Minnie has been involved with the Corner Brook Status of Women Council and has beem a strong advocater for the rights of people with disabilities.
Minnie Vallis has been a volunteer for about 59 years and has raised money for different causes since she was 14. She has been a leader in youth organizations such as 4-H and Girl Guides. She is involved with arts, music, church groups, and the local seniors' club. She was involved in municipal politics for 14 years as councillor and mayor of her town. She has served on the executive of provincial and national organizations for persons with disabilities, advocates against sexual violence, and is a honourary member of Corner Brook Status of Women.
In November, 2001, the Honourable A. M. House, Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, presented Minnie with the Newfoundland and Labrador Volunteer Medal in Corner Brook on behalf of the province. In 1998-1999, Minnie Vallis was given a gold watch, a national award, for winning a federal case [Employment Insurance]. She has been a caregiver 4 separate times: in 1955 her eldest son had meningitis; in 1960 she supported her maternal grandmother with age related disabilities; in 1990 her mother-in-law- developed Alzheimer’s disease and in 1996, her partner developed disabilities from a stroke and amputation of a major limb. Minnie Vallis is a writer and has supported writers through her involvement with two separate writing groups. Minnie is a woman, a wife, a mother, a caregiver, a writer, an advocate, and a volunteer.
Interviewer: This is an interview with Minnie Vallis. We’re with Teach About Women Project, and thank you very much, Minnie.
Vallis: Thank you.
Interviewer: What was it like being a woman in the 70’s and 80’s?
Vallis: Much along the same lines as what it was in the very early 50’s or middle 50’s. I had been appointed to a certain school in the 50’s – and the school of that particular place refused to let me go there because I was a woman. So it was starting, you see. It was in full bloom way back then.
Interviewer: Was it an all-boys school or…
Vallis: No, it was a one-room school, multi-grades from kindergarten to grade ten’s and eleven’s; but when they told me I couldn’t go there because I was a woman, I asked them what the reason was and they said that when the bay closed up I couldn’t bury the dead, and I told them I was going to teach, not to kill.
Interviewer: Oh my!
Vallis: Yeah. But because a priest, or a minister – whatever word you choose to use – could not get up in the bay because of ice. They wanted a male teacher, even if it meant with lesser education.
You see, the struggle for equality has been in my life since day one.
Interviewer: So they wanted you to dig the grave....
Vallis: Yes, dig the grave and bury the dead.
Interviewer: But, I mean, the priest didn’t dig the grave.
Vallis: It was not customary, no.
Interviewer: That was the reason they gave.
Vallis: And that was how much control even then the churches had over people’s lives.
Interviewer: So what activities were you involved in during that time. In the 70’s and 80’s…
Vallis: Oh my lord – in the 70’s and 80’s. Well, I was involved with Guiding - the 4H, the Women’s Centre. I was working part time while my children were growing up, you know, according to their hours of need. I was looking and doing different things of that nature when they could do without me.
But when I went back to work full time in 1983…
Interviewer: That was teaching or…
Vallis: No, I went back as a counselor with Victims of Violence.
Even then you could see a lot of abuse of power – abuse and misuse of power. It was a very difficult career for anyone, especially if you were extremely sensitive to children’s needs, and I was always very sensitive to children’s needs.
Even then, you know, I was involved in municipal politics. I spent fourteen years with town council, first as a councilor and then as a deputy mayor and a mayor, and that was an interesting issue because there were nine of us running for council at the time.
Interviewer: And what year was that?
Vallis: That was about… in the 70’s.
Interviewer: So you were a mother. You had children at home. You were working at home. You were working part time …and you were running for mayor.
Vallis: Right. Well, we were running for council and they… would have public meetings and, of course… at that time whoever came in with the most votes, you know, was declared the mayor; and that was the system at that time. It was not a separate ballot.
And so we had a public meeting where all nine of us spoke… to the public on what we had planned to do. Now I had been there a couple of years as a councilor and so I was the last to speak. The gentleman ahead of me said, “In my opinion,” he said, “may the best man win.” (chuckles) That was his closing statement and that was my opening statement. I was a woman when I left home and I think I’ll be a woman when I go back home, and I don’t think my gender will have anything to do with my politics. (chuckles) And I won the race. So that was very interesting, much is gender related and because I was a very quick thinker at one time (chuckles) and I thought – wow, what ammunition. Yeah.
So I was also with the Women’s Centre and Media Watch. I was involved in Media Watch where I had to scrutinize the papers – you know, advertisements in the papers for workers and to see… whether or not it was gender relative, and one large company in the Corner Brook area advertised for a male worker and, oh my, the perspiration started.
I called the president of the Women’s Centre and I said, you know, I have a situation here, I said, from one of the newspapers, I aid, where they’re advertising for a man – not a worker, just a man – and I said that, you know, that’s allowed anymore. That’s not permitted under the law.
I called the company and questioned them and I also contacted the paper in question, and I asked the paper to make an apology for making that mistake; and they said they would not make an apology because they printed the ad as it came in. And I contacted the company in question and I asked them to retract their advertisement and to make an apology and, of course, they refused; and under the law then, I think you had thirty days to retract. Otherwise, it would have to be dealt with in court. And on the 29th day they retracted.
Interviewer: Okay. And what year was that?
Vallis: Oh dear – in the 70’s?
Interviewer: You said you did some Guiding. Did you find that you were a leader for young women during that time?
Vallis: Yes, you know, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn now.
Interviewer: No, I mean, toot. This is what this is all about. (chuckles) Please toot!
Vallis: I reactivated Guiding here after it had been shut down for seventeen years, and so I started it again.We had a girl who had a learning disability, and one of the stipulations… you know, you had to be able to repeat the promise and the law of Guiding before you could be enrolled, and there was no way this child could remember. So I contacted- the area commissioner. I was the district commissioner. And I said, “What do we do” and so she said, “What do you hope to do” and I said, “I’m hoping that I can repeat the promise and the law and just ask her if she agrees, and she said, “Sure, why not” and, of course, that’s what I did. You know, you’re supposed to shake hands with the left hand and whatever, and she grabbed both of my hands and that was it – she was ready for her pin.
That… for me, it was a beautiful moment – you know, to be able to recognize her as being equal with others.
Interviewer: Were you involved with other disability issues or inaccessibility or anything like that?
Vallis: I also became a choir mother with the intention of setting up a women’s choir… There was one girl in the congregation with a …disability, and she was old enough to be in the choir; her mother told me in despair – “You know, Minnie,” she said, “she wants to be a member of the choir” and I said, “And why can’t she be?” Now she had to have assistance walking and she had great difficulty speaking, and so I said, “If it is her dream to sit in that choir seat,” I said, “you know, why do we have to deny her that dream”. So, during an evening service she… donned the robes and she was assisted to the choir seat… and when the service was over it was almost as though – “Okay, well, I’ve accomplished it; I don’t want to be a part of the choir anymore.” (chuckles)
Interviewer: Were a lot of women with disabilities involved in the women’s centre at that time?
Vallis: We had clients with… disabilities, yes, and… it was a constant role [to discuss] back and forth, you know, to those in charge, alterations and changes that we needed at the residence. Right now, so many, many years later, it’s [the residence is] equipped with a wheelchair ramp.
Interviewer: What residence is that?
Vallis: Transition House. It’s a shelter for victims of violence. We were not so much in the know then as what we are now. You know even for the visually impaired, in case of a power failure and whatever, I mean how would a visually impaired see a light pointing to an exit, you know. So we had to look at other areas, and the same thing with business establishments and doctors’ offices. Now what we did in Corner Brook, we banded together. Oh, I can’t even begin to tell you how many groups for people with disabilities banded together.
Interviewer: Were people with disabilities involved as well?
Vallis: Yes… you know, like the MS, the CPA, the VON and god in heaven only knows how many groups.
Interviewer: The Women’s Centre and Transition House?
Vallis: I don’t think the Transition House was involved, but the Women’s Centre was.
And we were looking at the great difficulties in getting people with disabilities to a doctor’s office; and we said, okay, how about if we hit the doctors’ offices a little first – you know, public places like that.
I can’t say it was a record victory for any one particular group because we did it as combining our talents. So we began writing letters to the doctors and telling them of the difficulties of trying to get someone with a… disability or someone who was in a wheelchair, you know, to a doctor and what have you… we knew they couldn’t put elevators inside of some of the buildings because they were old buildings and not equipped for that, but they put the elevators on the outside of the buildings…and we thought, you know, we’re making progress. So it was things like that that we began looking at public places and also, you know, our parks and things...
When I was… the major, and I had two aneurysms of the brain and following my surgery, of course, after I was discharged from hospital in St. John’s I had to go to my regular doctor for just a checkup so he could report to the neurosurgeon. Of all things, the doctor was upstairs renting office space in our town hall (chuckles) and I couldn’t get up the stairs. Here was the mayor there for her checkup, couldn’t get up the stairs (chuckles) and he had to come down to the public health offices to go through the ritual. A short time later when he switched offices. He went to a building that was wheelchair accessible, and… the town lost a lot of money because of the cancellation of these services to the town hall, you see; and the mayor was responsible for that, of all things.
Interviewer: Is the town hall accessible these days?
Vallis: Not the town offices. The public health is totally accessible, but the town offices – you still have to climb two flights of stairs.
Interviewer: Were you involved with any other, I guess, issues during that time?
Vallis: Coalition of Persons with Disabilities – we looked at the building code and all the loopholes that were involved in the building code because, you know, I was interviewed on cablevision and was asked, “What are the loopholes?” Now the building was so old and it was still in use and you were going to do some renovations – you were not required to make it wheelchair accessible…
Interviewer: That was during the 80’s?
Vallis: Yes, girl, that was during the 80’s and the 90’s. So we said, government should be looking at where people can swing through those loopholes and do all those renovations without having to make things accessible. So we then began looking at the churches – and the church here in Meadows was made wheelchair accessible and I put a drive on to have our seniors club wheelchair accessible, and so… and that’s totally wheelchair accessible now, and with a wheelchair accessible bathroom as well.
It’s pointless to have a place wheelchair accessible when your bathrooms are such that you can’t get a wheelchair there, right?
Interviewer: Yeah. So can you remember any situations where you helped women, I guess, find their voice or you supported them as a leader?
Vallis: I have me a lot of people today, you know, who will wrap their arms around me and thank me, you know, endlessly for what I did for them and what I did I don’t know; it certainly did restore their voice and helped them to feel equal and whatever, because that was my aim. I put together a game; then I worked with victims of violence, and the name of the game was Who Am I? There was no right or wrong to the game.
I still have the game and maybe someday I’ll get it printed. You would select a card from the pile of cards. You know, you didn’t know what question you were selecting; after all the children were retired for the evening - and we would go right around the table answering the questions. Who am I? Where in my life did I learn that women are inferior to men? You know, and each person would tell of some occasion in their lives that made them feel very inferior to the men; and, you know, when it came to the next person’s turn to play all we had done was shared stories and, actually, you were looking at your history of your own life – you know, your own biography in a sense. So a lot of people said that they found there was a lot of help in that. We also had a program going where each morning before you decided to leave your room, you would write three positive statements about yourself, and you had to do that every morning.
Interviewer: And that was at the Transition House.
Vallis: Yes, So it was a sense of empowerment – you know, not ‘I like baking’. You know, you couldn’t use that kind of statement. Like ‘I am a good cook’ or ‘I am a great mother’,you had to be patting yourself on the back, and it was a sense of empowerment, I guess, girl.
We also had envelopes attached to the walls where each person’s name was written on the envelope and, unbeknownst to the person, someone would put a thank-you in the envelope - thank you for doing this for me – but they wouldn’t sign their name.
And at the end of the week, then we would get together and take out and read all the thank-you [notes] and, you know, so it was just a fun sort of thing but in the meantime, you know, also helping each other along the way.
Interviewer: So in terms of inequality, can you remember when you first became aware that there were inequalities around you?
Vallis: Could I tell you when I took my first school in 1947? That’s when I knew there were inequalities, you see, because the second school that the Department of Education appointed me to. I was turned down because I was a woman. But the first school – I had a child in – primer, we used to call it then –and she had a learning disability and one of the stipulations of the Department of Education at that time, you know, in order to graduate from primer you had to know the alphabet from A to Z and be able to rhyme them off with great ease. This child who could not get from A to E – not remember the alphabet in that manner, could really, really pick up on poetry and so I decided, okay, I’m going to put the alphabet in the form of poetry: A for apple; B for bow; C for candy; D for doll.
Interviewer: You still remember it now.
Vallis: Oh yes, even now I can remember it; and, of course, when the school inspector came… this is when a teacher would be graded when the school inspector came to your school. I was the only teacher there in a one-room school and, of course, they would grade you based on what one student in each class did.
When he looked at the primers, this little girl – oh my god, she looked like a live wire, and I was… oh my, I was wishing please, please, please stay quiet because e I knew I had gone against the guidelines. He looked at her and he said, “Okay, you – stand up and say the alphabet” and she stood up, my dear, and in poetic form she said it from A to Z and it was beautiful and she was delighted; when I let them out for recess, he looked at me and said, “And who gave you permission to change the law.” I knew I had lost a lot of points right then, and I did not get my augmentation pay until late August.
So you dare not go against the guidelines. I kept on going doing the same thing.
Interviewer: When did you stop teaching?
Vallis: I stopped teaching in– 1951. I went teaching after I was married and I used to be gone from Mondays to Fridays and my mother-in-law was caring for our little girl, and so she was getting right thin. She was not sleeping and she was missing so much that I said, no, it’s not worth it so…I thought I would quit then. You see also the rules were when you got married you had to stay home, but only if they were stuck for teachers, they would take you.
I was a caregiver for my paternal grandmother because of age-related disabilities, and that was in the 60’s… oh my lord, this woman had to get to a church service regardless, come hell or high water.
It was Sunday and that was her ritual, and there was great difficulty… but even then… you could see… the barriers that were in place because of aging. And then in the 80’s I took my mother-in-law – I brought her here to care for her and it was hectic, believe you me, when you’re working full time and you’re caring for a woman with Alzheimer’s. And I ended up having to stop putting the kettles on the stove. And at night when we would go to bed, she would be up rambling, and we have a stairwell. We used to have to take turns sleeping on the chesterfield in order to keep my mother-in-law safe… So it was almost like a 24/7 watching out to her.
Interviewer: Yeah. So you were an advocate; you were a caregiver.
Interviewer: And later on you acquired a disability.
Interviewer: How did those roles work in your life? Did you learn anything earlier on that helped you self-advocate when you acquired your disability?
Vallis: Yes, I think I did because I had learned a lot about… playing the victim’s role which don’t get you anywhere… I had lost every word of education I had… and that bothered me far, far greater than being in a wheelchair. Somebody is passing me a newspaper and I can’t read one single word that’s in the blasted newspaper; and there were times I used to lock myself in the bedroom, you know, with self-pity
Interviewer: Sounds like depression too.
Vallis: Oh yes. Yes. And, of course, the neurosurgeon gave me family exercises and he said, “You’re going to have to practice tough love because she’ll push every sympathy button that’s in your body…”; and, believe you me, they practiced tough love with me. The family is very musical. And we would sit together singing songs, and they would sing the first verse, you know, with me and then they would say, “Now, mom, you’re going to play and sing the second verse yourself.” And then, of course, I’d get through with probably two lines and forget the next two.
Interviewer: That was ’94…
Vallis: ’92. And then I would start to cry and then they’d say, “Mom, we’re having a party, not a funeral”; (chuckles) but by the time they were through with me, you could give me any letter from the alphabet, and I was not allowed to use proper nouns, and I could give you 130 words that began with that letter.
So the neurosurgeon asked me when I was going to stop. (chuckles) But it was almost like it became an obsession to get your education back.
I was obsessed with that, but I did learn that self-pity… We’re all entitled to it every now and again – poor me – but on the other hand, there’s really no growth into that, playing the victim’s role. So when my husband became disabled… he had a stroke… and I can recognize the victim’s role. The poor me (chuckles) – come on, get out of that.
Interviewer: So are you’re a caregiver for him?
Vallis: For my husband now - yes, dear, for the past eight years. It’s an ongoing thing, you know… and I believe in people having, you know, independence, but I’m also a strong believer – when people have acquired a certain loss of independence, then it’s up to the family and the caregiver to fight for their rights… so I’m there for him now.
Interviewer: So in the 70’s and 80’s and your work there, what were some of the challenges you found you had to overcome.
Vallis: One of the biggest ones, I guess, there was no one available at that time to be able to communicate with a person who couldn’t speak who would talk with the sign language; but then in the later years, we began to have access to that. I truly believe that in today’s society we’re becoming more educated and possible because the organizations are making themselves more visible. I was involved for – what – twelve years with Coalition of Persons with Disabilities and I was director for this part of the coast; and whenever we had a public meeting, we would always get a translator [Sign Language Interpreter] that could come along, and then we could invite everyone in the community to the public consultations or the public meetings… that was a whole new learning process for us.
Interviewer: So what were some of your greatest achievements, do you believe.
Vallis: I dealt with the situation where a woman had to quit her job in another province – because her partner became quite ill and could not care for their children. She applied for her unemployment and she was denied and she reapplied and she was denied again, and the third level is almost like a supreme court setting, prior to the supreme court thing. I presented the case as I thought and I get this ungodly sized package from Ottawa, whatever, and I opened it …and believe you me it didn’t take me long to get to page three – “and the judge hereby agrees with Minnie Vallis that the person in question” – “is entitled to full unemployment benefits – EI benefits.” [The woman’s] partner said… “What do you get out of this?” – and I said, the satisfaction of having won the case. (chuckles) So that’s when I was given a gold watch by CCD for winning a federal case, because unemployment is a federal case so… I can remember the joy…
Interviewer: What year was that?
Vallis: That was 1993, I think it was, or ’92 – ’92 or ’93.
Vallis: In the 90’s… during the International Year of the Woman Sir Wilfred Grenfell College – university That was and… decided why go outside of Corner Brook – you know, why go outside of our own area to honour someone, and so I was guest speaker, and what they asked me to speak on was maintaining my own identity. (chuckles)
Interviewer: So how do you maintain your own identity?
Vallis: (chuckles) It’s not an easy process, but it’s up to you.
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. That was probably for work you did in the 70’s and 80’s.
Vallis: Yes. Well, they were looking back over… you had to have your full volunteer resume, you see, right from pretty well day one. So I was honoured then. I also received a medal from the Lieutenant Government of Newfoundland and that was for the year of the seniors because of the volunteer work I had done.
Interviewer: And that’s a couple of years ago, right?
Vallis: Oh yes. And I also received another medal from the Premier of the province, Roger Grimes, at that time – and that was for being… there was a man and a woman in each MHA’s district, as strong volunteers, and I was the woman selected for Eddie Joyce’s district.
Interviewer: And when was that?
Vallis: Oh, that was only a few years ago.I’ve been given an awful lot of non-monetary awards, you know: diplomas and flowers and… you name it, and I’ve got it. My house – you could turn it into a museum.
Vallis: Yeah. And I also formed a writers group for women and…
Interviewer: So what were your, I guess, greatest achievements or your victories from that period, do you feel– the 70’s and 80’s?
Interviewer: It was… when you could see you were making progress… even when you began making people aware of how inaccessible places were, even then you felt – okay, we’re reaching a larger audience. Because a lot of people that I spoke with felt very uncomfortable in a setting where someone had a disability, they didn’t know if they should kneel down and speak with someone in a wheelchair or stand up towering over them, and it’s a learning process and we have to educate the public on that. So it’s all a learning process; but when you can see that the public is beginning to learn more and understand more, and then there’s, you know, greater accomplishments of things being done, you know, that’s the sense of satisfaction that, okay, I was one of the cogs in the wheel that help get these things going. You know, it makes your time that you spend… it makes it worthwhile.
Interviewer: So what changes do you feel you helped bring out in the women’s movement and in the disability movement?
Vallis: Equality. I feel very strongly about the equality of genders – you know, this was one of the things – and equality of all people, because… if we have a disability, it doesn’t necessarily make us a sick person, you know. (chuckles)
Interviewer: The changes that you’ve made… that you made in the 70’s and 80’s would’ve been certainly improving the equality for women and persons with disabilities.
Vallis: Yes, girl.
Interviewer: Is there a message that you have for like young people that are reading this now?
Vallis: I don’t know so much about a message, but I try to live with a certain code of ethics, I sort of live as do onto others. You know, I know several times I saw my mother-in-law break down and cry because I would take her to special places, you know, for Mother’s Day or whatever and she’d said, “Why are you doing this”, you know, with severe Alzheimer’s, and I said, in the hope that the seeds that I plant will up and mature when I’m in need of this kind of service – you know, that someone else will look at me as being a real person with real needs and, regardless of what happens, that I will be treated with dignity and respect. I live with a code of ethics that this day is a canceled cheque; tomorrow is promissory note; today is cash in hand, and live wisely.
Interviewer: Yeah. So what’s your fondest memory of the 70’s and 80’s. Is there some memory that just springs out at you there?
Vallis: Yes, there is a memory of when you’re in need… when something happens to you in a crisis situation, the greatest strength you can have in this world is friendship.
In ’83 we had a crisis situation in our family. Our oldest child at age 34 had died of – brain aneurysm – I would’ve changed places with her, but it was a crisis situation in my life at that time. I was supposed to do the first day shift and the first crisis call that came in was for me. It was then and there that the Women’s Centre and all the people that I had made friends with – they came together… well, it was like an army –they were pulling strings with the airports and the airlines… and the cost of transportation… because when something is sprung on you that suddenly, you know, you’re not prepared for an emergency flight to St. John’s… but it was then and there that I realized that the greatest thing you can have in this world is friends, because they came together with such support for me at that time and, you know, I could see that’s where my strengths were: the friends that I had made.
And over the years I have seen that always on an ongoing basis, you know, and the same with the writers group. We titled our group COOL – Creating Our Own Lives – and in a lot of situations, we have to. If we’re looking for equality of genders and disability, there’s a lot of times we have to be the leaders in those areas, whether we like being that or not – sorry, but don’t sit back waiting for somebody else to do it.
Interviewer: When did COOL start?
Vallis: COOL started in 1992.
Interviewer: Do you e-mail or do you meet?
Vallis: I’m still a member of Page 1, but COOL disbanded because a lot of members moved away to other areas.
Interviewer: So when did Page 1 start?
Vallis: PAGE started in the very early 80’s. That’s a writers group, yes; it’s for… men, women, children – if you can write a poem, if you can write, just let us know, and we’re also into the publishing business as well. PAGE has their own website.
Interviewer: Is it a local thing or is it…
Vallis: 1987. Yeah, it’s local.Well, we don’t care where you’re from, if you want to submit something.
Interviewer: But you publish like a newsletter or…
Vallis: Our own books.
Interviewer: Wow. That’s exciting. What do you feel is left to do in the women’s movement and, you know, in the community – women’s community – and in the disability community.
Vallis: I think we… certainly need to have more women leaders with disabilities in that respect… in the disability movement, and give them a stronger voice. I know one of the issues I dealt with was the fact that the [Women’s] Centre was not wheelchair accessible and I said, come off it. I mean, god help me, to say that just because our vice-president can’t handle stairs that she has to come through the back door. You know, I said I have a problem with that. Just putting in a wheelchair ramp is not all that difficult.That’s been going on for… ever since the new centre has been there in Corner Brook, and it’s still not wheelchair accessible.
So, you know, you need to be more intuned with the disabilities movement. I find the Caregivers Association is very much intuned with disability movement because our group has members from the Alzheimer’s Society, CPA, the MS, the Cancer Society. You know, it’s just on and on; we’re reaching out to this disability movement – you know, to come in and, you know, let’s unite our voices to make us stronger so that we can be there to see to the likes of those that need our care.
I think this is one of the things that’s happening in the volunteer community. You know, we’re seeing less and less volunteers and, certainly, a lot of the younger people… now I can certainly understand, you know, the time commitments involved in volunteer work; but everywhere you go, it seems like there’s very few people involved in volunteer work and a lot of it is burnout, because you can get one person willing to do something but, come off it now, walk slowly, you know, because you can overburden that person too. So you have to be very cautious.
Interviewer: Do you have any other thoughts that you want to share?
Vallis: Not necessarily so, girl, but I think… as I say, you know, we can enjoy life, I think, more fully than what we are enjoying it because life is operating… it seems that society is going at warp speed. How in god’s name do we slow it down, you know, so we have to be prepared to say – my life is going to have moments for myself; I don’t care how fast we operating at warp speed, but this is going to be my own personal time; don’t interrupt. (chuckles) And you have to take time for yourself because, if you don’t, as the old saying goes – how can I water your plants when my well has run dry.
Vallis: You see? And if I don’t keep my well of living waters well preserved, then how can I help you? So in order to help you I have to take personal time for myself so that I don’t burn out.
Interviewer: Well, thank you very much.