Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. 240-41.
For years, we've known little about Dorise Nielsen, other than the curious fact that she holds the distinction of being the first federally elected communist in Canada. What, one wonders, caused a prairie farm wife and mother to run successfully as the United Progressive candidate for North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1940? The answers are multifaceted according to Faith Johnston's award-winning biography. Partly, Johnston attributes Nielsen's motivation to culture shock at her transformation from a middle-class urban English existence to the isolation, poverty, and deprivation of life on a central Saskatchewan farm during the Depression. Secondly, and equally significantly, Nielsen's personality, with her stubborn refusals to accept the status quo, combined with prodigious energy, enthusiasm, and charisma were what led to her politicization and lengthy career as a spokesperson, politician, and loyal party worker.
Johnston is skilled at getting us quickly into the heart of the story, relaying "how Canada was Nielsen's university" and how the tough lessons taught there forged her political views. Recounting Nielsen's short stint as a single, greenhorn teacher at a rural Saskatchewan school through to her unfulfilling marriage to a farmer, Johnston goes on to emphasize the impact of providing for a family while on relief, and how the degradation and anger forged by this experience (which included the loss of a child for whom medical care was unattainable) provided a brutally harsh tutorial about economic and gendered inequities. Notably, where other radical women found themselves in the backrooms and kitchens supporting male politicians, Neilson's natural talents for public speaking and her ability to connect with people made her the logical, yet unconventional choice to be the political candidate.