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Nellie McClung: Pioneering a thankless business, with rewards

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on April 1, 1939.

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on April 1, 1939.

When I wandered through the aisles of books in the 750,000-volume Parliamentary Library in Ottawa, I had as my guide a woman who is spending the winter in Ottawa, and who knew where to find some of the treasures.

She led me up little stairs into one of the alcoves, where down in the corner were two grey scrapbooks, great big ones, old and dry, ready to crumble at the touch. We were afraid to lift them, so laid them on the glass floor, and kneeling beside them took turns reading them.

They were carefully indexed, so we had a choice. Would we read Catherine Parr’s manuscript or one of Robert Burns’ letters? Naturally, we read the latter, dated 1796, at Dumfries. In it, the poet took affectionate farewell to his friend Clarke.

“You would not recognize the emaciated hand which holds this pen,” the letter said. “What the outcome will be is in the hands of the great Unknown whose creature I am.”

The writing, faded by the passing of nearly 150 years, is strong and beautiful. We passed our hands over the paper, and thought tenderly of the great soul who wrote O Wert Thou in the Cauld, Cauld Blast and The Cotter’s Saturday Night.

We intended to read Catherine Parr’s manuscript, but we found a parchment with the crest of Oxford University, in which the vice-chancellor, a man named Rowley, denounces in classical phrases a veterinary surgeon named Samuel Wild. Rowley warns the students and the public to have nothing to do with Wild.  It will be at their own peril if they do.

We wondered how a humble veterinary surgeon could have so bitterly offended the vice-chancellor. (Perhaps he had done a job of bone-setting for the learned gentleman.)

Then we read a bill to depose Queen Caroline Elizabeth, wife of one of the Georges, which certainly breathed fire and brimstone on the erring queen. Poor Caroline Elizabeth! Accusers were eloquent in their charges.

By the time we read half of the bill, we were sure she was innocent. The cause of the outburst seems to have been that she had in her employ a low fellow of obscure birth, and had been seen talking to him.

Rapturously, her accusers fell upon this indiscretion and to make her appear still more guilty, paragraphs of praise for the king, and his prudent ways, are set in contrast. The king has always been pure and virtuous, “deaf and blind to the wiles of every female or females.”

The writers of the bill call on the king to rise “in his purity” and rid the court of Caroline.

And there we had to leave her.

In another one of the little projections, dealing with Spain, I picked up a book called The Spanish Pioneers, and hastily read the introduction. The writer complained that justice had never been done to the Spanish explorers. Their glory had been stolen from them by imaginative and untrustworthy historians. The English textbooks had ignored them, so in a passion of indignation this book had been written.

I learned from its pages that it was a Spaniard who first saw and explored the finest gulf in the world; a Spaniard who found the greatest ocean; a Spaniard who first knew there were two continents in America; a Spaniard who first went around the world.

There have been Spanish schools for Indians in America since 1524. Books in 12 different Indian languages had been printed in Mexico City nearly a century before there was even a printing press in English America; three Spanish universities were rounding out their century before Harvard was founded.  

All of which makes a glorious record for that small European country that now lies bleeding.

The papers, that day, were heavily charged with the stories of her brave people, their sorrows, their suffering, their martyrdom, at the hands of ruthless and unscrupulous neighbours. In the spirit of what they have done for the world in discovery, in exploration, there is now no eye to pity and no arm to save them. Spain has been left to her fate.

Pioneering is a thankless business, anyway. Last week, I was in Medicine Hat, and saw the making of pottery, from the piles of clay at one end of the plant to the lovely plates, bowls, teapots and vases at the other.

It has become a real industry, employing many people. The products are sent to every part of Canada, and even to Australia and New Zealand. The clay comes from East End, in Saskatchewan, and must be one of the finest ceramic clays anywhere. It burns a smooth, soft ivory in colour, is hard, durable and beautiful.

But no one seems to remember the Saskatchewan school teacher who searched diligently after school and holidays until she found this clay. She had her own kiln, and experimented many years ago. She put the savings of her years of teaching into her work, and lost everything. And now, no one that I asked could tell me her name and I have forgotten it, too.

Pioneers must have other than monetary rewards. And who knows? Some day a new and enthusiastic president of some Canadian club might revive the memory of the Saskatchewan school teacher, and a bust might be modelled of her in the clay she discovered, and her picture and life story might be put in the new school readers.

People follow the lead of nature in being careful of the race, but “careless of the single life.”