Another Metis Connection
Alice Peck – the Canadian Handicrafts Guild
“When the arts and crafts of a country gain recognition that country takes a new position in the respect of the world. No nation began with fine buildings, great sculptures, noble paintings. They all began with the lowly crafts” (Alice Peck 1934, 1).
At the turn of the 20th century, with the rise of industrialization, machine-made items were considered to be better, more valuable, and desirable than handmade articles. However, this way of thinking wasn’t true for everyone, especially for the visionary women who began conserving the Minor Arts in the hope of reviving them.
Mary Alice (Skelton) Peck, born in 1855 and married to Montreal businessman James Peck in 1878, began coming to what was then Little Metis in 1882. While some may think that women of the wealthy families, who had summer homes in the Lower Saint Lawrence, thought little and did less beyond hiring local servants and enjoying the privileged lifestyle of the idle, this was not the case. Alice Peck and other Montreal women were brought up with, and felt, a certain noblesse oblige – that those in positions of money and power also have a duty to fulfill social responsibilities. This may be seen as old-fashioned and perhaps presumptively patronizing today, however, it’s certainly better than doing nothing!
Because Mrs. Peck (herself a multidiscipline artisan) spent summers in Metis and had seen the traditional handiwork of people in the area, she with a volunteer committee contacted talented Lower Saint Lawrence anglophone, francophone, and indigenous craftspeople, leading to what has been described as a ‘pioneering’ 1902 exhibition of handicrafts in the Little Metis Town Hall (link to 370 Beach Road). Marie Dennis, Little Metis, won $2 for her porcupine quill work on birch bark. Marie-Anne St. Denis was locally known as ‘Indian Annie’.
Aditi Ohri, in her thesis “Recognition on Settler Terms: The Canadian Handicrafts Guild and First Nations Craft from 1900 to 1967”¹, explains part of what was different in this and similar exhibits:
“Guild women … brought together Indian craft with Euro-Canadian work, making it the first of its kind. This was a source of pride for Montreal WAAC members, who believed that all handicraft should be held in equal regard, whether it be utilitarian, decorative or fine craft.”
The other unusual part was bringing the handiwork to a summer resort with a ready-made collection of well-off and well-connected people who could buy… and did. How much local people made that year is unknown, however, it is likely that the exercise was well-received by sellers and buyers… and it made the Montreal press of the day. The Saturday, July 19, 1902 The Gazette (which reflects some of the biases of the time) capturing the event, is shown here with the original prize sheet. The article thanks the priests of neighbouring St.-Octave, ‘Sandy Bay’ (Baie-des-Sables), and Rivière Blanche, as well as provides a long list of area winners, as well as local and summer luminaries who volunteered for various roles in the event.
This exhibition, with an opportunity for craftsmen, and especially women, to sell their wares, was the model for what became in 1905 (and was incorporated in 1906 as) the Canadian Handicraft Guild, which Peck founded with May Phillips². Its goal was to support and help preserve traditional crafts, while helping those less fortunately situated earn some extra money at a time that government income supports did not exist. The Guild sometimes went beyond government policy, as captured in this short extract from Recognition on Settler Terms: The Canadian Handicrafts Guild and First Nations Craft from 1900 to 1967.
When asked about the people working for the Canadian Handicraft Guild, Alice Peck said:
“… they felt that they should devote every energy to reviving and making profitable all such crafts as could be carried on in a cottage or castle, in town or the remotest part of the country. They were sure that if such effort were successful the country would become happier, healthier, and wealthier, and that hundreds of homes would be lifted into a different sphere through the contacts that would result … People are now asking how this was accomplished and an answer should be forthcoming. It meant work, work, work, and the love that is born of contact with human beings who want to express the best that is in them and sometimes need a helping hand to do it. One of the deepest instincts of humanity is the desire to leave behind something worthwhile – the urge that causes the poet to sing, the artist to paint, the potter to mold the clay.” – M. Alice Peck, 1934
While no photos of the 1902 Metis event have been found, it is likely that the displays might have looked much like the photos of other exhibits.
Did you know… ? Fred Duperé, local Les Boules resident, made distinctive birch furniture with square knobs in an X-style design. The competitions and exhibits were not limited to women and one of his chests of drawers was reportedly displayed in Montreal.
Peck’s many interests and personal talents as an artisan can be gleaned from her 1943 1943 obituary.
- In Good Hands: The Women of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Ellen Easton McLeod, 1999
- “Alice Peck: Writer, Weaver, Founder of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild and Metisian” (Presentation by Rosalind Pepall)
- “Ladies Contribute. Much Clever Work Sent to Art Exhibition by Gentler Sex.” Montreal Star, March 24, 1900. p.22. Full-text pdf (March 16, 1900 Art Association of Montreal Annual Spring Exhibition
- QuillBasketrybyGeorgePaul.pdf (chebucto.org)
- Pisitimmariit – As the story goes (veritablesexperts.com)
² The Montreal branch of the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC) was founded in 1894 by Mary Martha (May) Phillips (an arts teacher) and Mary Alice (Alice) Peck. WAAC’s Montreal branch held major ‘applied arts’ exhibits in 1900 and 1902, before opening a store in 1902. The Montreal Branch’s crafts committee lead, by Peck and Phillips, broke from the WAAC in 1905 to found the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, which was incorporated the following year as a federal non-profit, with the patronage of Governor General Grey and his wife Alice (Countess Grey).