Helen Forsey: a Feminist Force

Women's archives
Archives and Special Collections

By Michelle Lalonde

Storyteller-in-Residence, uOttawa Library

 Image from a news clipping about Helen Forsey and a bus ad” 10-186-S2-F21. Helen Forsey fonds. uOttawa Archives and Special collections
Helen Forsey was 34 years old when she committed her first act of civil disobedience.

On June 5, 1979, Forsey was on her way from her home in Aylmer, Quebec to the Ottawa Women’s Centre. As she boarded a city bus in downtown Ottawa, she noticed an ad for women’s jeans on the publicity panel overhead. 

“It had this woman tied to a big block of wood with a circular saw poised above her head, about to cut through her lengthwise,” Forsey said in a recent interview from her home in St. John’s, Nfld. “She’s looking around in terror and…she is wearing Jam jeans. The ad said, ‘You’d look so good in a jam.’”

Without thinking, Forsey found herself tearing the ad down, shaking with fury at its casual depiction of violence against women. She got off the bus on Queen St., the ripped poster still in her hand, and walked straight into the Women’s Centre, where “we decided to make a campaign of it.” 

“We plotted what to do about it, how to go to OC Transpo and the city and the press. It was delightful,” she recalls. For the next few weeks, Forsey and her crew took buses all over town, taking transfers, hunting down the offensive ads and pulling them down. The campaign was ultimately a success; OC Transpo cancelled the ad campaign.
 

Helen Forsey, Ad on buses called violation of human rights
News clipping of Forsey on bus: 10-186-S2-F21. Helen Forsey fonds. uOttawa Archives and Special collections

This was happening at the peak of what later became known as the “second wave” of the women’s movement in Canada, generally described as the era between 1960 and 1990 when feminists were making great strides in the recognition of women’s rights.

An author, translator, researcher and lifelong activist, Forsey is in many ways typical of the women who contributed to the movement in that era. She didn’t just join one organization or attend a few marches, she went all in. She wrote opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, organized and participated rallies and direct actions, and brought a feminist outlook to all of her professional endeavours. She is among the hundreds of women who have donated their records and memorabilia to the Women’s Archives, housed at the University of Ottawa Library.

“My papers, the stuff that I gave to the archives, it’s all these little bits and pieces here and there that most people wouldn’t even have kept,” she said. 

She laments that so much of the physical evidence of the second wave has disappeared because many of the women involved discarded their papers, thinking them unimportant. 
 

Women creating a gender equality banner at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, 1972. 10-001-S3-I130. CWMA Collection.  uOttawa Archives and Special Collections
Women creating a gender equality banner at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, 1972. 10-001-S3-I130. CWMA Collection. uOttawa Archives and Special Collections.

“And yet it was all the nitty gritty of what women were doing as we learned about the reality that we’d grown up with and looked at it through a different lens.”

Helen Forsey

Women creating a gender equality banner at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, 1972. 10-001-S3-I130. CWMA Collection. uOttawa Archives and Special Collections.

For Forsey, the campaign against sexist advertising on public transit was an important turning point in her life. Although she had, by that point, developed a deep understanding of other forms of oppression, she had not been an easy convert to the call for “women’s liberation”. In fact, she claims she was “dragged, kicking and screaming” into the feminist movement. 

Forsey was born in Ottawa in 1945, into a political household. Her father, Eugene Forsey, was a socially progressive and sometimes controversial academic, who attended the founding convention of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (precursor the New Democratic Party) and served as its Quebec president in the 1930s. He was appointed to the senate in 1970 by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Forsey ca. 2020 in Newfoundland. 10-186-S6-I1. Helen Forsey fonds. uOttawa Archives and Special Collections
Forsey ca. 2020 in Newfoundland. 10-186-S6-I1. Helen Forsey fonds. uOttawa Archives and Special Collections

Forsey describes her mother, Harriet Roberts, as an intellectual who studied linguistics and loved languages, but didn’t get the opportunity to reach her potential. “Dad always said she was smarter than he was. She was poorly cast in the role of housewife. It didn’t work for her. I feel so bad now that I never understood that at the time. She was quite unhappy a lot of the time. It was about the situation.”

Forsey had a happy childhood, much of it spent exploring the swampy area near what is now Carleton University and marveling at its many creatures. In high school she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and spent her 17th summer helping out on a farm in New Brunswick. There, she developed a deep compassion for the struggle of family farmers, at a time when industrial farming was gaining ground in Canada. 

She went on to study agriculture at McGill University’s MacDonald College, where she was editor of the student paper; the beginning of what would become a long career of activist writing.

While at McGill, Forsey participated in a student exchange with the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), an international development organization. She was sent to Mexico and then Ecuador, where she worked with the Andean Mission on a community development and agricultural program with Indigenous and Mestizo communities. Forsey quickly realized she had much more to learn from the Ecuadorean farmers than vice versa.

“I had graduated by then with my Agriculture degree, [but] of course, I didn’t know anything about Ecuadorean agriculture,” she said. “It was very humbling.”
 

Helen Forsey - Ecofeminism Colloquium
Ecofeminism Colloquium in Vermont that Forsey attended in the early 1990s. 10-186-S4-F27. Helen Forsey fonds. uOttawa Archives and Special Collections

Forsey was troubled by the oppression of the Indigenous farmers and how they were being pressured to give up their traditional farming practices and switch to pesticides, commercial seeds and fertilizers. She wrote a report that was critical of the mission itself, and was sent home, disenchanted. A socialist activist was born.

Back in Ottawa, she gravitated toward the Latin American community there. She wanted to improve her Spanish and help those in the global south in any way she could. In March of 1968, she got a job with CUSO on its Latin America Program, coordinating placement of Canadian volunteers in six countries.

It was during this period she met the man who would become her husband, who was from Ecuador. They were married in 1969 and Forsey had two sons over the next two years. The marriage was abusive from its early days, Forsey said, but it took her many years to recognize the abuse as related to the larger issue of sexism and societal acceptance of the oppression of women.

“I came to feminism reluctantly,” she wrote in 1980, “dragged, like [the American writer and activist] Robin Morgan, ‘kicking and screaming all the way’, by events that forced upon me insights that I could finally no longer ignore. I had worked for years in international ‘development’, learning the structures of oppression. In 1969, in a single magnificent gesture, I married both the Third World and the Working Class and spent the next nine years loyally and legally bound into a violent and destructive relationship, totally incapable of perceiving my own oppression.”


When Forsey came into contact with feminist thinking during the mid-1970s, she was curious but not convinced. She collected magazine articles in a file, as she continued to work in the international development field for CUSO, CIDA, OXFAM and other organizations. Among other projects, she taught English at a missionary-run technical school in Ghana, worked on an adult literacy program in Ecuador, coordinated a project for the People’s Food Commission hearings across Canada, and helped run a conference centre for peace, justice, environment and social change programs.

While living in Aylmer, Quebec in 1975, Forsey applied for a part-time job at the Aylmer Women’s Coalition. When the interviewer asked her: “Do you agree that women are oppressed as women?”, her answer betrayed what she describes as her “pre-feminist” attitude.

“I said something like, ‘Well, as part of working class and racialized people…yes, of course’ And the interviewer said, ‘I don’t think you’re quite the person we are looking for, but you’d be very welcome to come to our film nights on Tuesday nights.’”

So Forsey began to attend these weekly evenings at the centre, watching feminist films produced by the National Film Board’s Studio D. “We’d watch the film and then we’d talk over coffee and cookies. And I would realize, ‘Oh, I am not the only one who sometimes feels angry about some of this stuff.’ It was basically consciousness-raising sessions.”

Gradually, Forsey delved more deeply into the women’s movement. She began editing the Women’s Coalition newsletter, joined the Ottawa Women’s Centre, and wrote for the feminist newspaper Upstream. She volunteered at Interval House, Ontario’s first shelter for women suffering intimate partner violence, and then eventually joined a support group there. 
 

Annual report from Interval House
Annual report from Interval House where Forsey volunteered to assist women survivors of gender-based violence. 10-001-S1-F1348. CWMA Collection. uOttawa Archives and Special Collections.

She remembers the process of becoming a feminist as painful, as if her internal “feminist file”, crammed full of long-suppressed anger and frustration, had literally burst. Gradually, she began to see the world and her abusive relationship in a new light. 

“When I did start realizing things, when the file burst, it was an extremely painful period of years. I had to challenge absolutely everything in my life. […] I believed in socialism and anti-racism and everything and here I was married to the Third World and the working class with two sons… My husband had convinced me that everything I was and represented was bad. I was white and privileged, and he was poor and Latin American with Indigenous ancestry. I represented, in the political view of both of us – I mean my family wasn’t rich, but it was definitely privileged – white-skin privilege and educational privilege and all the rest of it. And so, he pointed out, ‘What the hell did I have to complain about?’, when he hit me? It was so hard to shake that. It really was.”

Forsey is careful not to associate her husband’s ethnic background with the abuse.

“It was not because he was Ecuadorian [that he was abusive], but because he was patriarchal. It wasn’t any worse than anything that the Canadian women I knew through Interval House went through.” 

But even as she experienced this violence, Forsey rejected the idea that women were an oppressed group.

Still, as she grappled with her personal situation, she was reading books by feminist poets, novelists and essayists, such as Robin Morgan, Barbara Denning, Marge Piercy, and Audre Lorde. 

Gradually, Forsey began to put her own abuse into a larger context. With support from her feminist community, she eventually left her husband for good. In 1979, she won a legal separation in a Quebec court, as well as custody of her children.

This slow awakening is why that 1979 campaign against sexist advertising on public transit was such a turning point for Forsey. It marked the beginning of her realization that the oppression of women was one among many overlapping systems of domination, and she wanted to fight all of them. 

“Oppression has multiple dimensions, and they often overlap and reinforce each other, as with patriarchy, capitalism and racism… The whole concept of 'power over’; domination and submission. You’ve got … a whole bunch of people at the bottom and just a few on top. That is characteristic of all of these systems. So, you don’t have to look very far for analogies and comparisons. They take different specific forms but it’s all about power over.”

Following the OC Transpo campaign, Forsey dove into activism with a vengeance, always bringing her feminist viewpoint to her work on other progressive causes. For example, she provided feminist input to the public hearings of the People’s Food Commission in 1979, was a member of Women for the Survival of Agriculture from 1981 to 1985, co-founded Women’s Action for Peace (1980), and helped organize Ottawa International Women’s Week (1980 to 1984). She participated in the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp in 1983, co-organized the Women and Food Production International Conference in 1984… The list is literally pages long.
 

Resource guide and flyer by the organizers of the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp
Resource guide and flyer by the organizers of the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp that Forsey attended in 1983. 10-186-S2-F4 and F5. Helen Forsey fonds. uOttawa Archives and Special Collections.

Like so many women involved in the second wave, Forsey did most of this activism for free. Between and around all these volunteer efforts, which span more than four decades, Forsey somehow managed to eke out a living through her translation work, her freelance writing, and various jobs in international development.

The highest paying job she ever had was in 1975, she says, when her annual salary as executive assistant to the director of Population and Health Sciences of the International Development Research Centre was $15,500. From 1979 to 1984, Forsey worked for the Ottawa-Hull Learner Centre, an educational organization that focused on international development issues (later World Inter-Action Ottawa). The budget was so small, she says, the staff had to take turns collecting unemployment insurance to make ends meet and keep the centre afloat.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Forsey lived in alternative cooperatives in rural Ontario, always writing about and participating in social progressive actions and causes. These days, Forsey splits her time between the house she shares with her partner in St. John’s, and a little caboose in Cape St. Francis, about 40 km north of St. John’s.

Forsey has written and/or edited six books, on subjects as diverse as community living, farming, senate reform and a biography of her father. She is working on a memoir but says her penchant for activism keeps getting in the way.

Like so many of the women who collectively created the second wave of the women’s movement in the last century, Forsey’s commitment to fight oppression in all its forms has not wavered. She marches on, facing new struggles that all seem to dovetail with her feminism. Currently she is helping the people of Port au Port, Nfld. In their fight against a massive wind farm that they feel is an example of “green-washing”.   

Helen Forsey participating at a Just Transition rally
Helen Forsey participating at a Just Transition rally in St. John's, Newfoundland-10-186-S6-I2. Helen Forsey fonds. uOttawa Archives and Special Collections.

Forsey’s voice betrays anger as she discusses the project, the overall all impact of which, she argues, will not be positive for the environment. 

“It’s outrageous. What is happening on the Port au Port peninsula is connected in all these ways to all these things, so it brings out the socialist in me, the environmentalist in me and the feminist in me. It ties it all together. So that’s what I’m spending a lot of time on these days.”
 
Like so many of the women of the “second wave”, Forsey devoted – and continues to devote – countless unpaid hours to fighting oppression and promoting equality. Those struggles are far from over, and the Women’s Archives will continue to gather evidence of their work in hopes of inspiring others to carry it forward.

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