Scholars rarely stumble onto a research focus without some sort of personal interest or connection and for Dr. Jo-Anne Fiske, her latest research project delves into issues that shaped her childhood and continue to resonate today.
Fiske (Women & Gender Studies) is the daughter of a Canadian war veteran of the Great War of 1914 to 1918, and although her father passed away when she was just 12-years-old, her upbringing was both remarkable and unique. Anything but a shell-shocked, broken man, her father was engaging, enlightened and a cherished member of his community.
On Thursday, October 26, 2017, 7 p.m. at the Lethbridge Lodge, Fiske will present Remarkable Husbands and Unusual Fathers. Understanding the Great War a Crucible of Tenderness and Nurture. Her talk is the latest PUBlic Professor Series event and second of this semester, and comes on the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of Passchendaele. Considered by many to be the defining moment of Canadian military history, Fiske’s father fought on the front lines and survived the horrific, 16-day campaign.
Her interest in the Great War comes from an anthropological perspective, trying to decode the narratives of the war and its aftermath through the experiences of the soldiers who came home to resume their lives as brothers, husbands and fathers.
“What were the cultural moments?” she asks. “These men, who were so ordinary, they were never in the dispatches, they never won a medal, they survived. That is really what the stories are all about, they survived. What made them so different in a family relationship?”
Fiske remembers her childhood as entirely unique from her friends. She describes her father as a feminist before there were feminists. A stay-at-home dad, he instructed the local bank to open an account for his 19-year-old wife the first banking day after their marriage. She had a job and her wages were to go into her account, something unheard of in the 1930s.
He also talked about his wartime experiences, breaking the stereotype of the stoic soldier unable or unwilling to engage his family. He spun yarns, often with his war buddies, of their time overseas and the life that persisted amongst all the death.
“The stories they would tell about the war were often very funny and mundane but they gave you a sense of what little things would mean and how to be appreciative of those things,” says Fiske.
She recounts a tale where her father and a soldier buddy were marching between trenches en route to Passchendaele, on the eve of one of the bloodiest battles the world had ever seen. The Okanagan-born men spotted an apple orchard and being around Canadian Thanksgiving, they clamored to reach the ripe apples.
“You can imagine this apple meaning so much to them because in the midst of all this violence, there was this humanity. I’m quite sure my dad and his pal were aware this story didn’t mean too much to us when we were kids but as we got older, we understood and it became a story we told our kids.”
Having only recently been able to visit the sites of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele because of their profound emotional affect, Fiske says it is important these tales of humanity and the cultural legacy of our soldiers is preserved.
“What was it about the war that allowed these men to carry a very, very different relationship into family?” she asks. “I’m finding the more I reach out to people who were raised by men and women from the First World War, I’m finding we do have a very different parental family experience.”
This research tangent is a departure from her life’s work, with her primary interest the legal rights of First Nations peoples. Teaching in her final semester at the U of L, Fiske will be leaving Lethbridge to return to northern British Columbia as she embarks on a significant project involving Aboriginal and treaty rights in B.C., as well as an international project examining the implications of human rights on indigenous rights with respect to corporations.
But with serendipity bringing her in front of the podium on a day as significant as Oct. 26, 2017, speaking about her father and the men who helped shape a young nation was a story that had to be told.
“These were ordinary men who survived a horrific experience and they have a narrative that hasn’t been told,” she says. “It’s those very emotional, caring relationships between the soldiers that have been overlooked and essentially their role in domestic labour that has not been studied in great detail.”