Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Research Tales: Remembering That You're Not in Charge

By Sarah York (M.A. student)

When I started research for my thesis three months ago, I was mistaken. I believed I was in charge. The truth is I’m only partly in charge.

It first struck me while I was speaking with a librarian on the telephone. I was trying to arrange a date to visit his library’s archive when he explained, “We’re a small library with only a handful of staff. Since it is the summer most of our staff is away on holidays. You can try to come do research but I can’t guarantee anyone will be able to retrieve anything for you.” Since this library is in a community several hours away, I was not going to show up and hope someone could help me.

I watched helplessly as the days I planned to do ‘out-of-town’ research passed by. I kept myself busy reading newspapers on microfilm and visiting local archives. But then I hit a roadblock. I was running out of sources and I did not know where to look for new ones.

My supervisor suggested I e-mail James Gray’s daughter, Patricia Fennell. James Gray’s book Red Lights on the Prairies is the first investigation of the early sex trade in Canada’s Prairie Provinces. I coveted Gray’s sources. Not only did he use newspaper articles and police reports, he had access to first-hand accounts of the early sex trade – sources that were impossible for me to acquire today. I learned from Patricia that Gray had destroyed these accounts to protect his informants. However, Patricia’s husband, Bill Fennell, had some information he wanted to share with me.

Bill is the great-nephew of Walter Johnson, a name I immediately recognized. Johnson was the Police Chief and subsequent mayor of Moose Jaw during my period of study. Bill wrote:

When he [Johnson] was Police Chief, he used to park his vehicle in front of the Police Station with one of the windows rolled down a bit. Every Friday afternoon, weather permitting, the Ladies of the Night would stroll by and, somehow, they would drop a few envelopes into Chief Johnson's vehicle through the window, containing their political contributions to his cause.

Moose Jaw’s sex trade workers wanted to see Johnson become Mayor.

Bill’s family history was the human element I was searching for. But I came across it in an unexpected and serendipitous way. Our e-mail ‘conversation’ showed me again how much I am not in charge. I’ve learned to cope with this disconcerting fact by surrendering to it and by recognizing that sometimes relying on other people isn’t so bad.