Thursday, March 14, 2013

Prisoners in the City:The Cinderella Lives of McGill's Women Students


My aunts in a caleche on Mount Royal in the 1920's. Young women could go to Mount Royal, it was considered a respectable place. My aunts were French Canadian, but the daughters of a prominent Montreal City Hall Civil Servant, Jules Crepeau, who I write about in Milk and Water.


Downtown Montreal is  a very multicultural (and multilingual) place; you just have to walk down Ste. Catherine or take the subway green line between Atwater and Berri to see. Any one car will be filled with representatives of all the so-called races.

(Digression: I was on the metro yesterday when it broke down and I missed my 12.30  train home, but luckily I was at Lionel Groulx station when it happened, so I took the 211 bus to Dorval. The announcement, only in French, blamed the stoppage on a breakdown of the Communications system.)

And this, I suspect, is in part due to the proximity of the McGill and Concordia Campuses.

So McGill University has come a long way since the day in 1905 when Principal Petersen introduced Peter Hing, McGill's first Chinese undergraduate, to a group in a church hall.

I know because in the audience was Marion Nicholson, my husband's grandmother, who was attending McGill Normal School, which was not on campus, but on Belmont, which would be somewhere under place Bonaventure today.

Marion stayed at the Y on Dorchester but she hated it. Too many rules.

On this occasion, Peter Hing gave a speech and  talked about the evils of the opium trade. In a few years opium trading would be banned in Canada, but for the first year only banned  for Chinese people.

That is the subject of my story Diary of a Confirmed Spinster, featuring Marion's older sister Edith.

This Hing business was a shining hour for McGill, Petersen criticized the Head Tax, but as I have written on this blog, in this era McGill and its professors were also involved in some not so very nice business, some very iffy business, in fact.

Indeed, in those days, the era's Reformer Faction often relied on the research and authority of McGill Professors to back up their often squirm-inducing beliefs, which were not only anti-drug, but also anti-alcohol and anti-immigrant for the most part.

Yesterday  I went to the McGill archives to look up what they had on the Royal Victoria Women's College because Edith Nicholson had been Assistant-Warden there in the 20's and 30's.

I found 5 boxes of files.

The files contain no info on Edith but hold a great deal of  info on Ethel Hurlbatt, the Warden whom she worked under for a short time.

One of the items in the Hurlbatt file  is a booklet with a long hand written speech Hurlbatt gave to the Women's Canadian Club in 1910. (Hurlbatt was active in the Montreal Suffrage Movement but I saw no  evidence that she proseletyzed at work.)

Hurlbatt admits she has been in Canada only 5 years, but she then goes on to tell what is wrong with our country, from a Britisher's point of view.

Too quick growth, it seems. Canada's laws, she says, aren't keeping up with its growth. She means population growth, of course. She means immigrants, but not of the British kind.

From what I can see most of the smellier reforms being promoted around 1910 in Montreal were spurred by a fear of immigrants, of the OTHER.  Even our local Suffrage Movement.

Our Montreal Suffrage Movement wasn't about women's lib, as it were, but about bringing Reforms to the City. The big bad city. The Immoral City. Our suffragists wanted to turn back the clock.

These reforms focused on getting rid of the drugs and alcohol that turned poor people and foreign people into 'fiends'  (but had little effect on your little old granny) and which promoted commercialized vice, which meant even your daughters were at risk.

And, indeed, Canadian women got the vote in 1918, largely PM Borden played upon this fear of immigrants. That's what I am writing about right now.

Anyway, in my play, Milk and Water, about Prohibition Era Montreal, I have some McGill students bang at the door  of a 'speakeasy' after hours, the same speakeasy where the Prince of Wales is expected to turn up later that night.

I made these students all male, but maybe I should have put a Co-Ed in there.

In the RVC files, yesterday,  I found an interesting document from the 1926 era, that claims there are only four venues in the City where the McGill Co-eds  are permitted: The Ritz Carleton, (Favorite hotel of the Prince); the Windsor Hotel Grill; Mount Royal (the hotel, likely, and not the Mountain, although the Mountain was considered a respectable place for women as no poor people could get up there)and Morgan's the department store at Phillip's Square.



I also found many rule books and a lengthy discussion on "leaves"... only one a week permitted.

These Female Donalda's, mostly Arts Students, some PhyEd (the teaching school was now far away on the Macdonald Campus in Ste. Anne) were prisoners of a kind, pampered prisoners, but still locked up.

They called the RVC building on Sherbrooke The Great Ladies Hotel, but it was a hotel you couldn't leave easily, except to go to classes on campus... and there had been a debate over that as well.

It didn't help that Montreal had been deemed Sin City in the press,  WORSE THAN CHICAGO with the 1924-25 Coderre Commission into Police Malfeasance and Misconduct that claimed that  Commercialized Vice spread its tentacles into every aspect of city life and that the police worked hand in hand with the bootleggers and the madames. I write about this in MILK AND WATER


Like Cinderella, the RVC women had to be home at 12.00 even on special occasions, like when they acted in the Red and White Revue.  After midnight was apparently when all bad stuff happened.


That report claimed there were 1,000 cabarets and dance clubs and such serving liquor without a license.

Montreal and Quebec did not have Prohibition, it was a 'wet' town.

Americans came up here to drink legally.

Quebec had instituted a liquor control board in 1921, but from what I see, most liquor licenses were given to taverns and hotels and a few restaurants. No one wanted young women to drink. No, that was a path to you-know-what.

Odd. The Coderre Commission was launched after a Doctor from the Montreal General described Montreal's drug addled prostitutes in a speech to the Men's Canadian Club in 1923.

This all came after a Committee of Sixteen (advocacy groups) report on Commercialzed Vice in 1919, (led by Dr. Symonds of Christ Church Cathedral who was also Honorary VP of the Montreal Suffrage Association) a committee which was set up during the war because so many prostitutes had been attracted to the  barracks where soldiers were posted before being sent overseas.

So it's all one big circle, really. The Montreal Reformers did some good work, no doubt, milk stations,etc, but they also fulfilled their own prophesy in a way and promoted powerful personal and very Protestant agendas.

Donaldas (McGill graduates) Helen J.R. Reid and Mrs Scrimger-Lyman were pioneers of the Montreal Local Council of Women with Professor Carrie Derick.

(Reverend Dr. Scrimger, Lyman's father, had been involved in the Jewish Question in 1913, about whether to allow Jewish Teachers in the School. (Only on a case by case basis and as long as they didn't promote their religion in the schools.)

The Montreal Local Council of Women archives contain a debate they also had... interesting. I'm going to use it in my story. I think I will put a Jewish Suffragette in it.. a militant one. One who doesn't like the Montreal Suffrage Association and gets Edith to join her.)

Anyway, I must get to my new book about the Montreal Suffragist Movement and the Conscription Crisis, using the Nicholson Family Letters.

In 1928, Edith Nicholson was Tutor in Residence for The Hostel, the residence of the Phys-ed students. I have their yearbook called Hostelites. The Hostel was a building on University, near McGill.

I saw in the RVC archives that by 1915 they were running out of space for the Physical Education students...

Now that could be the subject of a sitcom. HOSTEL! about a former suffragette who is House Mother to a bunch of  rowdy PhysEd Students in the Roarin' Twenties in Sin City Montreal.