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New Westminster’s Grace, Grit and Gusto
An antique spinning wheel sits in the hallway of Lynn Duncan’s historic Queen’s Park home. She may not be able to use it for spinning yarn, but she can spin a yarn about all the threads woven together over three decades that have created a wonderful written mosaic depicting 40 New Westminster women, past and present.
Duncan is a historian and book publisher who has brought together 26 local women to voluntarily write the inspirational stories in a collection called Grace, Grit and Gusto: Profiles of Remarkable Royal City Women. The project in support of Monarch Place will launch at the River Market on Thursday to coincide with the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
“There are lots of various little threads that come together here,” says Duncan of the book’s evolution.
The first occurred more than 30 years ago when she moved into her home and found a ticket to a children’s entertainment show belonging to Alice Turnbull, a little girl who lived next door in the 1880s, hidden behind a baseboard. That got her to thinking about how intriguing it would be to delve into the history of an obscure New Westminster woman like Turnbull.
The second thread came a couple of years ago when Duncan started Vivalogue, which provides book creation and self-publishing services. That’s when she discovered “there is significant fundraising potential in books.” Her social enterprise company received a City of Vancouver 125th anniversary grant to do an oral history of the Grandview-Woodland area in support of a community building project for the area’s homeless.
“They raised way more money than they had doing anything else,” says Duncan.
Proceeds support Monarch Place
The spinning wheel really started to churn when talking to her friend Lorraine Brett, a supporter of Monarch Place, a transition house in New Westminster for women fleeing violence, which was looking for a way to raise money.
So one sunny day, Duncan, Brett and Lorrie Wasyliw, executive director for Women in Need Gaining Strength (WINGS) which runs Monarch, gathered on the patio at the Sixth and Sixth White Spot to brainstorm. By the time they plopped their tips on the table they had come up with the concept of telling the stories of New Westminster women.
“Then we had to go off and make it happen,” says Duncan. “We just had this sense these stories existed. We had this leap of faith there were women to write about.”
Their faith was rewarded, although at first it was difficult. To begin with the only record they could find was an eight-page recitation of community efforts by women. Duncan was appalled to discover the 1966 typewritten document referred to the women by their husbands’ full names. While their good deeds were commendable they didn’t have the wow factor Duncan was looking for.
Fortunately Barry Dykes, an archivist at the New Westminster museum, kept firing Duncan emails with names of women who might be worthy. Duncan also set up a table during the city’s heritage home tour and the arts council’s Lit Fest soliciting suggestions.
When they finally sat down to figure out who to write about, Alice Turnbull didn’t make the cut, even though Duncan was emotionally attached to the little girl. “She wasn’t interesting enough,” admits Duncan.
The book includes stories about extremely interesting and recognizable contemporary New Westminster women who have made their mark like Eva Maarkvoort and author Annabel Lyon. But there are also stories about activists, athletes, entrepreneurs and politicians few have heard of.
“These women were important at a national level,” says Duncan.
Strong 19th century single mom
One of her favourites is Flora Ross, a strong-minded single mother who overcame domestic violence in the 1800s. Ross was the daughter of a Scottish father and a Métis mother in Victoria, one of 10 siblings.
Ross’s dad died two years after she was born, and at the age of 17 she married the son of a California senator. They had a son, but she left her husband because he was abusive. She ended up taking a job as matron of the B.C.’s first insane asylum in Victoria. When it moved to New Westminster in 1878 so did she.
During her Royal City years, Ross rose above being a victim of domestic violence as well as fending off personal attacks on her gender, character and aboriginal ancestry inside and outside the workplace to become a pioneer in humane treatment of mentally ill in B.C.
“I love Flora. She just had it all,” says Duncan. “She withstood an abusive husband, outrageous gender discrimination and personal animus because she refused to resign to make way for the mistress of her boss … I’ve got a lot of time for Flora Ross, who I had never heard of before. She just brings all these threads together.”
June Harrison and Margaret Fairweather volunteered to edit Grace, Grit and Gusto. It costs $20 with all the proceeds going to Monarch Place.
Duncan says 1,200 will be printed with 200 reserved for book sponsors. VanCity Credit Union has committed to distributing its copies to New Westminster schools. City council provided a $1,500 heritage grant to pay for the design of the book, and the New Westminster Heritage Preservation Society put in $1,300.
Thursday’s launch will be from 6:30 to 8:30 at River Market. Books can be ordered online at www.vivalogue.ca.