A Great Restlessness

The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen

Faith Johnston (Author)

Dorise Nielsen was a pioneering feminist, a radical politician, the first Communist elected to Canada’s 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 hero’s cemetery in China, Nielsen lived through tumultuous times. Struggling through the Great Depression as a homesteader’s 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 life’s 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.


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


“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 Great Restlessness“ provides us with a superb portrait of the making of a radical, female politician.”

– Great Plains Quarterly, Summer 2008

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

– Herizons, Spring 2008

A Great Restlessness is a humbling experience for those of us who thought we knew all about Canadian history (but really don’t). It is a very good reference for anyone wanting to know more about socialist beginnings in Canada, and especially Western Canada. But, much more that this, A Great Restlessness is a well-written story of a tenacious feminist, a fascinating woman, and an engaged life.”

– Our Times , March 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

“Johnston has made a valuable contribution to the history of gender and political belief in twentieth-century Canada, a subject recently neglected by historians of women and the left, and written the life of a powerful, flawed, and fascinating woman.”

– Esyllt Jones, H-Net Canada, Fall 2007

“Faith Johnston has made a valuable contribution to various streams in Canadian historiography. This book informs us on aspects of women, the left, the west, and on Canada’s place in international communism. And, not least, it introduces us to a fascinating character, one whose restless life is worth telling, in and of itself.”

– Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2007

A Great Restlessness is not only an excellent account of Nielsen’s political career but also of her personal life and all it’s turmoil. An enjoyable read, this is a valuable book that helps fill in the gaps left by mainstream accounts of history that minimize or ignore the important role that Communists such as Dorise Nielsen played.”

– People’s Weekly World, Oct. 5, 2007

“Well-researched and with keen attention to detail, A Great Restlessness brings to life the story of a fascinating personality on the move during a tumultuous period of our history.”

– Briarpatch Magazine, August 2007

“Faith Johnston has produced a well-researched, nuanced, balanced biography of an ambivalent figure, showing both her strengths and her shortcomings.”

– Prairie Fire, Winter 2006/07

“Faith Johnston’s extensive interviews and research, much of which only recently became available through the Access to Information Act, give readers an unflinchingly intimate portrait of Nielsen. Her writing style at times reads like a novel, at other times like a research paper, but always at the right times. She creates the momentum of drama without losing her focus or veering into melodrama. Johnston goes beyond recounting the facts of Nielsen’s life, weaving a rich and elegant narrative with a captivating rhythm.”

– The Beaver

“Faith Johnston has written a comprehensive biography of Nielsen that offers an astonishing look at the politics of the Canadian Prairies in the 1930s and 40s.”

– Winnipeg Free Press

“From a rural school house in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, to burial in a hero’s cemetery at Babaoshan, China, Dorise Nielsen was an extraordinary person, champion of women’s rights, a trailblazer, a communist, and the only woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons in 1940. A commanding stage presence, she never backed down and never gave up. “

“‘Let us light the torch of our anger,’ she said, ‘and by its light see the way ahead.’”

“This is a finely crafted, well-researched biography. The author presents a moving picture of a Joan of Arc figure in Canadian political life while providing a critical view that allows readers to make up their own minds about a woman who took unusual risks and who, in spite of devastating rebuffs, remained committed to her vision of a socialist future.”

– Stephen Endicott, Senior Scholar, York University

“A fascinating account not only of Nielsen’s political activities, both in Canada and China, but of her personal life and all its turmoil.”

– Bill Waiser, author of Saskatchewan: A New History and All Hell Can’t Stop Us: The On to Ottawa Trek and the Regina Riot

“A sympathetic biography that is not afraid to ask the difficult questions or ponder the contradictions posed by the extraordinary life of an exceptional woman on the left.”

– Franca Iacovetta, University of Toronto, author of Gatekeepers: Remaking Refugee and Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada

About the Author

Faith Johnston lives in Winnipeg. She studied at the University of Manitoba (B.A., B.Educ.) and at Carleton University (M.A. Women’s Studies). In addition to A Great Restlessness, she has written The Only Man in the World (Turnstone Press, 2012) and Four Miles to Freedom (Random House India, 2013).

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