MOIR, Rita

Author Tags: Doukhobors, History, Local History, Women

"Honey, if you're not on somebody's shit list, you're no damn good!" -- Rita Moir's mother.

While living in Vallican in the Kootenays, Rita Moir published her first travel diary, Survival Gear in 1994, based on her views and travels from the fishing community of Freeport in Nova Scotia. She had worked as a journalist in Nelson, Prince Rupert, Vancouver and Edmonton. Active in the NDP, she also wrote for The Fisherman and the UFAWU newsletter. She became president of the Federation of B.C. Writers and won the VanCity Book Prize, as well as the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, for her second Canadian travel memoir entitled Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels (Coteau, 1999). It's a feminist narrative that takes its title from a place called Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump in Alberta. It’s also a story about taking off into new territory, making a leap of faith and trusting the counsel of her mother. With her trusty 12-year-old dog named Connor, Moir drove to Nova Scotia in a rusty Toyota in search of her female heritage. By finding her past, she opened up her future. The book received the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2000. Her third memoir is The Windshift Line: A Father and Daughter's Story (Greystone, 2005) in which she recalls her relationship with her father as he is dying. For a review of The Third Crop (2011), see below.

Born in Minnesota on January 17, 1952, Rita Moir first arrived in Canada at Brandon, Manitoba in 1966. She came to live in the Kootenays, in Winlaw, in 1975.

Photo by Linda Crosfield

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Third Crop: A Personal and Historical Journey into the Photo Albums and Shoeboxes of the Slocan Valley, 1800s to early 1940s


Survival Gear (Polestar, 1994)

Buffalo Jump: Woman's Travels (Coteau Books, 1999)

The Windshift Line: A Father and Daughter's Story (Greystone, 2005)

The Third Crop: A personal & historical journey into the photo albums & shoeboxes of the Slocan Valley 1800s to early 1940s (Sono Nis 2011) $24.95 978-1-55039-184-8

[BCBW 2011] "Women" "VanCity"

Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels (Coteau)

Win one book prize, you’re lucky. Win another, the world oughta take note. Rita Moir has won her second award for her memoir Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels (Coteau), taking home the $3,000 VanCity Women’s Book Prize presented at the Word on the Street Festival. The provincial Ministry of Women’s Equality also contributes $1,000 to the women’s charity of the winner’s choice. Moir acknowledged the role of her editor Bonnie Evans and thanked the judges—Reva Dexter, Mary Collins and Women In Print bookstore—for recognizing a non-urban book.


Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
Speech (2000)

With a shout of ‘Whoopee!’, Rita Moir bounded onto the stage at the 2000 B.C. Book Prizes gala and delivered an impassioned winner's speech in which she addressed the future of writing, bookselling and community activism. This acceptance speech, described as a rant by the National Post, criticized newspaper magnate Conrad Black’s ownership of her local Kootenay newspaper (Black also owned the National Post at the time).

Here’s part of what Rita Moir said. "“I wish to thank my mother. I get so damned sick of women being put down and dismissed, especially older women. I want to thank her and all of us younger ones who have had the brains to understand that our culture, our strength, is based on waking up and listening to them. And I want to thank my dog, my buddy Connor. Without him, I could never have travelled the thousands and thousands of miles of this country. My old dog Connor stayed with me longer than any man, and was certainly more faithful!

“A year or so ago on CBC Radio there was a phone-in deal for Mother’s Day. They asked ‘What saying did your mother leave you with? The one you’ll always remember?’ It was all the usual stuff. Wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I stood staring at the radio, thinking, ‘Surely-to-God the mothers of this world said more thought-provoking and inspiring words than that!’ So I phoned CBC’s talk-back line and told them what my mother said, her words that I’d like to embroider on a pillowcase. Whenever I got in trouble as a young reporter, whenever I stirred the pot too hard, I’d call my mother and her words were a gift to me, words that both soothed and fortified.

“HONEY, she’d say, JUST REMEMBER, IF YOU’RE NOT ON SOMEBODY’S SHIT LIST, YOU’RE NO DAMNED GOOD. Those words are in Buffalo Jump and they are my sustenance when I am too tired or scared to go on. In this book I have found my voice not on the coattails of a man—not through a man’s political campaign, not through a job, nor through love—and I have found other women’s voices, too. I am now very worried that voices of women, and also the voices of all of us here in this room, are being silenced by economic pressure and market forces. I believe it is crucial for writers to become active in our communities, whether that be through the Writers Federation, or the Writers’ Union, or whatever works for you in your community. And that our organizations work together. Because I am worried that eventually the big box bookstores and market forces will determine not only what is sold, but what is published, what is written, or who can afford to write it.

“I am concerned we will lose our small bookstores in our communities. I believe that if we don’t resist, our culture will no longer be part of our common vocabulary, our daily lives. It will be owned and commodified, and only the wealthy will be able to produce it. The rest of us will consume it as if our dreams and culture could be dumped in a bargain bin at Wal-Mart. I don’t want our work Wal-Marted; I don’t want our culture Wal-Marted. That’s why we must work so hard, from the smallest reading group to the biggest cultural service organization, to resist this big box power. At the same time we must build a culture that is our lowest common denominator, and therefore our highest. To rephrase a saying from the women’s movement: We need a culture that is as common as a common loaf of bread, and so shall we rise.

“CBC Radio never did play that saying when I phoned in to their talkback- line but I know they’re taping these speeches tonight. So this is my subversive way of finally getting it on air. Here’s my gift to you for Mother’s Day, my mother’s saying. HONEY, IF YOU’RE NOT ON SOMEBODY’S SHIT LIST, YOU’RE NO DAMNED GOOD!”

To Write the Windshift Line, (Greystone $24.95)

To Write the Windshift Line, (Greystone $24.95), her elegiac memoir, Rita Moir holed up in a Fort Macleod motel with her father’s botanical research papers and the stories she had begged him to put down on tape before he died.
A former journalist, Rita Moir lives in Vallican, in the Slocan Valley, where she pieces together a life teaching writing, cleaning houses, doing fill-in reception work, and making sandwiches at the Co-op. “Sometimes I’ll go to three jobs in one day,” she says. Her previous book, Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels (Coteau), received the VanCity Book Prize and the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2000. Rita Moir was interviewed by Sara Cassidy.

BCBW: Your book is about a lot more than your father’s life as a botanist. Were you surprised by how it turned out?
MOIR: I knew it was more than a father-daughter story. I used his stories to help me be strong. I worked through some difficult issues, about who I get to be and how do I stake my own place on this earth as a woman. This book at one point was called “wind-trained trees”, because that’s an image from my father, an image of trees holding strong even in hard wind. Then it became The Windshift Line.
BCBW: Can you explain what a windshift line is?
MOIR: In science, it has many meanings, but the one I chose is where the cold wind from the west meets a front of warm moist air from the south. If the cold air is moving fast enough it will override the warm air. Warm air is light and when it’s overbalanced by this cold, oppressive air, it starts pushing to get out from under and that’s where the turbulence and the turmoil starts, that’s where tornadoes start.
BCBW: Speaking of turbulence, there is a lot in the book about your relationships with men. I guess that because you were writing about your father, you started to write about other men in your life?
MOIR: Yeah. And part of it is, what is a single woman? What attributes do you need to live alone in the country? If you’re a woman in the country, you have to be able to take care of a lot of stuff – whether it’s just making systems work, just having a handle on things, and not always depending on a male to take care of stuff for you.
I also wanted to examine the issue of male power. Can I live as a single female and not in a male protectorate? Because sometimes it’s very hard for a woman living alone in the country; sometimes the community looks on them with “if only you had a man” or “you need a man to take care of that for you”.
BCBW: What about the—I’ll say abusive—partner you had? Were you worried about writing about him?
MOIR: I had to do it. If you’re not going to put up with bullies, then you’ve got to name them. I don’t mean name the name, but you’ve got to tell the story. It wasn’t an easy thing to write. I didn’t want to over-write it, I didn’t want to make it into something that it wasn’t for the sake of more drama. Compared to the stories of a lot of women, what happened in this book was nothing. But other women will go, “Oh yeah. I can see this little shove or this little insinuation, this little control.” There’s probably not too many women who can’t identify with what hap pened.
BCBW: In the book, you’re also interested in the combination of art and science, the two together.
MOIR: That’s partly why I’ve come to call creative non-fiction “Calvinist poetry”. We tend to think of art and science as opposites and they’re really not. That’s what I learned when I listened to the language (of botanical names) and to my father tell his stories. The precision of detail in science is the same thing that makes art work. And when he talked about his work, his love of it, to me that was poetry, too.
BCBW: Where are you now in grieving your father? Did this book help?
MOIR: Well, I put him in file boxes recently and that was a good thing to be able to do.
BCBW: You mean the tapes and his papers?
MOIR: Yeah. Now I can take all the files and put them in a box and move on. I don’t subscribe to the “writing is therapy” because it’s a big skill, it’s a big craft, it’s not just my diary on the page. But it was a synthesis. It was taking my art and craft and saying I care enough.
This will be my say.
BCBW: Why did you move into a motel to write?
MOIR: Dislocation puts all your observation skills at their best. You’re not involved with the daily minutae of running your own household, fixing toilets and making firewood. You just go somewhere where you can empty your mind of all that busy-ness. You see things new. You start with a sparse landscape and then put the things into it that you need for the writing. I got to escape the clutter of my own home, take the things I really needed and give them the prominence that they needed.
BCBW: And you formed some new friendships in the process.
MOIR: As a single woman I’ve always felt strongly that, yes, certainly there can be scariness out in the world, but there can be far more of that in the home. I’ve always thought women in Canada would be far safer if they all hitchhiked back and forth across the country, non-stop, meeting strangers, than staying in their own homes.
I always have been open, as a traveller, to the fact that people help travellers. I’m really extroverted—I think that comes from years of being a journalist, or else I became a journalist because I’m extroverted—and I’m curious about people. It doesn’t scare me to strike up a conversation with somebody. And in a small town, if you meet someone at a gas station and strike up a conversation, people don’t all look at each other like, what kind of maniac are you, talking to strangers? 1553650891

by Sara Cassidy

[BCBW, 2005]

The Third Crop: A personal & historical journey into the photo albums & shoeboxes of the Slocan Valley 1800s to early 1940s

from Joan Givner

Rita Moir’s The Third Crop (Sono Nis) is much more than a tribute to her home of thirty years. This pictorial history of the Slocan Valley illustrates the process by which disparate immigrant groups work through natural disasters and bitter conflicts to forge a coherent community.

Moir has taken her title from the annual harvest: It produces an anticipated first crop, then, with luck, a second. Rarely, it yields a third crop, one that ensures livestock will prosper through the winter.

For Moir, that’s “a metaphor for what happens when a group of people work hard enough and long enough, go that extra mile, and celebrate together, too: somehow they get to that third crop—a strong culture.”

Moir’s metaphorical third crop of Slocan Valley people includes the younger generation who want to stay, continuing the hard work of those who have gone before, celebrating their varied heritage.

The earliest inhabitants of the Slocan Valley were obviously the First Nations, who lived unhindered by Europeans until the late 1800s when the precious metal galena—containing silver and zinc—was discovered. The subsequent boom brought immigrants, mines and railways, sending the Ktunaxa and Okanagan tribes west to the East Kootenay, and the Sinixt south to Washington State.

The next wave of immigrants consisted of six thousand Doukhobors, aided by Leo Tolstoy, who fled Russia to escape from orthodox churches, secular governments and militarism. Conflicts in Manitoba and Saskatchewan dispersed them further west to the rich agricultural land of the Slocan.

Tensions with the larger community severely strained the Doukhobor pacifist creed. They resisted public education for their children and refused military conscription in keeping with the Christian-based philosophy of Adamite simplicity.

Doukhobor means ‘spirit wrestler.” It was first a derogatory term applied to them by the Russian Orthodox Church. They embraced it. In mid-1920s, Doukhobor protests in Canada took the form of nude marches. The Canadian government responded by criminal-
izing public nudity. Mass arrests ensued, resulting in three-year jail sentences on Piers Island, situated off Sidney, B.C.

As tensions arose within the Doukhobor movement between those adhering strictly to traditional values and ‘modern’ Doukhobors open to change and new customs, a radically fundamentalist splinter group, the Sons of Freedom, dynamited the post office in Crescent Valley. When the orthodox Doukhobor leader, Peter Verigin, was mysteriously killed by a bomb blast in 1924, suspects included members of the Doukhobor community. The culprits were never found.

In the early 1940s, the Slocan Valley became the site of the Lemon Creek camp, one of the infamous internment camps in which, following the War Measures Act, thousands of Canadians of Japanese descent (among them David Suzuki), stripped of their homes and possessions, were held as “enemy aliens.”

Moir illustrates the historical record with photographs from archival collections and from private memorabilia buried in the shoeboxes, trunks and attics of local families—a painstaking search, since few families in the early days owned cameras. Many of the items she unearthed, like the pictures and sketches of the since-demolished Lemon Creek camp, depict scenes that, either through shame or neglect, have otherwise been long forgotten.

A friend advised Moir to make the photographs large enough to show the clothing, hands and faces. In other words: “Let the pictures do the talking.” Enlarged and elegantly reproduced, these images are woven in and around the text, confirming the narrative, or casting surprising, unexpected light on it.

The faces say so much—such as the anxiety etched on the faces of Japanese-Canadians being deported at the end of the war to Japan, a country they had never known. At the same time, the faces of interned children in class with other schoolchildren in the Slocan are surprisingly cheerful.

Without exception, the groups of galena miners and Doukhobor brick-makers look dour and suspicious. Were they angry at having their work stopped, being lined up for such a frivolous purpose? In contrast, 68-year-old Molly Stoochnoff, the head cook, presiding over the borscht (fold, don’t stir) for a traditional Doukhobor wedding, looks proud and contented.

Many pictures depict orchards, fields of produce, and baskets of fruit that testify to the abundance of the land; others give details of celebrations and occupations. A white sturgeon, caught during a blasting operation (the largest one ever caught in the area, it weighed 462 lbs) appears to be seven feet long. A rare First Nations picture shows three fishermen in a sturgeon-nosed canoe used by the Sinixt and Ktunaxa.

There is one photo that illustrates the third crop of the title. In order to preserve their yield, the farm family cut down hundreds of small trees, planted them in potholes, cut off most of the branches and hung the green hay on the remaining ones to dry. The family recorded their feat in winter when their handiwork was covered by several inches of snow.

[BCBW 2011]