My mother, the local school teacher, answered the authoritative knock on the door of her country home.
The policeman standing respectfully before her served a large rural area, in and around Winfield, Alberta. He knew a great deal about most of the inhabitants within his jurisdiction, “Mrs. D., how are you today? May I speak with you in private? I have a question to ask you.”
Mother knew exactly what prompted the Constable’s visit that day in the early 1940s.
Over the previous years, the Public Health Nurse and my mother, had worked in concert when various family issues surfaced and affected the children. During mother’s experience in schools, she agonized over the effects of dire poverty. Evidence popped up in classrooms as reliably as gopher’s heads in the prairie stubble. The Public Health Nurse provided the only safe place for my mother to vent her concerns and frustrations. She bemoaned the endless and life-threatening pregnancies of women who laboured in partnership with their husbands to keep farms afloat and somewhat productive. Mother greeted hungry, cold and silent children who not only tended chores morning and night, but who also readily placed them above an education.
“Nurse Fergusson*,” my mom protested, “not only do these women not need any more mouths to feed, they do not want any more children! They let me know in all sorts of different ways whenever I speak to them about their children. What can be done?”
Nurse Fergusson said, “Besides their feeble attempts at the rhythm method or quick withdrawal, you mean? Or self induced abortion?”
“What about that birth-control program for low-income women that started in Ontario a few years ago? I read that a group organized themselves and can now legally obtain contraceptives by mail order. They can even get referrals to physicians who can now prescribe some sort of diaphragms for contraception. Can we do that here?” Mom asked.
“Maybe they can do that in Ontario.” the nurse said. In the early 1940s, although Ontario was another Canadian province, it was distant from Western Canada in more ways than in miles. It may as well have been another country when considering impact of sensitive issues or political advancements.
“I saw an advertisement in an American magazine about French Safes. Could we get a supply of those and could you distribute them?” Mom asked.
“If we could get a supply of French Safes from anywhere, I could not be the one to hand them out, Dorothy. If the authorities found out, I would be the first one they’d suspect.”
“Would they suspect me?” Mom asked.
“I’m sure they’d think of you because you are an educated woman. But at least you can elude them by standing firm on the fact that the School District needs children to justify its existence,” she laughed.
“Let’s order them from the States. I’ll distribute them,” Mom said.
The order was sent and the illicit packages began arriving.
Mother picked up her parcels on a regular basis with the postmistress contorting her meager streak of diplomacy in hopes of identifying the contents.
This visit from the local constabulary was not a surprise to my mother.
“Come on in, Constable Newman*. We have privacy. None of the children are home. Is there a problem?”
“Well, Mrs. D., there’s concern over illegal contraband having found its way into the countryside. You have so much contact with so many families, I thought you may be able to help me find out who’s bringing it in,” he said.
“Illegal contraband? Oh dear. That sounds serious. What type of contraband?” Mom asked.
“It’s a form of birth control. A type of contraceptive,” the policeman’s face flared red.
“Oh my goodness. How on earth did you discover this, Constable?”
“Some of the men have been complaining. It sort of leaked out.” Again, his face flushed when he realized what he had said.
“Well, you know, Constable, none of the men would ever dream of talking to me about that sort of thing. I’ve heard nothing from them at all. But if I do hear anything, I will let you know.”
“Thank you, Mrs. D. I knew I could count on your help.” He reached for the door handle and opened the door to leave. He paused. “You know, if you do have the opportunity to talk to people about this, let them know there can be dire consequences.”
“Oh my goodness. Like what?”
“A jail sentence,” he said and turned to walk to the police car.
“I’ll be sure to pass that information along.” Mom said as she made a mental note to bring the postmistress into the office of the Public Heath Nurse at the next opportunity.
Years later, when Mother was telling me this story, I asked her about the outcome.
“The Constable knew it was me. But I trusted the loyalty of my contacts and knew the policeman had no proof. In those days, the “School Marm” carried a bit of power. I used it that day. If he’d asked to search my house, he would have found nothing, but I knew that he would not undertake such an aggressive act on the only School Teacher for miles around. If I was unhappy or put in jail, he’d have the whole countryside down his throat.”
I asked, “What about the postmistress?”
“We lured her into the Health Office. I accused her of reporting me to the police. She denied that, of course. Whether she did or didn’t – it was immaterial. She made the mistake of stating outright, ‘I didn’t tell Constable Newman about the French Safes!’ Nurse Fergusson and I immediately pointed out that she was an accomplice. It was our word against hers – we both heard that she knew what was contained in the parcels. We explained that we’d simply tell the truth that she’d handed all those parcels over to us, knowing what was in them. It spelled complicity.”
“You know, darling, there are times when one has to juggle justice to exercise mercy.”
(*Not the real names.)
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