A mother's untold story inspires professor's research chair project

August 18, 2021 | Arts & Culture


Jacqueline Baker is a MacEwan Board of Governor's Research Chair.

In 1967, Jacqueline Baker's mother boarded a Greyhound bus from rural Saskatchewan to the Pineview Home for Unwed Mothers.

Between 1940 and 1970, she and more than 300,000 pregnant and unmarried young women were coerced to give up their babies into an overburdened adoption system. Even as she faced caseworkers who insisted that her pregnancy was evidence of failed morals, Baker's mother refused to give up her child. Her mother's untold story is now inspiring Baker's latest project.

Nonfiction book Stigma will be the focus of Baker's two-year term as a MacEwan Board of Governor's Research Chair.

We asked Baker, an associate professor in English and Creative Writing at MacEwan, about her journey to becoming a writer, what research looks like in her discipline and how she plans to spend her time as a research chair.

Q.What drew you to your discipline?

I have been writing most of my life, but as to what drew me, I’m not sure I know. I didn’t want to be a writer — I wanted to be an artist. But as the child of a low-income single mother, there was no money for art supplies (or music or dance lessons). Writing costs nothing. So I started to write.

But, the bigger question, what is that thing that drives us to express something artistically? What makes a Cindy Sherman or a Misty Copeland or a Deepa Mehta? I don’t think anyone knows definitively. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for it. Books, film, art and music have always been the things I’ve turned to during periods of crisis. Books in particular. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Q.How is research part of your work?

The discipline of creative writing isn’t a continuous or semi-continuous path of inquiry that builds on itself. With each new book, each new writing project, you’re inventing the genre again for yourself. There isn’t a template for “this story, this time.” And the background research itself is truly endless, especially for books set in historical periods or in a foreign location. You’re never really finished; you only reach a point where you feel you’ve done your best within the realm of time and resources available.

Writing is always the hardest part. If you aren’t careful, the research can become a kind of justifiable procrastination. At some point you have to decide you’ve done enough and begin the writing. And then, often, the research continues anyway. As you write, you realize that you don’t know the answer to X, that you have to be an expert in each of the things your characters are experts in and that you have to write about a place and/or a time, for instance, convincingly enough to make your reader feel they’ve been there themselves.

Q.What does “research” look like in the English and creative writing disciplines?

My research is never “about” creative writing. It’s not even about literature, although I read a great deal of it in most periods and genres. It’s about the history of the Métis and Siksikaitsitapi around the South Saskatchewan River valley, the architectural and cultural landscape of Depression-era New England, the mathematician Evariste Galoise and polynomial equations in 19th century France, physicist B.J. Hopper’s construction of “cloud chambers” to detect ionizing particles in 1930s Britain, the history of photography, motorcycles, cults of the Madonna, Slovakian castles, theories of death and dying, folklore of the undead, and thought reform and the rise of social work in homes for unwed mothers in the 1960s and '70s.

You must become knowledgeable in everything from how people dressed, spoke and travelled to what they ate, what the city and their houses looked like, what music was popular and what the reigning zeitgeist dictated.

And then creative writing and the study of literature is also in large part about what it means to be human. It is partly intuitive yes, but it is also systematic, structural. It is observational and analytical and, in writing, creative in the purest sense of the word: spinning observation into the creation of an entire world.

Q.What do you hope to achieve during your research chair term?

Like others before me, I hope to raise the profile of research at MacEwan by engaging with the university community, the public and my new project. Stigma is a combination of memoir and social commentary.

My mother raised me as a single mom in the 1960s and 70s, working as a grocery store cashier to try to feed us both. We were poor but she made sure I never knew it. Her time at the Pineview Home for Unwed Mothers is something she never has spoken of to anyone, including me. So I’m venturing into new territory both creatively and personally.

Whenever we write, the objective is always to tell a good story well. But I am also committed to the truth of this story, to illuminating this painful and neglected history in a memoir that unites my mother’s story with mine and with the hundreds of thousands of others that might have been us.

This is ultimately a story of gender inequity, reproductive rights, and class, of privilege and lack, of faith, of taking the worst kinds of responsibility and of taking none, of the complicated motivations behind the state and church mandates behind these homes and of that capacity throughout human history to believe we are doing right when we are doing a very wrong thing indeed.



MacEwan University researchers receive national funding grants

Three faculty members received funding from Canada’s federal Tri-Agency funding programs to continue studies on sexual violence, pharmaceuticals in our soil and terrestrial environment changes.

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