There have been many columns in my 30-year career as a newspaper columnist that stirred up readers to respond by writing letters to the editor. In the 1990s, I wrote columns for a dozen publications, and excerpts from these sometimes appeared in Southam News, Thompson publications and in What Canada Thinks, a weekly compilation of editorials and columns from newspapers across Canada.
I criticized dairy farmers for eating margarine, cattle farmers for shopping with manure on their boots, Ottawa for its tractor rallies and husbands for referring to their wives as “de wife” – as if she has no name. You name it, I had a column on it. I spoke my mind, never scared of offending farmers or farm groups, and I never lost a job as a columnist for being too controversial.
Interestingly, the column that brought the most response from readers (in five provinces!) was one written in 1994 entitled “Farm wives shouldn’t be choring with young children.”
“From 1977 through 1993,” I wrote, “work-related incidents claimed the lives of 119 children under the age of 15 on Ontario farms. Approximately half of those victims were under the age of five. The barn is a dangerous playground for children.”
“There are many articles in newspapers and in farm magazines about women who farm with their husbands and work from dawn to dusk,” the article continued. “With so many modern conveniences, gadgets and push-button controls in most dairy and hog operations, you’d wonder why so many farm wives with young children are choring in the barns.”
Wide range of response
“Farm women today have it hard,” I wrote, “not because of finances, but because many farmers prefer driving a tractor doing fieldwork to barn chores. So women with young children end up doing a lot of the barn work.” I gave the example of a woman with young children choring every morning at 6 a.m. and holding a full time job in town.
The papers, including Christian Courier, published numerous letters from women who stated they enjoyed working in the barn, and yes, it’s a dangerous place for kids, but so what? Some readers said my column was incredibly sexist. Others told me “to get with the times,” as women are equally capable farmers.
There were also positive letters. One woman thanked me for writing on the subject. She said she is of slight build and had always worked with her husband in the barn carrying pails of milk, heavy feed and bales of hay. She said she spent so much money going to chiropractors that two years ago told her husband she wasn’t going to help in the barn anymore. She had to convince him she couldn’t do a man’s work in the barn. “Now I don’t have achy bones and haven’t been to a chiropractor in over a year,” she wrote.
I used excerpts from what readers said to make a second column. Then a few weeks later I ran into an old school buddy in a store and he wanted to know what the heck was wrong with me. He said, “First you tell women they shouldn’t be in the barn working. You get socked on the chin from women across Canada, and then you write about how they took you to task for your views. How stupid can you be?”
I have no regrets about writing that column. It got people thinking and maybe some parents took my advice. The rate of agricultural fatalities for children under 15 across Canada dropped by an average of 0.8 percent annually between 1990 and 2012, according to Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting. This decline is not considered statistically significant.
The organization counted 272 agricultural fatalities in Canada between 1992 and 2012 for children under the age of 15. Another 102 people between 15 and 19 were killed in agricultural incidents in the same time frame. The barn is still a dangerous playground for children.
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