Une Histoire de femmes: A Wives Tale
Women unite during strike

by Barbara Halpern Martineau

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, p. 25
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

"As the women became increasingly involved in the strike, they questioned more and more their traditional supportive role. This provoked many heated discussions among the women and obviously not without upsetting husband, family, union — and company."

"This situation forced us as filmmakers to find a cinematic approach that could capture this reality. It is difficult (impossible) to take 'pretty pictures' under these conditions: kitchens are small and don't well suit the movements of a film crew; children scream and cry in the microphone, making it hard to hear…"

"…we often packed up our equipment and decided not to shoot because we felt it would be a betrayal of the trust we had established with the women. You may perhaps be disappointed not to witness a family feud…"

"So we shot a film that doesn't in fact show 'everything.' hoping that what is not obvious comes from between the lines, between each frame of the film."

"The strike lasted eight and a half months. We stayed four and a half months in Sudbury, living with strikers' families. We returned six months later to "finish" A WIVES' TALE. Later still we returned to show the wives the film. They voted unanimously to release it."

 — the filmmakers: Sophie Bissonette, Martin Duckworth, Joyce Rock

Inco, Ltd. is a multinational which owns and operates the nickel mines in Sudbury, Ontario. As an employer and as an environmental influence. Inco's record is impressively atrocious — a paradigm of patriarchal capitalism. The smokestacks of Inco belch polluting agents into the air, resulting in acid rain across the province. Men die in the mines. Women live lives of patient desperation caring for, fearing for, and fearing the miners ("he's not always easy to live with"), raising future miners and miners' wives. And the Board of Directors annually raises the required profit margin for the company. There is some change as the world turns — now a few women are employed in the mines (30 out of 11,700), and recently one of those women died in a foundry accident. Equality of opportunity.

A WIVES' TALE is a 73-minute film about the women who supported the 1978 strike of the Sudbury miners against Inco. It is the most ambitious labor film to be shot in Canada in recent years, certainly the most ambitious in English-speaking Canada since the early days of Evelyn and Lawrence Cherry [1] and their agrarian populist films of the forties in Regina. Although shot in Sudbury, A WIVES' TALE is not an English Canadian production. Sudbury, Ontario, has a large francophone population, a fact strongly reflected in the structure of the film. A WIVES' TALE is a bilingual film, released first in French in Montreal, and very much in the tradition of militant Québec cinema — the executive producer was Arthur Lamonthe, [2] whose film LE MEPRIS N'AURA QU'UN TEMPS (HELL NO LONGER) remains a landmark of radical documentary. However, unlike most Québec militant films and unlike most labor-oriented documentaries made in English in Canada and elsewhere, A WIVES' TALE is preeminently, self-consciously, happily, and proudly a feminist film, insisting on the priority of women's experience and women's wide-ranging voices and visions as its perspective on the strike.

The Inco strike made labor history in Canada. It was originally provoked by the company in order to dispose of a nickel stockpile, on the evident assumption that a few months on picket lines would deplete the union treasury and the energies of the workers so that they would crawl back to work whenever into offered some paltry concessions. This did not happen — the strikers held out for eight and a half months, until they were offered a contract that made the strike worthwhile. The main reason they were able to hold out for so long was that they were solidly backed by the Wives Supporting the Strike Committee. The Wives raised money for special needs; organized a Christmas party that gave out 10,000 toys; held suppers and sales; ran a thrift shop; developed a clear analysis of the reasons for the strike; and gave financial, emotional, and physical support, which for once they themselves understood to be invaluable. The most important accomplishment of the women who organized in Sudbury, as their experience is presented by the film, was the validation of the work women do, and the skills women have, and the right of women to speak on their own behalf. The most difficult challenge for the filmmakers, aside from the usual impossible hardships faced by radical artists here and everywhere, was to make this self-validation interesting and accessible on film.

Mines and foundries make wonderful material for film documentarians — the colors and sounds of the molten metal, the awesome machinery, the physical courage of the workers daring the fury of the elements. How to move from this audio/visual spectacle to the subject matter of A WIVES' TALE — two or three women arguing around a kitchen table about how far they can press their desire to be kept informed about strike matters and have their say about issues which directly affect their lives? One solution found by the filmmakers was simply to juxtapose these disparate elements — near the end of the film, when the strike is over, one of the woman is shown doing her laundry, "helped" by her toddling child. As she reaches for the controls of the washing machine, the scene cuts to one of the most dramatic sequences of the film, starting in the foundry, ending with a shot of molten metal streaming golden down the hillside from great vats tipped against the indigo sky.

A woman's voice, humming, connects this scene of men and their machines back to the familial reality which makes the drama possible. Cut to an early morning scene of a miner eating breakfast, a woman talking about her life since the strike ended six months earlier, how she tries to get out some evenings to see other women. Another, younger woman tells one of the most important stories of the film. Sitting in a rocking chair, as she did at the beginning of the film when she told how she first became involved in the Wives' group, she now, fourteen months later, talks about how her involvement changed her. "I'm not scared to go out by myself anymore." Before, she was terrified that someone might talk to her and she would have nothing to say. She is the same young woman seen earlier in the film speaking at a mock trial of the Inco Board of Directors, speaking of being a miner's daughter and a miner's wife and a miner's mother. She says she hopes someday she'll be able to hold her head high when she says, "My son is a miner."

Cut from the rocking chair to a picket line for another strike and familiar faces — some of the women in Wives Supporting the Strike have been politicized by that experience, form support groups, and go out to work in their community. Of these, the most militant is the francophone group, who have been shown in the course of the film to be aware of their triply oppressed status as working-class, francophone women. The women form a circle, dancing, and I remember the words of Anne Sylvestre's song, sung earlier in the film by Québec folk star Pauline Julien at a benefit for the strikers — singing of women who have borne and suffered and buried men throughout the ages, she pays tribute to "un sorcier comme les autres" (a witch, like all the others).

The heart of the film is the growth of these women, these potential witches, picketers, organizers, mothers, wives, movers, and shakers. They argue, they yell bitterly at each other; an older Scots woman, paying homage to her husband's "thirrrty years of serrrvice," announces that she will abide by his decision, whatever it is. And what of her own thirty years of service to him? This is my question, but it is raised, in other ways, by other women in the film. One woman says firmly, "My husband is the one who works and brings home the paycheck, but I'm the one who balances his bank account." Another woman, who is seen earlier in the film reporting on her research about the management of Inco (the Board of Directors, she announces, is composed entirely of men connected with banks, in their sixties and seventies, who seem to be suffering from "hardening of the heart as well as hardening of the arteries"), says now that she is "hot for the strike, I'm for my husband … and if my husband decides to go back to work, then fuck the strike!" Other women applaud. Cathy, one of the thirty striking women, retorts: "it's not your strike. It's everybody's … this is history in the making."

A number of recent feminist documentaries have used historical material (photographs, old footage, oral testimony) to pay tribute to women who were active in the labor movement (UNION MAIDS, BABIES AND BANNERS, ROSIE THE RIVETER). A WIVES' TALE also uses this sort of archival material, to very different effect, as it serves to validate the work and experience of women as working-class wives and mothers. It brings their rich and untapped history directly into the present, showing the unbreakable connection between working-class struggle and feminism. When this connection is denied, as it has repeatedly been denied in practice by socialists around the world, the result is betrayal of the struggle — men and women all suffer.

The opening sequence of the film moves from a scene in the mine to an overview of the city of Sudbury, with a woman's voice giving a verbal overview, factual information which is then rooted in personal experiences as she speaks of "our labor" as the source of Inco's profit. Over footage of the strike she brings the film home:

"The strike has now been going on for about six months … we, as wives of strikers … our history is a forgotten one."

Credits: A WIVES' TALE. Tracking shot: railway tracks, music, old pictures, old footage, women's voices recounting their history, their arrival in Sudbury, as pioneers, as miners' wives and daughters and mothers, always spoken in the first person, the story of one woman and of many, as paid workers during the war who joined the first union in 1944, who were laid off when the war was over and returned to their customary unpaid work at home, as wives of miners who spoke out against the hardships of the strike of '58 and were then blamed for the poor contract the miners accepted soon after.

Cut now to present-day footage, the Wives of '78, haunted by the shame of twenty years ago, an undeserved shame which recurs throughout the film — if we speak out now and they take a bad contract, we'll be blamed … but we're speaking out against the settlement … they're afraid we'll turn out to be smarter than them . . . they're afraid of us -. . . they don't trust us … our own husbands.

Nervous, shy, brassy, tough as old sinew, organizing, collecting money, phoning, speaking, arguing, cooking, washing, cleaning, bright as new pennies, learning new skills, learning the value of skills they already have. Balancing the family bank account means they can balance the group's account very well, thank you — but still the union insists that checks be signed by a union officer. And the women agree, after an argument. With one dissenting vote. But one of the women who argued against the decision later pipes up and informs her pontificating husband that he is a male chauvinist pig. She explains to the camera that she grew up in a family where father was the boss — she thought it was natural and right. Now she's having other thoughts.

In a written statement accompanying the film's Toronto opening, the filmmakers refer to the Wives' insistence that "we record their 'lows' as well as their 'highs,' their tensions and conflicts — all that would keep them 'real,' even on the big screen, and far away from being 'heroines.'"

"A Québécois film, still and always an act of faith."

"Briefly, A WIVES' TALE, seventy-three colored minutes where the sound and image belong to women."

"It is a different cinema … why hesitate to name it? It is a militant film, a feminist film, a tale of women."

 — the filmmakers


1. Evelyn and Lawrence Cherry were a husband-and-wife team who first made films in England, then came to Ottawa to work with Grierson at the National Film Board, and finally moved to the prairies setting up an independent production company. Evelyn Cherry is still active in filmmaking today.

2. Since completing HELL NO LONGER in 1970 Lamonthe has gone on to make a series of eight films on the Québec Amerindians, CARCAJOU ET LE PÉRIL BLANC. For a thorough analysis of Quebec filmmaking see Michel Houle's "Themes and ideology in Québec Cinema" in JUMP CUT 22.

(Go to interview with filmmakers)