Peter Steven with
Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 26-29
CHUCK: How did you become involved in making this film? Could you tell us how you've come to the point you're at now?
MARTIN: I went to a Sudbury strike benefit in Ottawa in February 1979, one of dozens across the country. At that time I saw three women speaking from the Wives Supporting the Strike Committee, and it struck me right away that there was an important film to be made. When I asked the three whether they had thought of having a film made about the women's role in the strike, they told me they had already come close to making an application to the Canada Council (a federal agency giving out arts and academic grants) for funding.
Later, hearing I was willing to try to get a film going, the group decided to switch from video, because they have a strong sense they're establishing a tradition that doesn't stop with the strike. They want to make sure that the wives remain autonomous from the union and active in the community after the strike, and for this they feel a film will help. They also want to try to build bridges with other women in similar situations in other parts of the country. Within three weeks after that Ottawa benefit, I contacted Sophie and Joyce — and that's how it got started.
PETER: Why is the Sudbury strike so important?
MARTIN: This strike has had more Canadian working class support than, oh God, since maybe the Ford Windsor strike of 1945. That's because Inco is one of the dozen biggest multinational companies in the country, has one of the most anti-union managements, and is the corporation with the most visibly damaging effect on the environment. It spreads an acid rain all over Northern Ontario's lakes. 
It also became a national strike because it was a rank and file strike. The workers voted to strike against the advice of the United Steelworkers hierarchy. The USWA is one of the two biggest industrial unions in control of the Canadian Labour Congress. And the CLC has been losing contact with the rank and file over the last few years, since the leadership has been trying to set up a high level economic planning council with the federal government. Outrage against the steel hierarchy had been building up.
PETER: Tell us about the 1958 strike and the women's role then. The myth about what happened then bears on this latest struggle.
SOPHIE: One of the first things which happened when we got to Sudbury and started contacting the Wives Support Committee was the constant mention of 1958, always in the context of the women's having forced the men back to work. The whole Sudbury community had maintained the mythology about the women being to blame for the '58 strike's failure.
So when the women started organizing the Support Committee, around the union local they faced a lot of skepticism and a certain hostility from the husbands' suspicions about their intentions. One activity gained them an enormous amount of respect and credibility — a great Christmas party, held before we actually got involved.
JOYCE: They solicited many union locals for donations of toys and collected so many they had to give toys away to non-strikers' kids as well as sending some on to another striking community.
SOPHIE: None of the strikes prior to this had held out past Christmas. It was difficult for families to imagine going through Christmas without a paycheck. When we arrived in Sudbury, there was this mixture of the 1958 myth that the women were to blame, and yet an increasing respect for the Support Committee and their activities.
BARBARA: So, there's another story about '58, right?
SOPHIE: Right. The women started asking themselves about what role women had really played in '58.
JOYCE: In '58 the strike had begun about the same time, had gone from mid-September to just before Christmas. A number of organizationally and politically naive women (about 900) had gone to the mayor of Sudbury, whom history records as totally corrupt, asking him to put pressure on the company to give the men a fair deal and end the strike. But of course he was in cahoots with Inco and other business interests. He eventually suggested a meeting in the city ice arena. There he placed the women in the bleacher seats, himself and other local officials on the ice, and in the audience "plants" of many nonstrikers' wives. Then after he had the plants read proposals, he asked any women who were still opposed to their husbands going back to work to cone down onto the ice. It was a totally intimidating environment for the women to express any objections.
When the current Christmas party was being planned, many people were saying, "Ha, ha, this is never going to happen. Who do they think they are kidding? It's going to be a big flop. A handful of women preparing Christmas for 11,700 families? Never" But it was such a mind-boggling success, so rich in spirit, that the men started saying, "Well, I guess we have to give the girls [sic] a pat on the back."
BARBARA: Are you planning on having something in the film about 1958?
JOYCE: The film must include rewriting that history, putting it straight. But it was equal1y important to be filming while this strike was happening, while the wives were organizing, while they could still say, "How are we going to do … " with no past tense.
BARBARA: What is the platform of the WSS Group? How do they speak about their activities and how do they want the platform presented on film?
SOPHIE: The first leaflet they handed out to invite other women to join their group outlined principles which differ from the way women usually organize around strikes. They appealed that the union was a family affair. They started the leaflet with, "You work for Inco, too. You raise the kids. You reproduce your husband's labor force so he can go back every day and continue to produce for Inco …" And since Sudbury is basically a one company city, the families are also reproducing the future labor force for Inco.
So it was on that basis that the women organized. Their work centered on providing a lot of moral support for the men. The support group was crucial in building community backing for the strike because in Sudbury the entire city was paralyzed since Inco is the major industry and most other industries sub-contract from them. It's important that people who are laid off as a result of the strike understand who their real enemy is. That was clear in the community because Inco had been laying off for some time. Inco increasingly had a bad reputation even outside Sudbury. It had shut down some Canadian mining locations and had begun investments and operations in Guatemala and Indonesia, which raised hostility towards its exploitive multinational profile. The wives sustained solidarity with their community contracts, for instance, where shopkeepers and banks extended credit to enable the strike to go past Christmas.
Struggling with family tensions was also crucial. In a strike these tensions obviously increase with the number of months out of work. The wives have to cope with the usual workload of the children and housekeeping in addition to having husbands at home who find it hard to deal with suddenly being out of work. Then they have to manage a reduced budget over an extended period of time, which, in this case, for a family of four was $34 a week. These things create a lot of tensions. So one of their most important contributions was maintaining the family unit and holding the community together — setting up social activities to keep everybody in solidarity.
They've done other things. They set up a crisis center for pregnant women to help them get started with a layette, diapers and milk. They had family pickets. They went outside Sudbury to factory gates and spoke at fundraising benefits. They published a comic book for children to explain the strike. They set up a wives' chorus and organized community suppers to decrease food costs.
JOYCE: They published a strike cookbook, too: how to eat well nutritionally on $26 or $30 a week.
Inco had a huge stockpile when the strike started. It was clear to the workers that the company had made them an offer they couldn't accept (a four cent increase, for instance), and Inco went back on gains workers had made on the previous contract.
The strikers were always faced with the threat of court injunctions. This threat seemed to hold the men back a lot in their sense of what they could do — other than maintain the nominal picket shacks with a few fellows in it. The wives added a spark. They were able to say, "We'll organize, we'll bring other wives and even our children put, we'll send the chorus to sing our repertoire of union and strike songs." They burned the effigy of the personnel manager at the dawn picket tally. The company had sent the workers letters telling them to go back to work, and the workers and wives' eloquent response was a collective letter burning. The wives don't have a vested interest in the standard union thinking, such as, "We mustn't do anything because we have to wait for word from above." The wives constantly felt, "Why not do something? Isn't this a strike?"
SOPHIE: I wouldn't say the union thinking is so standard — it was a rank and file strike and there was lots of militancy from many of the men. The crucial point was that the wives educated themselves politically. In most labor struggles women are kept ignorant about the issues, so that a strike means to than no pay check coming in and a husband out of work, period. The women in Sudbury knew what was at stake and they wanted to participate in that struggle. And they knew that they were fighting for more than just themselves. Of course, there were divisions in the women's group, and not everyone saw the situation as simply as I've discussed it.
JOYCE: Feminists in Canada helped organize many of the strike benefits. Also, the women insisted that we film their conflicts as well as the good moments: the difficulties of organizing, of getting together, of learning about and trusting each other specifically as women that were new to then.
CHUCK: What kind of film are you making and how far along are you?
JOYCE: It's a 90-minute color film, shot in 16mm. There will be two versions, one French, one English. We are working in the tradition of cinema-direct (sometimes referred to as candid-eye in English Canada). 
MARTIN: We want to do another week or two of shooting on the after-effects of the strike on the Wives Group. There was an interesting meeting of the group within three days of the union's acceptance of the company's offer which we filmed. Here an older woman who had been active in the old Steelworkers Women's Auxiliary (defunct since 1975) proposed that they reconstitute the women's auxiliary in the union local. She was massively outvoted. All but three of the others supported the idea that they could be more effective if they had their own autonomous organization. They also realized they had to change their name from Wives Supporting the Strike to something new.
As a group they're now going through a period of redefining what their role will be. One of the ideas they were discussing during the strike was that they demand the right to attend union meetings as observers, which has never happened up to now. That's one of the ideas they'll be discussing and which we hope to film. And while that's happening, the individual women we have been filming (approximately 10) will be going through an important period of self-discovery and self-examination with their husbands about how to avoid returning to their old roles as housewives, bed makers, and child raisers and how to remain community activists. We hope to film some of those transitions.
SOPHIE: One of the reasons we wanted to stay there so long is they've gone through so many changes in the nine months of the strike, and those changes have continued and hopefully will continue after the strike. The first part of the film will cover the last four months of the strike and probably one month after the settlement. We are also planning a second film which will probably happen one year after the end of the strike to find out what happened to those women — to answer the political question which comes up at the very end of WITH BABIES AND BANNERS: "Well, that was very nice, but now back to the kitchen." We are quite hopeful the women won't go back to the kitchen and we want to find out how they'll be able to prevent that, how they'll keep up that struggle. They have to prevent the unions and their husbands from sending them back to the kitchen, which would have the effect of them returning to their pre-militant days, if that becomes the case.
BARBARA: Could you go into more detail about the politics of the film? Martin, I'm really curious to know what's happened to your thinking in the course of working on this film. You've worked on a lot of films, and this seems like a really important breakthrough. You've made other films from a left perspective, but this is the first made from a fully feminist perspective. I wonder how you see those things coming together.
MARTIN: Well, first of all, it's not my film. That's the main thing I've learned finally — how to work with other people, and I'm still learning that hard lesson, to be relearned every day. I think that's the most exciting part — to learn how to be equal partners and workers with fellow militants in the feminist and socialist movements. Because I think if we're going to build movements, it has to be done in this kind of working partnership.
BARBARA: It sounds like a description of the content of the film.
MARTIN: Yes. I think it's a transitional … you say a breakthrough. I hope it's a transitional breakthrough towards women being able to make their own films about working class/feminist struggles without the need of a man to come in and operate the camera.
JOYCE: We want this film to be widely distributed within both the union movement and the women's movement and to be used there as a departure point for discussion and action. What's been costing a lot of money and time is the fact that the film follows in the tradition of cinema direct, a tradition of being there and watching and listening and paying attention. That tradition demands more footage, and it's a tradition that agencies like the Canada Council don't respect in terms of the norms of your budget. For them you have to make your budget conform to norms which correspond to a more manipulative documentary tradition. I think that's something that feminist and socialist filmmakers should be much more calculatedly organized around.
PETER: What ideas do the Sudbury women have for the film? How wide an audience are they thinking of, or are they more concerned with it as a specific tool which they could use in Sudbury?
JOYCE: They're very interested in this film being made so that what they have learned in this strike other women can learn from. They had to start from zero and go through the ABC's. Hopefully other women can use the film and not have to start, from scratch. The women filmed hope that other people can get clued in even faster in how to organize against a multinational, not just during a strike but in daily living when you, too, as a wife, work for a multinational.
MARTIN: They don't use terms like working class consciousness or feminist consciousness, but that is what they've evolved during these strikes, not only in Sudbury but in plant-gating and in speaking at benefits for the strike around the whole province of Ontario, which is a huge territory. The wives' chorus has traveled, met women in other parts of the country, and have become aware that they're not isolated.
CHUCK: Why is this strike so different? It is a really inspiring pattern. What conditions do you think led these women to achieve this remarkable unity and determination in pushing forward that they either didn't have before or that women in similar situations haven't been able to manifest?
JOYCE: Necessity. And a general social climate that's theirs in 1979.
SOPHIE: The women's movement!
JOYCE: These women may be 23-ish and sit at home all day or be 50-ish in the same situation, but they live in this company town where every three years a new contract is negotiated. They've had a lot of strikes before '58 and since.
We have been there since the beginning of March 1979, living with strikers' families. Martin, for instance, boards with a woman who is spokesperson for the group and whose husband is a striker. I live with one of the women strikers (out of 11,700 strikers, only 35 are women).
Many women tell you openly how before the strike they sat at home and watched soap operas all day. Now they are just as openly looking around apprehensively with a scared smile on their face thinking, "What will I do now?" because they know they can't go back. Many of them married very young, in their late teens, and are now in their early twenties with several children to raise.
MARTIN: There were three women who first broached the idea of setting up a support committee, and they belonged to a feminist consciousness raising group established three years earlier, called Women Helping Women, designed to help women meet their own problems. They had produced a very effective booklet for free distribution, giving practical advice on how to get help for their problems. The existence of the earlier group was one reason for such a good response to the call for setting up a support committee. I think that the remarkable unity achieved in Sudbury at this time was due mainly to the tremendous hatred which had built up against Inco and a real profound determination to win this godamned strike — against the advice of the international union. They were very angry against the company and they still are.
BARBARA: Would it be true to say that a lot of the analysis of the Support Group comes from a reevaluation of traditional women's skills which had never been previously valued?
JOYCE: This film is being made from the women's point of view. I think we're being really thorough in what we shoot, whom we listen to — that it's the women who have center stage. We don't turn to their husbands or the union leaders for approval or confirmation, such as, "Are they doing it right, boys?" The women have more often than not a higher consciousness than the men. Their husbands may have caught up to than, but it's been a catching up process. They had the consciousness, the more highly developed analysis and the militancy to match, much sooner than many of their husbands.
SOPHIE: I think I've had a lot of learning to do from these women. We've had many discussions about the film on a daily basis, deciding what we should film and the meaning or importance of specific events. They're rarely formal discussions like, "OK, now where's this thing going?" It usually happens because we've been living there on a daily basis. The film is on a lot of people's minds (specifically the ten women we focus on), so there's a lot of interaction back and forth.
CHUCK: How are you financing the film? How do three young, broke people make a film? (laughter)
SOPHIE: That's an exciting thing. We've almost been operating in the same way that the strike's been operating in terms of gathering support. We've been doing it on two grounds. On the one hand, we've appealed to individuals and politically or socially involved organizations to give us donations, so that we could shoot on a day-to-day basis. Grants take a long time and we couldn't wait. We've mainly been operating on those individual and socially conscious group appeals that we've sent out. The wives have helped us in that respect, too — one form of their involvement with the film has been giving us a hand with fundraising whenever it didn't interfere with their own fundraising for the strike. We made sure there was no overlap as to where we were getting the money from.
Our second route has been applications for grant money. We've received $25,000 from the Canada Council and we applied to L'Institute Quebecois du Cinema which invests in Quebec productions. (Editor's note: $40,000 received in January 1980.) We should emphasize again that we're making both an English and a French version, because a good 35% of the population in Sudbury is of French origin and are trying hard to resist assimilation in Northern Ontario.
Many people became involved in supporting the film. That's exciting and crucial, especially in Canada and Quebec where activists aren't very familiar with the potential uses of a political film. Film isn't being used very much yet. And scarcity of money and funding sources leads filmmakers into competing for that money which creates a fairly unhealthy climate at times.
BARBARA: What about the issue of communism and redbaiting? Is this an issue in Sudbury and with your film? Is it possible that the women you're filming might be ostracized through redbaiting in the city?
SOPHIE: The Communist Party and Individual CP members have not played a role in this strike. That situation would relate more to the events of 1958. In '58 the sides were described by many as the Roman Catholic Church and the Company versus the Communists. I think the problem now is the way communism is used to blame something on someone and how the women are actually dealing with that. Several women have said to us, on film, "I don't care if I get called a communist. I don't care if I work with radicals. We're in this because we want to move on to get a good deal out of Inco and we want to tell Inco what we think of them."
They don't care if they get called communist or not, but some of the women and some husbands and some union people especially are using that label of communism and putting it on the women. If I may speculate as to what's happening: often the women aren't threatening because they have anything to do with communism, they're threatening because they're stepping out of order, and anything that's stepping out of its ordered role gets labeled communism. More often than not "feminism" would be the more important label. Often what the people who are redbaiting really mean is, you're not acting like a woman, you're not playing a traditional woman's role. What is actually threatening is the fact that the women in the Wives Group are feminists. We've also been redbaited like this, especially when we started the project.
BARBARA: That still leaves the issue untouched. You understand the kinds of fears that lead to that accusation, but you also want to deal with the putdown itself. (Feminists similarly face the put-down "lesbian." The solution does not lie in denying that one is a lesbian.) I was wondering what your politics around dealing with the issue of communism is — both in terms of the union and among the women in the film.
JOYCE: At a certain point in the struggle as strike tensions mounted, redbaiting started from a small number within the Wives Group. That's a part of our film as far as I'm concerned.
MARTIN: They were the same women who voted for the Ladies' Auxiliary.
JOYCE: Yes, three or four in the entire group. Someone first said to us, "This film will never get passed if you put a communist in or if we talk about communism at all." We soon decided that our political integrity or the political integrity of the film depended on our going ahead and including that fact if we had to. If we have to fight for that issue come next spring, then we'll face that then.
Otherwise, it's just feeding into this whole network where you only have to mention the word communism, even us, the "big city moviemakers," and we all go scurrying into our corners and go, "Right, we don't mention communism. And please lower your voices and, if possible, put tape over your mouth." That response just keeps redbaiters going no matter what the situation, the city, or the sex of those involved. We hope to talk with those three who have resisted being in the film. They view us very suspiciously and think Martin is a communist because he spends so much time away from his house and family and doesn't believe in God. Now that's interesting, because he's considered a communist, but Sophie and I aren't. He's the man up there and so they count him as "a person away from home" — we don't count anyway. I mean, I'm glad you get the brunt of it, Martin, because it's the shits. (laughter)
Anyway, it's our hope, now that the strike's over, to propose to these women who have resisted being filmed that they tell us on camera what communism means to them and the difficulties they've had with the group — just to put it to them because the issue's been so mystified.
SOPHIE: I think that's particularly important in the context of what this film's all about — about rewriting history from the women's point of view. We have to maintain our integrity. If we're trying to rewrite the women's history of 1958 in order to demystify it, we also have to do the sane thing with communism. The women get scapegoated and blamed for the failure of the '58 strike at the same time as communism is also used to justify failures, preventing a lot of union members and some strikers from analyzing what has happened to them. So it's important for the workers also, not only getting rid of all those false ideas but also starting to see, "Well, if I can't blame my wife, if the community's not to blame, then who is?" Then the workers have to start doing the analysis of why the strike of '58 failed.
BARBARA: What's your accountability to them?
SOPHIE: We have an agreement that they have a majority vote. There's a geographic problem in that the editing will be done in Montreal. We'll be organizing a couple of screenings at intermediate stages of the editing to get feedback from some women and their impressions, then a final meeting to show the finished film.
JOYCE: Of course, when we press ahead and include the mention of communism, I flash forward to that majority vote agreement's determining whether this film gets out or not. It adds a whole subtext to the problematic side of this kind of democratic participatory filmmaking. One of my first reactions to our agreeing to the majority vote was that they could end up making a biased film because of their potential instinct to protect themselves.
Whenever I hear a discussion about accountability and hear filmworkers talking about how they showed people all the stages of the work, I think at the same time there's some hoodwinking there, some skipping over the positive value that your distance, your outsidedness, does bring.
CHUCK: It seems to me that you're being put in that situation whenever you come in because of the skills you have as filmmakers, but you're also coming in as political people who are committed to documenting this struggle and to making a film out of it which will be useful to other people. That puts you in a position of leadership, which you don't want to be irresponsible about. You want to listen to what people are saying, yet you also want to influence then to some extent. You don't want to abrogate your responsibility completely.
JOYCE: If I understand what you're saying, Chuck, it's not possible with these women, and luckily so, because I think we'd feel very awkward. I don't think any of us are suited to being placed in a position of leadership. Also, it's because we did come in five months into the strike. They had already proved their own leadership talents to one another. They're very smart and organized, and they're not bashful in front of a camera. It's not just that they say, "Oh, I think this should be on film to help women in other situations." They're more apt to say, "Oh, you've got a camera. Well, that's nice. What else is new?"
CHUCK: I don't mean you were being leaders in the strike. I was referring to the position you're in, not that you're making the policies of the strike.
JOYCE: I guess the reason why that has not been a problem with the specific ten women we're focusing on is because we did become friends very fast, living in their homes and providing our "shared accountability" on a personal level We trusted each other to talk issues since we had become friends.
SOPHIE: I think also the fact that we're doing it using cinema-direct sets up an interesting situation. In a sense it's a very manipulative style, but on the other hand it gives us a lot more room to start dealing with those questions. In cinema-direct there seems to be so little intervention on the part of the filmmakers. I think it appeals to audiences depending on their inclination and what they want to see in the film. For example, there's a possibility of making something out of the mention of communism and how it's used to scapegoat that will click for some people while other people won't respond to it in that way. That's one of the possibilities of using the film in terms of the myths surrounding '58. We can use it just as recording an historical event, but I think several people in the audience who are listening to what happened in '58 will start coloring in how they perceive the strike of 1979. Now, for other people who aren't particularly in tune with some of those distinctions about what communism is all about, what scapegoating entails, and even what feminism is about, perhaps they won't make the link between certain kinds of scapegoating that happened in '58 and things that could happen again.
CHUCK: Here's another side to my question. In some workshops at the Alternative Cinema Conference, people said, "Well, I'm out there to serve the community. I make films." Sometimes it just seems like the medium is being used passively: the filmmaker goes in and simply records other people's views. I don't think that's really accurate.
JOYCE: This whole issue has a lot to do with feminism. It's not just that we went in there like some kind, generous filmmakers from the big city. Part of our creating a rapport has to do with what feminism is stylistically, based on how you approach people and how you don't approach people — whether it's with a camera and sound equipment walking into a room, demanding or recording a situation, or just sitting eating breakfast bleary-eyed with somebody.
SOPHIE: It took us a very long time and a lot of discussions in the women's kitchens before we got some of these things on film, because when you're talking about making a film about women's personal lives and some of the discussions that go on in kitchens, then you have to spend a long time listening before you can actually build a sort of trust and rapport that will bring out those kinds of things that you want in the film. You must get to the point where you feel you're not abusing the women and they feel they're not being abused.
JOYCE: The film focuses on the women, and at the same time the perspective is theirs. They're the ones that are legitimizing themselves — that combined with our feminist politics. They have grassroots, working feminism, but it doesn't get called that, and we have big city, more intellectual feminism. We have more labels, more analysis. They're organizing around this strike. They take these basic skills they learned in the women's auxiliary many years ago or in kitchens or in raising families. The whole, survival network that they know, and they're applying it around the strike. In terms of dealing with us as people, well, you're someone in the kitchen, around the kitchen table, and how you deal with them across the kitchen table is how they decide how much of themselves they're going to give to you and the film.
1. Acid Rain is airborne sulphur dioxide which has mixed with atmospheric moisture. Such precipitation entering soil diminishes fertility by leeching out valuable nutrients. Acid rain from Inco's huge stack had been detected as far south as Toronto and Buffalo, New York. For more details and an excellent political analysis of Inco's history and the history of the people who work in the mines and smelters of Sudbury, see The Big Nickel, Jamie Swift and the Development Education Centre (Between the Lines Press. Kitchener, Ontario, 1977).
2. Cinema-direct as used here should not be confused with U.S. direct cinema, the ideology and practice of such filmmakers as Leacock, Pennebaker, Drew, Maysles, Wiseman, etc. Nor should it be confused with so-called true cinema verite as developed by Jean Rouch and Michel Brault in the late 50s. The sync sound documentaries of Quebec and Canada have (characteristically) never been so extreme or dogmatic, rather the films preferred to mix the European and U.S. styles of documentary, sometimes stressing intervention, sometimes interviews and narration, sometimes a detached "candid eye." The term direct cinema, cinema verite, and the forms of cinema direct practiced in Quebec and Canada are not the same. Even though the terms are often now used interchangeably, it remains important to distinguish their procedures and their approaches to events, people, and the intended audience.
(Go to Barbara Halpern Martineau's review of A Wives Tale)