A Canadian ‘peasant’ visits China

In 1971, when a delegation to China needed a peasant to satisfy chairman Mao Zedong, a Sask. farm woman stepped in

When the call went out in 1971 for a “Canadian peasant” to form part of a delegation to China, Biggar, Sask., resident Evelyn Potter responded.

Little did she know then that the photographs she took to document the journey would form a new exhibit now on display at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

The exhibit shines a light on a largely overlooked farming gem of Canadian and Saskatchewan history.

The delegation to China, although unofficial, was the first organized visit to the communist country after the door between Canada and China was opened to formal diplomatic relations.

In October 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau recognized the People’s Republic of China, which preceded formal U.S. relations with China by two years.

Professor Ken Woodsworth from the University of British Columbia organized the delegation and wanted to create a non-political trip that would bring average Canadians from different walks of life to China to meet their equivalents.

Woodsworth assembled a group of 23 people from a wide spectrum of Canadian society: university faculty, students, physicians, school teachers, journalists, engineers, librarians, lawyers and secretaries.

But the planned visit was nearly scuttled when Chinese chairman Mao Zedong reviewed the list and found it lacking in a critical element: peasants.

“He looked at the list and said, ‘this is a wonderful idea, but there’s no peasant coming from Canada,’ ” said Keith Carlson, professor of history at the U of S who co-curated the travelling exhibit with Liang Zhao from Sichuan University in China.

“So everything froze and it looked as though the delegation might not be able to meet the deadline where the air flights had been scheduled and various things.”

In Chinese, the word peasant does not have the same meaning in English, said Dongyan Blachford, who teaches Chinese studies at the University of Regina.

“Farmers (in China) are property owners and owners of machines. The peasant a lot of times works the land and belongs to a commune. Most of them are poorer and usually a labourer working with the soil,” Blachford said.

To the rescue came the National Farmers Union with Roy Atkinson, its founding president, and Potter, the first women’s president. They agreed they were “peasants” because they were actively farming.

“They were small scale farmers looking to promote local agriculture and local control over agricultural production,” said Carlson.

“And so they volunteered and they went and that’s how we ended up with this wonderful collection of photographs and artifacts because Mrs. Potter was the link that enabled that delegation to happen.”

Back on track and now 25 in number, the informal delegation was set to go. Indeed, it moved so fast that the federal government was forced to officially act.

“The Canadian government, when they found out how quickly it had been organized, quickly arranged for the minister of foreign affairs and another deputy minister to be on the same flight flying in first class when Evelyn and all the other people were in the back of the plane flying at the same time so that they could get off the plane first and formally meet the Chinese government officials before the informal delegation arrived,” he said.

Her camera loaded with Kodachrome film, Potter and the delegation members travelled by train and bus up the coast of China from Hong Kong to Shanghai, around to Beijing and then down through central China and back to Hong Kong.

During their 27-day tour from June 25 to July 27, they stopped at nine cities and several communes, visiting people and observing Chinese society.

Straw is hauled at the XinHua Commune. | Supplied photo

Along the way, Potter shot more than 1,150 colour photos of what she witnessed, which document a period of time in China where few rural photographs are said to exist.

“She took photos that documented a time in Chinese history where she got to see and do things with a degree of freedom that was unprecedented up until that time,” he said.

“They got to talk to people in real-life situations (with government translators). Sitting down over tea in their homes, visiting schools, spending time with children in the playgrounds, going out onto the wheat fields with some farmers and actually helping them plant wheat so that they could see what that experience was like.”

Now 92, Potter lives in Biggar and has spent a career working to build understanding across social, economic and political divides. She has advocated for the equality of women in farm organizations and rural communities.

During an interview Carlson did last year, Potter said she was captivated by the way Chinese students responded to school sports competition.

“When the children were playing different games, like tug-of-war with a rope, it was so strange. They were cheering for the losing side. I couldn’t figure it out. Finally, I asked an interpreter. He stated, ‘well, the winning side doesn’t need any support, it’s the losers that need some encouragement,’ ” said Potter.

The trip also caused her to reflect on the way women’s farm work in Canada had changed with technology.

Evelyn Potter, women’s president of the National Farmers Union, and NFU president Roy Atkinson joined a Canadian delegation to China in 1971 as “peasants.” | Supplied photo

“The Chinese women were working in the fields and to compare them to our women is difficult. Although a Canadian woman in 1971 might go out to garden at home, she didn’t labour in the fields the way Chinese women did. It was difficult to explain this to the Chinese. Our technology meant that we didn’t need to do that anymore. And they wondered about the child care and schools that we had that freed women up…. But that was relatively new in Canada,” she said.

Carlson said this first delegation played a key role in helping Canadians gain a better understanding about China and bridge the political gap between East and West.

“They came away with an impression of China that was really different than what the mainstream media was saying about sort of the evil communist China. That’s not to say that it wasn’t kind of a rosy picture that they were seeing, but it was Canadians for the first time seeing Chinese people in China as people, rather than as government-to-government opposing ideologies.”

Upon leaving China in 1971, Potter told journalists that she was most impressed at how the Chinese work together in their communes and “how the Chinese are so successful at involving people in similar organizations.”

She believed Chinese and Canadian farmers could learn from one another’s experiences.

Following the success of the first informal delegation, she organized and led a second informal delegation in 1974, which was made up largely of Canadian farmers, notably prairie producers.

Potter also helped facilitate a series of subsequent Canada-China farmer-peasant exchanges organized through the NFU and the Canadian co-operative movement.

Carlson said Potter’s photos are a reminder of the historical role and ongoing importance of Canada’s farming community and agricultural sector in opening and shaping modern relations with China.

“While the photos are of China, the story is, in many ways, a Saskatchewan one.”

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