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The Native Voice made its own headlines

Q and A with author Eric Jamieson about Maisie Hurley's Aboriginal newspaper

“You must remember that no one in law school spoke of the rights of Native peoples, Aboriginal peoples ...
Maisie introduced me to the whole topic.”
– Thomas Berger quoted in Sharon Fortney’s “Entwined Histories: The Creation of the Maisie Hurley Collection of Native Art,” 2010.

“And the world turned. In a landmark case in 1968 Mr. Berger championed the Nishga cause and took it to the Supreme Court of Canada. What had been an idea was becoming legal reality.”
– Jamie Lamb, “A Victory for the Woman in Black,” Vancouver Sun, 1981.

In May, Eric Jamieson’s study, The Native Voice: The Story of How Maisie Hurley and Canada’s First Aboriginal Newspaper Changed a Nation, received the Lieutenant Governor’s Historical Writing Honourable Mention, awarded by the British Columbia Historical Federation.

Jamieson’s book, published by Caitlin Press last summer, is an in-depth look at the influential newspaper begun by Maisie Hurley in the post-Second World War era to promote and advance First Nations rights.

The Indigenous activism of The Native Voice is also the subject of Marie Clements’ new musical documentary, The Road Forward, which will receive its theatrical premiere at Vancity Theatre on Friday, July 14.

Jamieson spoke to the North Shore News about his research into the life of Maisie Hurley and the writing of his book:

North Shore News: I understand you first learned of Maisie Hurley through a show at the North Vancouver Museum and Archives.

Eric Jamieson: I went to the exhibit at the North Vancouver Museum and Archives (Entwined Histories: Gifts from the Maisie Hurley Collection in 2011) and was fascinated by her story. A Welsh woman coming to Canada and suddenly becoming interested in First Nations.

The exhibit was about her life and all the objects and art she had been given throughout her life. I saw all this love the First Nations people had for her and the wonderful work that she did. I went down to the Brotherhood office and Bill Duncan, after a couple of meetings, was gracious enough to allow me to hunt through a huge box of extra copies of the Voice going all the way back to 1946.

The paper was really some sort of political diary for Maisie and recorded what was happening in her life. In a way it was a personal diary as well as a political diary and that’s when I decided there was a book there.

NSN: Even with her adventurous history Maisie Hurley seems to have been an unlikely publisher of an influential aboriginal newspaper.

Eric Jamieson: In 1944, (Haida elder) Alfred Adams, who was associated with Maisie through Tom Hurley and the law office downtown in the Standard Building, saw her in Vancouver. He was (the leader of the Native Brotherhood of B.C.) and dying of cancer at that time and he said to her, ‘I know you are a friend to my people – I would like you to do something for them by telling the white people about our struggle.’ And so Maisie took that to heart and mind and started the newspaper, The Native Voice, with her own money. It was only $150. The first paper was December ’46 but she started planning it much earlier than that. She started The Native Voice newspaper basically to communicate the struggles of First Nations justice to Canadians as a whole.

NSN: Alfred Adams made the request but why did she feel she had to follow through?

Eric Jamieson: She learned from her parents who were great benefactors of First Nations’ causes. They hired First Nations people on their various geological forays into the Interior. Maisie’s dad, Ronald Campbell-Johnston, was a mining engineer and he spent most of his time doing assay work and exploration in the Interior of the province where they lived for 10 years.

Maisie learned to love that western style of life and of course in those days in the rural areas of British Columbia there were many First Nations people who worked on the ranches, etc. She became playmates and learned to love them as her parents did. Her mom collected stories from First Nations villages. Her husband Ronald would leave her in these villages while he went on his extended journeys. She wrote down the local stories and Maisie became an apt student of these stories.

She married a fellow by the name of Tom Hurley and he was considered the dean of criminal lawyers in Vancouver at the time. Tom was very adept at defending indigent people and many of those were First Nations people. He defended them largely free of charge. In fact he was one of the first lawyers that sort of developed legal aid, informally. The model for it anyway. And that’s how she learned. She herself defended over 80 cases in court. And she won every case. She joked that she won them because they just wanted to get her out of there. She was quite strident in her views.

NSN: Tom Berger called her approach, ‘bootleg law.’ One thing The Native Voice continually returned to was aboriginal legal entitlement. Berger says keeping the issue alive was Maisie’s most important contribution, her legacy.

Eric Jamieson: Tom had a special relationship with the Hurleys. Tom Hurley was a mentor to Tom Berger. Every time he had a case he wanted to discuss with somebody he would go to Tom Hurley. (Hurley) was not poor but he was not wealthy, either. He defended many cases free of charge and of course he defended all of Maisie’s clients free of charge. I don’t think money ever entered his mind. He wasn’t interested in becoming a fat cat. He was interested in the law and social justice.

NSN: What were the nuts and bolts of The Native Voice? Maisie had to have an office and reporters and printing press to get the paper out.

Eric Jamieson:  It was probably just Maisie and one other person. I suppose she had the help of some people but it was probably minimal. She hired an editor. I don’t know if the editors or any of her staff were paid. I doubt if Maisie was ever paid for her efforts. The paper just didn’t make any money.

It was a four to eight page monthly subscription and I think the subscription rate was $1.50. Sometimes it stretched to 16 pages but it was always four, eight, 12 or 16. It wasn’t a big paper but it punched much greater than its weight. It had a great impact because people in Ottawa were reading it. Diefenbaker was reading it, because it did deal with real justice issues. The Indian Act was a big bug bear of Maisie’s and she was always going on and on about the Indian Act. The provincial vote, federal vote, land rights, the claims commission at the very end of her life, and then of course the famous Bob and White case which put Tom Berger on the map in his defence of First Nations causes.

NSN: How was The Native Voice distributed it? Did it go across B.C.? Canada? North America?

Eric Jamieson: It went across B.C. and across Canada. I know there were correspondents from certain states and Maisie did hire one of the directors of the paper, Jimalee Burton, from Oklahoma. There was some representation from the U.S. and there were definitely states represented in the correspondence every month. I think at its peak it had 3,000 subscriptions that had to be mailed out.

NSN: She was getting the paper out and it was being read.

Eric Jamieson: One First Nations chief said it was read so much that it turned yellow in a few days like birch bark.

NSN: Was the mandate of the paper the same from the very beginning?

Eric Jamieson: To tell the white people about the struggle. That was sort of taken for granted and was never mentioned again. It actually became more a paper for First Nations people to determine the progress of their struggle.
Alfred Adams’ son who was convalescing from TB in a sanitarium said it read like a letter from home. The reason he said that is the paper also had little things about marriages here and deaths there and somebody was born to such and such a woman. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in northern Canada or whatever but they always had this CBC thing where you could phone in and send a message to your friends. You could send a message to your friends in some remote inlet that you wouldn’t normally communicate with. (Likewise) you could send a message through the paper that such and such gave birth or such and such is getting married and the wedding will be here. It was not just a political paper there was also personal stuff in there.

NSN: In The Road Forward Ed Newman, a past president of the Native Brotherhood of B.C. says exactly that – they waited for the paper to come to their village to get the latest news.

Eric Jamieson: It was their news. It was their outlet to the world. I don’t know if you know about the Columbia ships, the religious ships, that plied the coast, such as the Thomas Crosby (a United Church mission boat). Peter Kelly was a high-born Haida individual who became a Methodist minister and he took the paper into all the villages. His son accompanied him when he was older and the son was a reporter for the Voice. He took the world to them and he brought the world back. He brought stories from these remote villages to Maisie who put them in the Voice and he took the newspaper and brought it out to these remote villages.

People were looking forward to it, they wanted to know what was happening. The vote was so important to people. They (didn’t consider themselves) citizens of this country really until they had the vote. They got the provincial vote in 1949 and Diefenbaker granted them the federal vote in 1960 and all of this was unencumbered. There were no conditions attached to it. They were so worried that the vote was going to steal their rights.

NSN: Maisie Hurley must have had a network of reporters supplying her with information.

Eric Jamieson: She encouraged any First Nations person to write in. She said don’t worry about your writing skills, write in, we’ll fix it up. Nobody was paid for this, they did it out of the service to their people. People were very excited if they got their name in the paper.

There was this sort of informal network of people she relied on and their was one big contributor, Big White Owl, a.k.a. Jasper Hill.He was (from the Delaware Nation) near London, Ont. I think he started writing for the paper in the fourth edition and he filled in when she was sick or something. He was a very powerful orator and was very up on First Nations rights. He was constantly haranguing the government about the Indian Act and about recognition of rights. He became Maisie’s most prolific correspondent.

Guy Williams, who became the head of the Brotherhood, he also became Canada’s second First Nations senator, James Gladstone being the first. And then there was Chief William Scow, who was also the head of the Brotherhood, he wrote for the paper. His son, Alfred Scow, who became a judge, wrote for the paper. He was also a business agent for the Brotherhood. It’s interesting in one article he wrote for the paper he criticized the Brotherhood – his dad was the president and he was the business agent and he said this newspaper is the official organ of the Brotherhood and we’re not using it. He was criticizing his dad. All the Brotherhood news, all the convention news was in the paper because Maisie attended these herself.

NSN: In conversation Maurice Nahanee told me that he remembered visiting The Native Voice office with his uncle Ed Nahanee, who was a business agent of the paper.

Eric Jamieson: That would have been in the Standard Building, at Tom Hurley’s office. It was a double office and in the middle there was a secretary’s desk. Maisie had one office on one side and Tom had the office on the other side.

That’s where she did the paper and then she would take bits of it home. She lived at 975 Denman St. She would have people that she was interviewing come and meet her at the house. Her grandchildren remember her laying the paper out there too. Between the Standard Building and Denman Street that’s where the paper got put together.

Maisie died in Lions Gate Hospital and she was living with her daughter Kitty on Sixth Street in North Vancouver. The paper came over from the Standard Building to Kitty’s place with her and the actual last few editions were done in North Vancouver. I think Kitty ran it for a couple of years after Maisie died and then the Brotherhood took it over. Bill Bell, the former North Vancouver City councillor was Maisie’s grandson. After she died he remembers he and his mother laid out the paper on their living room table at their house on Sixth Street. They had to do all the cutting and pasting and get the thing ready for the printer.