I first heard the name Evelyn Potter at my first National Farmers Union Convention in Ottawa in 2009. It was the 40th Anniversary of the NFU. Unfortunately Evelyn was unable to attend in person as planned, but her written address was read to the convention as the NFU’s First Women’s president to mark this significant anniversary of our first convention as a National Farmers Union in 1969. As a relatively new farmer, and one who had not grown up rurally, I was feeling intimidated as I entered this room of mentors and elders in agricultural work, cooperative movements, and social justice movements. As someone new to this world, and one that I had seen from the outside as a male-dominated livelihood, I was immediately welcomed by a fair representation of women, men, and youth farmers as I entered the convention floor.
We in the NFU and the greater farm community were deeply saddened to hear of Evelyn’s passing last week. We wish to express sincere condolences to all of Evelyn’s friends, family and community. Evelyn will be remembered as a farmer, and also by many of us, as truly a revolutionary when it came to her work and positive impact on the lives of farm women, and others in our communities.
What I heard when Evelyn’s address was read that day of convention in Ottawa, was a powerful message to me as a young farmer on this new venture and life path, which has continued to have an impact on my practices and truthfully, my confidence, as I continue to work with the soil and other farmers and farm communities in our shared solidarity and struggle.
A woman with a gracious, friendly presence, Evelyn was also clearly determined, prescient and courageous in her leadership and defence of women’s rights. Evelyn and other women farm leaders and grassroots organizers throughout history, have continually fought not only to obtain long-deserved recognition and equal rights for farmers, but for all rural women. They campaigned for matrimonial property rights for women, against violence and other forms of oppression. They stood alongside urban and global women’s movements for issues from seed sovereignty to reproductive and parental rights. Evelyn and other NFU women have worked on breaking down barriers to women’s inclusion by pushing for childcare provision and other support to enable fair representation and equal recognition of the role and importance of female farmers in global food production.
In her 2009 address, Evelyn expressed that there was “a heated debate” around the women’s positions at the first convention of the NFU, which resulted in the addition of women’s and youth positions at the national board of the NFU, a decision that has really helped shape the organization and ensure participation and advocacy for women and youth farmers, as it should be.
I was reminded of this story recently as we debated and passed a motion at a regional level to strive for positions inclusive of all, balancing representation of genders, and diversity of farmers in Canada. This was hotly debated and amended on the floor before eventually passing, and has now become an important part in inclusion moving forward as an agricultural community. It did highlight the need still exists for pushing towards justice and equity for all farmers, regardless of gender, sexuality, and race.
Humbled by the legacy of Evelyn and all of the strong, intelligent, thoughtful, and inclusive women working together in the NFU, Women’s Institutes and in all farm communities, we have a powerful history to learn from and move forward with in union in our 50th year. As we face a continually challenging, and tumultuous time in political, social, and environmental realms, the current context for farmers, we will need to draw on the legacy of struggle and solidarity of Evelyn and others who have come before, as their history continues to be shared with generations of farmers to come. We will collectively strive to honour, share and emulate Evelyn Potter and others’ stories of organizing farmers for positive change that continue to impact and influence us today.
– Coral Sproule farms near Perth, Ontario. She is currently the NFU Women’s Vice President, and has previously served as NFU President and NFU Women’s President.
Evelyn was born and raised on a dairy farm near Guernsey, Saskatchewan, in 1926. She worked as a telephone operator after completing her Grade 12 education, and in 1946 married Douglas H. Potter. They began farming on Doug’s grandparents’ farm near Biggar. She became an active partner on the farm and involved in community affairs. The Potters joined the Saskatchewan Farmers Union and she went on to assume a leadership role within that organization, becoming District Women’s Director, then Women’s Vice-President, and finally Women’s President.
When the SFU merged with three other provincial farmers unions in 1969 to form a national organization, Evelyn Potter received the support of farmers across the country and was elected as the founding Women’s President of the National Farmers Union.
In 1971, along with NFU President Roy Atkinson, Evelyn was part of the first unofficial delegation of Canadians to visit the Peoples Republic of China as a cross-cultural exchange. She documented the month-long visit with over 1,000 slides of city, farm, school and factory life, which are now part of a travelling exhibit, China Through Canadian Eyes.
Evelyn spearheaded a grassroots committee of farm women across Canada who undertook to research and publish a book analyzing Canada’s food system from the field to the table. For Evelyn, the process of creating the book was all-important, because of the learning, discussion and social time that involved so many members in the project. She considered Nature Feeds Us – the food system from soil to table, published in 1976, to be a great accomplishment by NFU members. It became a best-seller and was an important step towards the concept of Food Sovereignty as it is understood today.
Evelyn was a strong advocate for economic and social justice for farm families. Under her leadership, many farmers came to realize the importance of working for marketing agencies that returned to farmers a fair share for their labour and investment.
She was a strong advocate for women’s rights, and throughout her long involvement with farm organizations and community groups, worked hard to change policies that were inherently unfair to women. In particular, the issue of matrimonial property rights and the advocacy of equality for women within marriage was a major focus for Evelyn Potter and other women leaders of the NFU in the 1970s. The enactment of Matrimonial Property Rights legislation in Saskatchewan in 1980 was a direct result of that advocacy over many years.
Under Evelyn’s leadership, the NFU took a major role in the effort to involve women directly in farm policy decision-making. In the March, 1969 edition of the Union Farmer, Evelyn Potter wrote that one of the biggest challenges facing the farm movement was overcoming the “tradition” of downplaying women’s role. She wrote:
We have assumed that women should remain in the kitchen, serve lunch, or perhaps be responsible to make arrangements for meetings and banquets. Many men and women express amazement that they should both attend a farm union meeting. .. How are these barriers of prejudice going to be overcome? By better understanding, which will eliminate differences and bring people together. Prejudice is ignorance. Its effect – discrimination – is acquired and can be cast off. Not only will our women have to change their attitudes, but our men will, as well. The farmer’s wife must show more initiative in becoming an active member. She must become better informed on the economic questions involved and current issues that affect the farmers. Indeed, the woman who can get up at meetings or conventions and speak with authority on topics of this nature is going to be listened to and respected.
Evelyn Potter concluded her term as NFU Women’s President in the autumn of 1974, just prior to International Women’s Year (1975). During her tenure, farm women made tremendous advances across Canada. Evelyn Potter provided invaluable leadership at a critical period and helped lay the foundation for equality of women in farm organizations, rural communities and the nation as a whole.
Evelyn Joan Potter – October 8, 1926 – July 25, 2019
At Evelyn’s request there will be no funeral service. There will be a “Celebration of Her Life” in conjunction with an Exhibition Closing Reception “China Through Saskatchewan Eyes – Evelyn Potter’s 1971 Journey” at the Biggar Museum and Gallery on Saturday, August 24 from 1pm to 5pm. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Biggar Museum and Gallery, PO Box 1598, Biggar SK S0K 0M0