Sep. 12, 2012 - Issue #882: Down On The Farm
Multimedia and music fuse together to tell the story of an Edmonton industrial icon and the women who were employed there.
The Great West Garment Company (GWG) was founded in 1911 and closed its doors in 2004 in favour of moving all production offshore. By the Second World War it had become the largest manufacturing company in Canada, and expanded operations to plants in Winnipeg, Brantford and Saskatoon. By 1972, famed denim label Levi Strauss & Co had purchased all remaining shares in the company and GWG items have become highly collectible.
However, it's the stories of the women who were a driving labour force within the plant that caught the attention of Canadian singer-songwriter Maria Dunn. Ground Zero Productions artistic director Don Bouzek approached Dunn about using music to tell the women's stories in 2003, and over the course of several years, GWG: Piece by Piece took shape. Dunn and historian Catherine C Cole interviewed former employees of the plant, using their stories as inspiration for Dunn's songs, which were originally intended for a multimedia show that incorporated video footage, but was later reworked to form a cohesive musical recording that could stand on its own. With each song and story, Dunn incorporated elements of the women's culture, which was a challenge at times, as she was not familiar with some of the styles, but she believes it was important to capture.
"I'm not going to pretend that I'm an expert of those other styles," she says, adding that she had help from other musicians, many of whom will be joining her at the release concert. "But it did make me try and move beyond my usual inspirations, which, when I'm writing a song, it usually falls into a Celtic musical style of North American folk-country-bluegrass sort of thing."
Dunn says the story of GWG is an interesting look at not only the stories of women in the workforce, but also the waves of immigration in the Edmonton area during the factory's early days. It provided a place where immigrants who did not speak English yet could come to Canada and easily find work, creating a diverse work environment.
"I thought it was interesting to look at women who were in an urban setting, because we have a lot of history and lore around women pioneers and women in the sort of farming history of Alberta," says Dunn. "What I became fascinated by was how hard these women worked to establish themselves and their families in Edmonton. Often they were working not just their five-day-a-week job at GWG, but they were working another job on the weekends and it wasn't just supporting their families in Edmonton; it was also saving money to bring other family members over."
Each woman Dunn and Cole interviewed left an impression and Dunn recalls one in particular whose story she admired. Assunta Dotto immigrated to Canada from Italy when she was 16 and one of her first jobs in Canada was at GWG. She told Dunn the working conditions were harsh at times, but it gave her a shot at independence.
"She had come from such poverty in Italy, so this for her was relative wealth and independence and she really valued that," Dunn recalls admirably, adding that before Dotto died this June at age 89, she was able self-publish her own memoir. "She had always wanted to be a writer. Her story fascinated me because she had not been allowed to go to school in Italy. As a girl she wasn't allowed to go to school past Grade 6 or Grade 7 by an uncle who was in charge of the family and had decided that girls didn't need education beyond that, but here she was in her mid-80s finally writing her autobiography, so that was wonderful."
Thu, Sep 20 (7:30 pm)
Festival Place, $26-$30
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