor families lie at the core of the long term activism of Carolyn McNulty. Marian Perkins focussed on developing alcohol addiction services and advocating for women living within the justice system. But this overview of accomplishments does not do justice to these women's accomplishments so please take some time to read them.

Linking to my own learning

Much wisdom about how to understand the meaning and processes of social change is evident in these profiles. There is much that I learned from reading these accounts but several key reminders stood out. First, the leadership, work, commitment and wisdom of women in bringing about social change have contributed so much and often remains hidden, a topic dear to my heart. (Butterwick, 1998.) Second, effective social change is a grass roots organic process that takes place everywhere: in and outside of institutions, in community meetings and around kitchen tables, through street protest, in meetings with government and policy makers, and in engagements with the media. Third, movements for social change are about networks, not just individuals. Fourth, social change is all about lifelong learning and praxis, studying an issue, taking action, getting feedback, moving forward. What these profiles offer is a rich source of case studies that should be considered by students and scholars of adult education, women's studies, urban planning, health promotion and public policy development. Other key themes that struck me are offered below; they are analysed separately here but are very much interrelated.

Living and breathing an activist life

For these activists engaging in advocacy work was fully integrated into their life, their paid and unpaid work. Family was a powerful teacher about their responsibilities to others and to work for social change. Sister Angie Martz, for example, recalled how during the depression, those out of work often came to the family farm looking for food and shelter. “They were always treated with the greatest respect and given more than many would give”. Phyllis Artiss recalls how her parents, while not using the term social justice, “talked to us about the Golden Rule … treating others as we wanted to be treated ourselves”.

Taking action and speaking out

Many spoke about the importance of taking action and not waiting for others or government to recognize problems and do something. May Bouchard's approach was consistently proactive: “if you see problems, you must take action; don't wait for someone else”. Ann Brennan comments on how, for her, social change was a personal issue before she moved into the public arena. Angie Martz offers wise words: “be hard on injustice and gentle on people”. Speaking out publicly and, for some, engaging in protest were key aspects of social change but they brought their own risks. When Yvonne Atwell spoke out she faced resistance and some people who boldly challenged her arguments: “who do you think you are?” Madeleine Gaudet cautions that in taking public action and having a voice means you won't please everyone. Similarly Carolyn McNulty suggests that we cannot win every battle so we need to set our priorities. Marian Perkins reminds us to prepare for critique and opposition as well as indifference.

Changing public policy

These activists devoted much of their time working to change government policies and programs. They were wise in their strategies and worked with many government levels. For example, Shannie Duff, frustrated with the lack of municipal response, went to Ottawa and found programs that would fund such initiatives. Ann Brennan's approach involved both critique but also offering solutions. Elizabeth Lacey kept communication open with policy makers and made personal connections. Persistence and patience are key for working to change policy because frustrations will arise. Olive Bryanton, for example, fought against policy makers who did not recognize the knowledge and skills of seniors.

Doing your homework

All of the activists spoke about how social change cannot happen if you don't carefully analyze the issues and understand underlying causes. You need to get help from others for this work. Ann Bell, for example, enlisted experts and Marian Perkins collaborated with university researchers. Listening is an essential skill for social change and all of the activists spoke to this. Sue Rickards describes how listening is essential to working in solidarity with communities, rather than assuming a helping role and indicating that you understand the problems and know the solutions.

Building a network

All the women spoke about how they were part of a collective or network in their social change advocacy. May Bouchard argues that recognizing the strengths of others was essential; Marion Perkins emphasizes the importance of thanking those who have helped and giving them credit. Sister Kathrine Bellamy spoke about asking others for ideas and then getting out of the way of those more capable. One of the important aspects of a network, as Madeleine Gaudet notes, is getting feedback.

Heartfelt action

Passion is a strong theme running throughout these stories. Anger was something many felt when they witnessed or experienced injustice. Shannie Duff was “outraged that there was no response from city hall”. Nancy Riche witnessed how women were sidelined in union decision making and used her anger to interrupt the old boys' network of power. While anger serves as a cue for injustice, many, like May Bouchard, cautioned that advocates should not be angry when speaking out: “conciliation, not confrontation is best”. Be hard on injustice but gentle with people.

Working with media and public

To get the attention of politicians and to educate the public, many of the activists worked strategically with the media. They learned many lessons: key ones being know the facts and stick to them; don't get frustrated, and repeat the message. Olive Bryanton and many others noted how patience and persistence are required. Educating the public was part of the work of several activists. Both Phyllis Artiss and Elizabeth Lacey, for example, noted how “activism always involves some teaching”. Maria Bernard calls on activists to educate, not confront. Shannie Duff worked hard to build community awareness and ownership of the problems.

Linking to fields of study

There is much intergenerational learning that can take place if younger activists were directed to read these profiles. These stories also contribute to understanding the process of changing policy and how the knowledge generated through grass roots activism can be an essential source of information for social policy development. For adult education scholars like myself, these narratives also offer rich examples of social movement learning, particular feminist activism. (Butterwick & Selman, 2003; Butterwick, 2003.) These stories also remind me of the need for active engagement in fighting for our social safety net given the punitive welfare reforms undertaken by government and their associated cuts to funding. (Butterwick, 2010; Butterwick & White, 2006.) These stories clearly illustrate the central role of democratic public engagement as a key element of social change and how lifelong learning is central to the process of social change. These profiles are all inspiring examples of sustained, passionate, and democratic social change, three elements at the core of achieving social justice. These women activists have shown us the way; let us learn from them and continue to find ways for intergenerational and international dialogue.


Butterwick, S. (1998). Lest We Forget: Uncovering Women’s Leadership in Adult Education. In G. Selman, M. Selman, M. Cooke & P. Dampier (Eds.) The Foundations of Adult Education in Canada (pp. 103-116). Second Edition. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing. Butterwick, S. (2003). Researching speaking and listening across difference: Exploring feminist coalition politics through participatory theatre. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16 (3), 443-459. Butterwick, S. (2010, July). Meaningful training programs for BC welfare recipients with multiple barriers: Help first, not work first. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Online: Butterwick, S. & Selman, J. (2003). Deep listening in a feminist popular theatre project: Upsetting the position of audience in participatory education. Adult Education Quarterly, 53 (4), 7-23. Butterwick, S. with White, C. (February, 2006). A path out of poverty: Helping BC income assistance recipients upgrade their education. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Online: Mirth, D. (2003). The marginalized role of non-formal education in the development of adult education. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 17 (1), 19-45.