- Indigenous Women, Work, and History 1940–1980 by Mary Jane Logan McCallum
Indigenous women’s history is still under-researched so this significant and accomplished book is a rewarding read. The Introduction raises questions about earlier studies of Indigenous people and work, research that has predominantly focused on men, excluding women. McCallum addresses this omission by concentrating on employment through a female lens, using examples of work usually undertaken by women (although not exclusively so), such as hairdressing, nursing, and domestic work. McCallum’s book considers the importance of Indigenous women in the economic cycle, arguing that men were not the only breadwinners for women’s labour, whether waged or unwaged, was essential and necessary for survival. Work became an important part of these women’s lives alongside more traditional pursuits.
The pivotal roles played by the Departments of Indian Affairs and National Health & Welfare in placing women in positions of employment, albeit at a very basic wage, are central to McCallum’s discourse. The book concentrates on four case studies that follow particular threads: domestic labour before 1940, the hairdressing and beauty culture of the 1950s and 1960s, the growth of community health in the 1970s, and activism in the nursing profession in the 1980s. All the studies cover training, placement programmes, and the involvement of the state in Aboriginal women’s lives in health, education, and community work. The historical narrative evolves through interviews, life histories, and written records linking the studies as well as providing essential information. McCallum offers a convincing and compelling debate surrounding how Indigenous women’s employment has been strongly affected by the decisions of the Canadian government in its attempts to assimilate Aboriginal people.
Chapter 1 considers the connections between Indian education, girls’ curricula, and employment in residential schools and Indian hospitals, emphasising the teaching of specific skills to Indian girls towards gainful employment in domestic service. Chapter 2 focuses on the Indian Placement & Relocation Program run from 1957 onwards through the profession of hairdressing, employment that provided many opportunities. More importantly for the state, the cost of training was relatively low and, in Canada, hairdressing schools were never officially segregated. In Chapter 3, McCallum considers community health representatives in the period 1960–70 and the critical aspects of the programme: selection, training, and supervision. Despite the intentions of the scheme, however, the nurses rarely came from Indigenous communities, a point of contention that motivated Indigenous nurses to push for Indian control of Indian health. By the mid-1970s the professional organisation of Indigenous nurses in Canada, the Registered Nurses of Canadian Indian Ancestry, held its first conference in order to set goals for the improvement of health in Aboriginal communities and subsequently providing many employment opportunities for Aboriginal women. [End Page 110]
This book is detailed and well researched. Mary Jane McCallum does not claim to have written a history of Aboriginal women’s employment but aims to challenge historians’ thinking by opening new avenues for further research into Indigenous women’s history in inspiring ways. In this she has succeeded.