A Great Restlessness

The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen


Dorise Nielsen was a pioneering feminist, a radical politician, the first Communist elected to Canadaís House of Commons, and the only woman elected in 1940. But despite her remarkable career, until now little has been known about her.From her youth in London during World War I to her burial in 1980 in a heroís cemetery in China, Nielsen lived through tumultuous times. Struggling through the Great Depression as a homesteaderís wife in rural Saskatchewan, Nielsen rebelled against the poverty and injustice that surrounded her, and found like-minded activists in the CCF and the Communist Party of Canada. In 1940 when leaders of the Communist Party were either interned or underground, Nielsen became their voice in Parliament. But her activism came at a high price. As a single mother in Ottawa, she sacrificed a close relationship with her family for her career. As a woman in an emerging political organisation, her authority was increasingly usurped by younger male party members. As a committed communist, she moved to Mao's China in 1957 and dedicated her lifeís work to a cause that went seriously awry.Faith Johnston illuminates the life of a woman who paved the way for a generation of women in politics, who tried to be both a good mother and a good revolutionary, and who refused to give up on either.


“This book is a captivating and exemplary rendition of the life of Neilsen. The explicit uses of varied sources, the detailed political analysis, as well as the keen attention to personal relations, collective solidarity, and social injustice, are praiseworthy and original contributions to historical scholarship.”

Kathleen Lord, Mount Allison University, Left History, 14.1

“… a thought-provoking book about a courageous woman hitherto neglected by our historians.”

Herizons, Spring 2008

“This is a particularly fine example of the biographer’s art and a worthwhile contribution to the literature on 20th century feminism and radicalism, as well as to the political history of Canada and China. It is a truly outstanding achievement.”

North Dakota Quarterly, Spring 2007


Robert S. Kenny Prize in Marxist & Labour/Left Studies (2007)
McNally Robinson Book of the Year (2006)
Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book (2006)
Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher (2006)
Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction (2006)

About the Author

Faith Johnston is a Winnipeg writer and former Ottawa teacher. She has a Master's in Women's Studies from Carleton University and her work has been published in Dropped Threads 2, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, Other Voices, and A Room of One's Own. Her research for A Great Restlessness took her across the Canadian prairies, through archives in Toronto and Ottawa, and to Beijing during the 2003 SARS epidemic.