I’ve pretty much spent every waking hour of the past twenty-four reading this book that, essentially, tells how a homeless woman ended up dying on the streets of Hamilton, Ontario, a story that might strike one as being not especially new. After all, there are only so many ways a homeless person dies. Usually from some form of violence, neglect, or addiction.
This is what I thought, that there was no new story to tell on the subject, so why read?
And yet once started I could not stop reading.
Why? Partly because of how Denise Davy tells the story. Oh my god, where do I begin to even say how well written this is. Throughout, I marvelled at how she, the author, was so very adept at restraint, keeping her emotion out of things and letting the story be entirely Margaret’s.
Margaret Louise Jacobson is the Margaret of Her Name Was Margaret: Life and Death on the Streets. Born to ultra-Christian, missionary parents, she spends the first fourteen or so years of her life being devoted to the church as her (rather unpleasant, austere) parents spread god’s word throughout every aspect of her childhood and the Caribbean. The book doesn’t go into the unnecessary details of their work, only suggesting the effect of all that fundamentalism on Margaret.
Then the voices start. And her family returns to Canada. The reader’s hope at this point is that they’ve come back in order to get help for Margaret, that they will stand by her in what is obviously the early signs of mental illness. But they deliver her instead into the arms of the Canadian mental health system while they return to god’s work and the system lets her down miserably.
That’s the story in a nutshell, but that’s not the story. That’s what we like to think the story is, or a version of it, for every ragged bit of humanity we see sleeping on sidewalk grates. Ah, well, we tell ourselves as we gingerly step around them or cross the street, some tragic tale, some sad past, another person slips between the cracks of a well-meaning system, probably their own fault in some way we can’t quite be bothered to name. If we’re in the mood to make ourselves feel noble, we drop change into a cup.
The other reason I couldn’t stop reading was because of how my mind and my eyes were being opened to a subject I thought I understood.
What Davy has done in this book is not only bring one person to life through making a small, personal connection with her, but also effectively taking us by the hand and walking us through a day, a month, a decade or five, of that life. And she’s done so without lectures or blame or righteousness but simply by saying look at this, and see that over there, and here’s a bit of info you may or may not care to know…
Davy, a well known journalist, received permission from a family member to access Margaret’s extensive medical files and with that (800+ pages), and access also to family letters, photographs and conversations with various people who knew her, she pieced together a life that with every page becomes more real.
Also more unreal insofar as the mind-boggling insanity of ‘the system’.
It is a story both shocking and endearing.
Davy honours one woman especially in this book, but in doing so she honours the homeless collectively and best of all, she offers suggestions for how we, as individuals, communities, and as a society, can honour our most disenfranchised fellow citizens by writing letters and demanding meaningful supports be put into place.
It’s not possible to read this and see homelessness the same way again. Not possible to carry on consoling ourselves with thoughts of how the homeless choose this lifestyle (the majority do not) or that there is simply nothing to be done with people who snarl and lash out, refusing to help themselves or allow others to help.
Because there’s a reason for that.
And there’s a solution.
On top of everything else, homelessness is expensive. The use of emergency and health care services, police, fire, prison, etc., (services used more frequently by the homeless due to lifestyle, mental health issues, and no other options) amounts to approximately $100,000 per year per (chronically) homeless individual. If anyone wants to talk money, it’s actually much cheaper to create supportive housing than support homelessness.
Along with the problems, Davy cites some uplifting examples of countries and cities that have adopted programs (like supportive housing) that work and where homelessness numbers (and costs) have dropped considerably.
Her Name Was Margaret is a compelling, unputdownable and strangely optimistic book for many reasons, not the least being that Davy shows us there IS a way out, a way both humane and economically viable. For that reason alone it’s must reading. Schools and universities included. We need to understand systems in order to fix them, not just sympathize with those caught in the middle.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened the book. To learn about one person, that would have been enough. I assumed there would be sadness, but I couldn’t have guessed that it would also contain such hope and be a source of enormous inspiration to DO something toward change.
I will be writing letters asking for change.
Thanks to Denise Davy for the extraordinary heart that has gone into the research and writing of the book. And to Wolsak & Wynn for publishing it.
Once upon a time there was a girl who grew up believing in bravery, truth, equality and heart. She thought everyone was the same.
She grew up.
She saw there was a difference.
And then one day so many voices sang a song she longed to hear… “same, different, what does it matter? !” What matters is brains and heart and truth sang the voices and the girl was happy to hear this happy song and packed up her brains and her bravery and her truth and arranged them on her new desk and on her shelves and she opened books that said this is allowed and this is allowed and this and this and she memorized it all and took it to heart and she was very good at keeping things true and there were pots of tea, and fresh cupcakes everywhere and they were marvellous and all was well.
Tra la, tra la, things went (or so it seemed) until out of the blue (or so it seemed) the people who said same different doesn’t matter said what are you doing? And the girl said keeping things true. And the same different people said why? And the girl looked up from her books, looked up into their faces, and she was confused, didn’t understand the word why.
There is no same they said (or maybe they implied it), everything is different. We thought you knew that. We thought you knew this was just a desk and those were just shelves (who cares that you line them with truth?) and you are just a girl and stop eating the good cupcakes… the stale ones are for you. We thought you knew that.
Once upon a time there was a girl.
I’m not a joiner of things, not a clubbish person generally. This has always been the case, although when I was about ten I invented The Boogie Woogie Club and invited friends to join. Amazingly, on opening day, a few showed up in my parents’ basement where we sat around until someone… Kathleen Erickson possibly… said so what’s this club about… I mean what do we do?
Good question, Kathleen, I thought. But I didn’t have an answer. To this day I have no idea what the Boogie Woogie club was supposed to be or why I’d thought of starting it. I do remember seeing the words boogie woogie in a song title in one of my lesson books for accordion and, knowing me,
I probably just wanted to incorporate it… somewhere. A club with no purpose would have seemed as good as anything.
The club disbanded shortly after Kathleen’s unanswered question and we headed over to the school to do long jumps in the sand pits. Or similar.
Which more or less brings me to 2018.
Where I find myself part of another group, only this time I’m not the inventor (which bodes well for the group’s future).
Also, this group has that essential ingredient: a purpose.
The Wild Nellies is the result of two women having coffee one day and wondering what they could do to benefit the lives of other women, specifically women moving on from abusive relationships. What they landed on was the idea of women celebrating women through various disciplines — visual art, music, literature, sharing their own work or the work of someone that’s inspired or influenced them in some way. The event would be free, they decided, and held in one of the area’s most wonderful spaces, and all of it would be done to bring attention to the needs of a local women’s shelter.
That they take their name from Nellie McClung — writer, legislator, suffragist, activist, public speaker, one of Canada’s original feminists, and a member of The Famous Five, who met over tea to change the political shape of this country by having it declared (after extraordinary campaigning) that women were indeed ‘people’ — is most fitting and wonderful (not the least of which wonderfulness being the coffee/tea origins).
Women have always found ways around being invisible, of having no voice, of being ‘talked over’ and told to be quiet, that their passion and their interest in fairness is too ‘shrill’—
(A woman who knows what she wants and gets it, is often seen as headstrong, difficult, a force of nature, while a man who knows what he wants and gets it, is a man who knows what he wants and gets it.)
—Yet despite not having their voices listened to, and the sometimes even greater obstacles of being isolated, unable to speak the language, being penniless, afraid for their lives, or tied down with childcare, women continue to find ways to meet, to gather, to band together and bring about change for the betterment of not just themselves, but for all women, for community, the benefits of which ultimately reach beyond gender.
Which brings us to 2018 again.
And the announcement today of new legislation that requires employers in Ontario to pay all workers equal wages for equal work. While it has, for some time, been technically illegal to base wages on gender… until now it’s been okay to pay part-time workers less than full-time for the exact same job. And those part-time workers are often women.
It seems there’s no end of bits to take care of and so the tradition of women gathering continues.
Put the kettle on!
One of the the things I love best about Nellie McClung is that she used her fiction, her writing, as a springboard to discuss relevant issues of the day. This was unusual for a woman at the time. Women were meant to write about fluff and leave it at that.
And it’s what I love best about her namesakes, The Wild Nellies, who propose to do the same thing… use their art to bring attention to important issues.
I’m so happy to be a small part of their first ‘performance’ at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery on April 8th, along with eleven other women who will use their artistic voices to honour and celebrate the power of female creators in sculpture, film, theatre, illustration, literature, music and more, and in the process hopefully be part of that women’s domino effect that continues to try and make this pale blue dot a fairer, safer, and better place for us all.
Note: I have no problem at all making an exception to my otherwise anti-clubbishness ways for these chaps. Also, I think long-jumping might actually kill me at this point.
Minister of Justice and Attorney General
104 Legislative Building
Winnipeg, Manitoba R3C 0V8
Given the strong assumption going in that Raymond Cormier was Tina Fontaine’s murderer, and the wisdom of our infallible judicial system determining that he is not, I’m wondering what happens next. How does the case proceed from here, what steps will be taken to find Tina’s murderer?
I’m assuming efforts will be ramped up asap, yes?
Because there is a killer. (As far as I know it’s not possible for a person to wrap themselves in a duvet, then cover themselves with rocks in a river. Especially with an alcohol level ‘slightly higher than is legal for driving’ and ‘traces of marijuana’. Even for a First Nations girl.)
Because she was a girl.
And I’ll be blunt— please ask yourself… just imagine for a moment that she was a white girl, let’s even give her blonde hair and blue eyes, let’s make her pageant quality in perfection of all those things that don’t actually matter (but somehow do), including pedigree. And there she is, in the river, in a duvet, covered in rocks. And let’s imagine some low life happens to have been hanging around her, has threatened some unsavoury actions, even admitted to killing her in off-handed ways. But… his DNA wasn’t found on the Costco duvet. And so the low life is innocent and the blonde girl is… what? What happens next? Do you see what I’m asking?
That’s it really. A simple question.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT IN ORDER TO FIND TINA FONTAINE’S KILLER?
Because surely this isn’t an insignificant case. Surely it will be a precedent of some kind, if only to illustrate how easily a wrongful arrest can be made. (How did that even happen??)
After all, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, teenager of excellent pedigree, a citizen of Manitoba, was murdered in Winnipeg. Her family are distraught. Lives beyond hers are shattered. Oh, wait.
Well, same thing, right? Justice will not be served until the killer has been found! Right? Right??
On the bright side, justice has been served for Raymond Cormier. Thank god an innocent like him was spared from undue punishment. Glory be to the Canadian justice system as it serves white men and blonde girls.
Thanking you in advance for what I have no doubt is your deepest and most pressing attention to this… what shall we call it… this ‘matter’?
p.s. If you aren’t the best qualified to answer this question, feel free to pass it along to someone who is. There must be someone who is…