- A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen
Faith Johnson's well-written biography is about a singular woman. Young and English, in 1926 Dorise Nielsen immigrated to Canada. She taught school briefly in rural Saskatchewan and married a homesteader, Peter Nielsen. It was an unsuccessful marriage of convenience, but she had three children by him. They lived in rural poverty made worse by the Great Depression, when they were sometimes on relief. The book vividly describes peoples' abject living conditions in small communities in the 1930s, which helps explain why and how many westerners were politicized and formed new parties such as the CCF and Social Credit.
Dorise was a romantic in her ideals and a pragmatist in her actions, and she was ambitious. She was elegant, had a sense of humour and a confident air that attracted attention. When she joined the CCF in the 1930s, her political activism added interest to her life and provided her escape when she was elected to the House of Commons in 1940 as a United Progressive MP. It is unclear when she became a Communist, but she likely was converted early while still in the CCF. As the [End Page 358] Communist Party of Canada (CPC) pushed for unity on the left, Nielsen and her lover Bob Paul worked to unite parties in the constituency of North Battleford. It worked for several years, and Nielsen won in a two-way race against the Liberals to enter the House of Commons as the only woman.
The best part of Nielsen's life was her five years in Parliament. She received attention, gained the respect of some members, and spoke out on issues important to women and children. She had a difficult time trying to raise her own children and do the job, so she boarded them at different places in the west and neglected them. They did not thrive but did the best they could later in life.
As an MP, she was a committed Communist who towed a party line that switched frequently during the war. She opposed the war effort until Hitler attacked Russia, and the 'big job' the party assigned her was to fight for the release of Communist internees. She favoured an all-out war effort – the new CP line from 1941 – to support Russia, and no-strike pledges in plants producing for war. She participated in the formation in 1943 of the Labour Progressive Party (LPP), the new name for the outlawed CPC, whose support for the government in 1945 benefited the Liberals greatly. The strategy did nothing to stop the erosion of support for the CPC after the war when the Cold War began. The LPP also undermined the CCF, which was in its golden age and had a chance briefly to make a breakthrough in Canadian national politics. By its actions, the LPP increased the split on the left between socialists and communists. Johnson's analysis of some of these complicated political scenarios is subtle but balanced and clear.
Defeated in 1945, Nielsen worked for the LPP and other Communist-led organizations because she needed a job. She had deferred to Fred Rose, a Communist leader elected in a 1944 by-election and later convicted as a spy after Igor Gouzenko's revelations. When male leaders released from prison promoted the LPP, Nielsen retreated, expressed uncertainty about political theory, accepted support positions, and never again ran for political office. The book's discussion of the Communists' role in the early 1950s peace movement is illuminating.
Nielsen in her fifties seemed disappointed with life, and with a new lover (she ended three serious relationships in her adult life) moved to China where she died in 1980. There she found work teaching English, lived through the Cultural Revolution uncritically, and except for brief visits to Canada to see her family, died alone.
Nielsen was adventurous, brave, an early feminist who, in Johnson's words, 'set out on unexplored paths. She had arrived several times at destinations she never anticipated,' but made...