Play Highlights Women’s Contributions to Labour Movement

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In 1941, thousands of women in Kirkland Lake, Ont., took a stand against the unsafe and unjust working conditions in the mines. (City of Greater Sudbury Heritage Images, Solski Collection)

A play that received rave reviews during Saskatoon’s 2016 Fringe Festival — even landing the coveted Best of Fest award — is heading to Dancing Sky Theatre this month

Jennifer Wynne Webber’s play, With Glowing Hearts: How Ordinary Women Worked Together to Change the World (And Did), will run at the Meacham, Sask., theatre from April 26 – May 12.

 Based on real-life events, the show tells the story of how miners’ wives made an impact on Canada’s labour movement during the mid-20th century by working through women’s auxiliaries in remote mining communities. On a bitterly cold winter day in 1941, thousands of women in Kirkland Lake, Ont., came together to take a stand against the unsafe and unjust working conditions in the mines.

 “Ultimately, they end up playing a key role in the union movement,” said University of Saskatchewan (USask) drama alumna Rachelle Block, who plays the character Poppy Chytuk.

Rachelle Block plays a “lively, vivacious” character in With Glowing Hearts. (Kristen Torwalt Photography)

Block describes Poppy as a “lively, vivacious” 18-year-old woman whose husband works in a mine. When her husband is injured in an accident, Poppy is inspired to become involved in the women’s auxiliaries and in the union movement.

“We all have those times in our life when we feel we’re small and we can’t actually do anything meaningful to change the world,” said Block. “I think the show really instills that message that you are someone who can make a change if you just stand up for what you believe in and join together.”

Block previously played Poppy during the 2016 Fringe Festival, when With Glowing Hearts was presented to audiences in a 50-minute format. Block is looking forward to taking to the stage for the longer full-length show at Dancing Sky.

“There’s all these extra scenes added. So I get to peek into their lives even more, which is kind of beautiful,” she said.

In an email interview, Webber, the playwright, said the moment she saw a “remarkable photograph” of the Kirkland Lake women’s march in 1941, “those women were in my heart.

Jennifer Wynne Webber wrote With Glowing Hearts. (Photo by Jonathan Forrest)

“I had to write about them,” she said.

 The women of Kirkland Lake captured Webber’s heart because they didn’t have money or social power; rather, they made a difference through hard work and perseverance. In that sense, With Glowing Hearts is “a play that does speak to our current time, our current political and social and environmental dilemmas,” Webber said.

“There is so much in the world that can tempt you into thinking that what you do or say won’t make a difference, that you don’t have enough power or clout to change things or that someone else is in a better position to speak out about something,” she said.

“But what I feel I learned from getting to know these women — my fictional characters and, of course, the real-life women who helped inspire them — and from writing their story is that if you respond to what you see around you in an honest and forthright manner, and do what you can, when you can, for as long as you can, the effect can be very powerful.” 

 Webber said she’s not sure the women thought they would make much of a difference, noting “the fact is, at the time, it probably seemed to them like they’d lost. 

 “The Kirkland Lake strike of 1941-42 was lost, for example — it was an absolutely crushing defeat at the time,” said Webber. 

“But all their efforts to stand up for the right of workers to be able to negotiate through a union and to speak up for safer working conditions did chip away at the underlying foundation — until laws were changed a few years later. The whole country could see that what had happened at Kirkland Lake was wrong — and the work of these women to help get their story out was pivotal to the people’s understanding of the problem.”

Webber, a USask history graduate, learned of the women of Kirkland Lake and the women of the Mine Mill Ladies Auxiliary union movement thanks to the work of Dr. Elizabeth Quinlan (PhD), a USask sociologist and professor in the College of Arts and Science. Quinlan’s mother was a Mine Mill Ladies Auxiliary member in Sudbury, so Quinlan had a special connection to the story — leading her to commission Webber to write the first version of the play.

Following its premiere at the 2016 Saskatoon Fringe, With Glowing Hearts caught the attention of Nanaimo’s TheatreOne, which asked Webber to expand it into a full-length show in 2018. The play also went to New York for a staged reading as part of Words by Women Week and, just this month, Scirocco Drama released a book based on the script.

“One of the most moving things that happened after a show was when a group of miners’ wives in Saskatchewan came up to me and thanked me for telling what they described as ‘their’ story. They said that, to them, the story wasn’t historical. It was present day,” said Webber.

“Because, of course, concern for workers’ safety is an ongoing issue. There are still almost 1,000 people every year (in Canada) who are either killed on the job or who die from a work-related illness. So safety at work is just one of the many issues that don’t feel historical to the people who are still grappling with them each and every day.”

 Tickets to With Glowing Hearts range from $30 to $56.50 and can be purchased by calling 306-653-5191 or by going online to ontheboards.ca