In Travels and Tales of Miriam Green Ellis, Patricia Demers shines a light on the remarkable life and writings of Mariam Green Ellis (1879 – 1964), a feminist, suffragist, and one of the first female journalists in Alberta. Ellis’s circle of friends included Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung (two of the Famous Five), E Cora Hind (Western Canada’s first female journalist who reported on the agriculture beat for the Winnipeg Free Press), Wop May (celebrated WWI flying ace) and Bishop Grouard (who brought the first printing press to Alberta).
Miriam Green was born in Richville, NY to Canadian parents who returned to Canada and the paternal farmstead new Athens, Ontatio. In 1904, the family moved to Edmonton where she met and married her husbank George Edward Ellis. After they moved to Chicago and then to Prince Albert, her journalism career began in 1912 as a cub reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald and the Regina Leader Post. AFter her and George parted ways in 1917, Miriam moved to Frank Oliver’s Edmonton Bulletin in 1919.
In June 1922 MGE embarked on a journey to Aklavik, NWT. Since she could not convince her editor, Frank Oliver, to finance the trip for the Edmonton Bulletin, she granted herself a two-month unpaid leave. The route offered by the Alberta and Arctic Transportation Company involved travel by train to Waterways, the end of steel, then by Winston auto overland to Fort Smith, and the journey north aboard a river steamer.
Typewriter and camera were her recording devices, resulting in a remarkable album of black and white photographs as well as boxes of hand-coloured slides produced for her subsequent cross-country illustrated lectures, a small (4″ x 6″) typed diary, a descriptive travelogue entitled “Down North,” and 40 newspaper articles about different aspects of the journey and the people she met. Her images of Native life, featuring Cree, Dene, and Inuit communities, have an unparalleled ethnographic realism.
As evident by the archives she left behind, Ellis’s six week trip to the “Land of the Midnight Sun” in 1922 profoundly shaped the rest of her personal, political and professional life.
Ellis’s firm understanding of the principles of newspaper writing that are followed to this day along with her keen wit and sense of humour are evident in this passage quoted from the book:
Writing for a newspaper is different than writing an essay, or writing a speech, or writing a magazine article, or writing a book or a letter. In a speech or a magazine story, the climax comes at the end. In a newspaper story, the climax comes in the first sentence, or, if it is a big story, it comes in a seven-column line across the top of the page. Newspaper stories are written so that the meat of the story comes into the first sentence. After that it is elaboration. But it is never well just to read the headings and think you know what has happened for there are often extenuating circumstances. The head may read: “Mariam Green Ellis kills her best friend.” Reading down, you may find that I slipped and fell on her and of course that was the end.”
Ellis, University of Manitoba English Class, March 1934, qtd from Travels and Tales…
Patricia Demers paints a vivid description of her “fantastic” subject:
Mariam’s avant-garde trademark appearance, tramping confidently in cattle show rings in breeches and tweed jackets — shocking for some in the twenties and thirties — solidifies a strong link with E. Cora Hind (1861 – 1942), her foremother as Western Canadian agricultural journalist. Hind also sported high-laced boots and breeches, along with a gold-mounted cane, a Stetson hat, and a buckskin coat presented by the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Board and embroidered by the Fisher River First Nation.
Ellis was not your typical female writer or journalist, even in her time. She did not write for the “women’s pages” as female journalists had done before her. Instead, as Demers points out, Ellis represents:
The modernist sphere of first-wave feminism, where the work of this single, independent woman resides, differs fronm the earlier portraits of Canada supplied by female visitors, travellers, pioneer settlers, and adventurers who were wives and mothers….[Women] who write professionally for publication and dissemination in newspapers capture a sense of place and time with deliberation and purposiveness. The call to probe the writing and influence of early Canadian women journalists has sounded, and with good reason. Theirs is a work of conviction transmitting information and opinion with vigour. Long before the age of fanzines, they enjoyed loyal readership; with resourcefulness, they secured positions in the often grimy world of smoke-filled newsrooms. They dared to personalize, exercise moral authority,m and display knowledgeble command. Their social activism took many forms and tones, from cajoling and subly ironic to testy and acerbic.
and that Ellis’s writings:
demonstrate that she is aware of the struggles of farm families and especially farm wives, interested in all forms of ritual from the cattle show ring to the Cree Sun Dance, keen to travel to and document conditions in all areas of the Canadian West, particularly northern and remote ones, prescient about the second “Klondyke” of the tar sands, and eager to capture in word and picture the inhabitants of the Land of the Midnight Sun.
and Ellis’s journalism as:
positioned at points of intersection between a primitive economy and high agricultural development, between periods of postwar boom and Depression bust, and reflects suffragist victories and challenges facing individual pioneer women, as well as the cross cultural dynamics of Native-White relationships.
Book Review by Mary Baxter, J-Source Agricultural editor and field editor at Better Farming magazine
For women working in journalism now, it’s difficult to comprehend what it was like when Miriam Green Ellis (1879-1964) first began reporting just before the First World War. Back then, women in Canada couldn’t vote. By 1922 she would have been one of a mere 248 women employed as an editor or reporter in the country. Most would have been employed on the women’s pages.
In Travels and Tales of Miriam Ellis: Pioneer Journalist of the Canadian West, editor Patricia Demers compiles published and unpublished work by Ellis, who was perhaps best known as the western editor for nearly 25 years of the Montreal-based Family Herald and Weekly Star, a twice-monthly national rural magazine. Before that, Ellis worked as a news reporter for publications in Prince Albert, Regina and Edmonton.
In the introduction, Demers, a professor in the University of Alberta’s department of English and Film Studies, offers a biographical account of Ellis that touches on her early years growing up on the family farm near Athens, Ont. and acquiring accreditation as a music teacher from the Toronto Conservatory of Music. Details, however, are scant, writes Demers, who mined documents and photographs Ellis willed to the university.
What is known is that MGE, as Demers often refers to Ellis in the introduction, moved out west with her family in 1904 and, shortly thereafter married George Edward Ellis, a teacher and principal who grew up near MGE’s family farm in Ontario. [1n 1906, he was appointed the Inspector of Schools for the Province of Alberta by then Minister of Education Alexander Rutherford.] By 1912 the couple lived in Prince Albert, Sask. [Here Ellis founded and coached the girls’ hockey team for the Prince Albert Collegiate Institute where George served principal and took up curling for which she acquired “a considerable reputation.”]
Four years later they were separated and, by 1917, Ellis was in Edmonton writing for Frank Oliver, publisher of the Edmonton Bulletin (advertised as “the only 24-hour Canadian News Service west of Winnipeg” and for which she reported on “legislature, various churches, sports and what become her primary beat — agriculture”). Her ability as a reporter was well recognized even if how it was acknowledged left much to be desired — as exemplified by her boss Frank Oliver’s comment that she was “the best damned man I’ve got.”
About Patricia Demers, Editor
Patricia Demers (BA, MA McMaster; PhD Ottawa) is a Professor in Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She researches and teaches in the areas of early modern women’s writing; Elizabethan and Jacobean drama;17th-century poetry; biblical literature; children’s literature; and contemporary women’s writing.
Her books include two edited anthologies of children’s literature, From Instruction to Delight: Children’s Literature to 1850 (second edition, 2004; third edition, 2008) and A Garland from the Golden Age, and these critical studies: Women as Interpreters of the Bible, Heaven Upon Earth: The Forms of Moral and Religious Children’s Literature to 1850, P. L. Travers, Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine, The World of Hannah More, Women’s Writing in English: Early Modern England and editor, Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife, 2007.
She was awarded the University Cup in 2005 and the CAUT Sarah Shorten Award in 2008. She has served as Department Chair (1995-98) and Vice-President of SSHRC (1998-2002); she is the Past President of The Royal Society of Canada (2005-07). She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.
Recent publications include The Beginning of Print Culture in Athabasca Country: A Facsimile Edition and Translation of a Prayer Book in Cree Syllabics (ed. and co-trans, 2010), Travels and Tales of Miriam Green Ellis: Pioneer Journalist of the Canadian West (ed., 2013) , along with essays on early modern writers Lady Margaret Beaufort, Lady Anne Cooke Bacon, and An Collins, and Canadian novelist Patricia Blondal. She is completing a SSHRC-supported study of contemporary Canadian women writers. She is chairing the Royal Society expert panel on the status and future of Canada’s libraries and archives.
Patricia Demers, editor | Travels and Tales of Miriam Green Ellis: Pioneer Journalist of the Canadian West | Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2013| ISBN: 978-0-88864-626-2 | Paperback: $34.95| Amazon Kindle: $27.99
Mariam Green Ellis Exhibition Catalogue
This catalogue, published by the Bruce Peel Special Collections at the University of Alberta in conjunction with the exhibit that ran earlier this year, introduces the work of Miriam Green Ellis (1879–1964), pioneer woman journalist of Western Canada.
Never one to follow a typical path, she steered clear of the “women’s page” and society columns; her livelihood was the agricultural beat.
Ellis’s daring journey by river steamer from Edmonton to Aklavik in 1922—documented with a diary, travelogue, photographs and slides—launched and illustrated her subsequent “Land of the Midnight Sun” lectures, and secured her position as Western Editor for the Family Herald and Weekly Star.
The materials she bequeathed to the University of Alberta include published newspaper articles, photographs, coloured glass slides, manuscripts, diaries, and letters; the Collection’s cultural and ethnographic value to researchers is unparalleled.
This Miriam Green Ellis exhibition catalogue won an award of excellence from the University and College Designers Association (UCDA) for excellence in concept, typography, illustrations, printing, and overall design.
Format: Trade Paperback
Price: CND$ 39.95, USD$ 39.95, £ 33.5
Subject: Agricultural Journalists/Prairie History/Women’s Studies
Publisher: University of Alberta Press
Publication Date: January 2013
To see more about the life, photography and writings of Mariam Green Ellis, check out the website published by the University of Alberta Libraries and visit the Bruce Peel Special Collection Library at the University of Alberta.