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Remembering Ethel Tibbits
Newspaper editors don’t get remembered for writing editorials such as “government did the right thing in cutting taxes.”
In the long run, it’s editors who showed an incredible amount of courage in fighting against injustices, sometimes even those supported by a majority of public opinion, that are remembered.
While Ethel Tibbits has been memorialized as the namesake of Richmond’s women of distinction awards, she will be always remembered for far more than that.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941, the Canadian government ordered the internment of Canadians of Japanese descent. Many Japanese-Canadians, including those who had fought for Canada in the First World War, were forcibly removed from Steveston to internment camps in the B.C. Interior.
“In this demand are they really considering public safety, or are they merely seizing upon this situation as an opportunity to oust from their midst a people whose presence they have long resented? Is their cry of patriotism or of prejudice?”
Before joining The Richmond Review, Tibbits (nee Burnett) had worked as a reporter for The Province, and came out to Richmond and married Orland Delos Tibbits on Dec. 25, 1926.
“On Christmas Day, Mr. Tibbits carried her down to the church on Blundell just east of their house; they were married and then he carried her home again,” recalled Connie (Gibbard) Ezart in a 1982 letter to The Richmond Review.
In 1932, she started working at the new paper, then owned by W.R. Carruthers. Within the year, she purchased the paper and continued to write most of the content that went into it.
This is how Ethel Tibbits introduced herself to readers when the paper expanded to become The Marpole-Richmond Review on June 22, 1934:
“The editor and owner—we have to apologize for being a woman. Yes, we know the position would carry more weight if filled by a man, but it so happens we cannot qualify on that ground and you will have to take us as we are. No, we are not fair, fat and forty—we are long skinny and forty-five....
“Our politics? We fear we are decidedly C.C.F. (the forerunner of the NDP)—until you can show us something better. Our policy is a ceaseless endeavour for something better in government than that which we now have now; and that job is plenty big enough to have any editorial staff on its toes for the next few years.”
Her husband worked as circulation manager, and they ran the business at her husband’s store, Blundell Grocery, located at the corner of Railway and Blundell.
“She was an active woman,” Meda Alcock, who lived kitty corner to the Tibbits, told The Richmond Review in 2002.
Next to the store was a barn, chicken house and the house where the Tibbits lived. Tibbits was often seen in her favourite outfit: shirt, overalls and a hat.
“She was a newspaperwoman from the get-go,” Alcock said. “She knew this island from the word go.”
Tibbits distinguished herself as an editor to be reckoned with from her first day at the paper. The economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote that “words ought to be a little wild for they are the assaults of thought on the unthinking,” and Tibbits took Keynes’ words to heart, writing hard-hitting, intelligent and incisive editorials week after week.
It was the darkest days of the Depression, and her writings explored the daunting issues of the day. She criticized the big banks, who boasted of profits while many citizens struggled to get by. She offered insightful analysis of global trends, such as the mechanization of the workplace, and the resulting losses of labour-related jobs.
And she expressed her doubts, in a 1933 editorial titled “European War-Pot Bubbling Again,” that England would be able to stay out of it.
“It is questionable if her neighbours are to mix again in a hairpulling contest, if she can keep aloof,” she wrote.
But her greatest achievement was a series of editorials she wrote in early 1942, criticizing proposals to intern B.C.’s Japanese-Canadian residents.
“I remember her being with my parents and discussing this,” said Harold Steves, whose parents protested the internment.
Her editorials were conversational in tone, but her arguments and analysis were clearly thought out. She was frustrated by the status quo and, like many of her day, expressed fatigue with the “old parties,” the Conservatives and Liberals.
“Their system has outlived itself,” she wrote.
With the birth of the CCF in the early 1930s, she was skeptical at first, but eventually embraced the new party’s (later the NDP) philosophy whole-heartedly, eventually devoting many of her editorials to the fledgling party.
When a letter writer criticized the CCF for trying to get their hands on people’s money, she wrote: “Somebody, we agree, has had his hand in the pockets of Canadians for some time now. The farmers money, for example...the Canadian workers...”
Tibbits was also an active part of the Richmond community and helped establish the Richmond Christmas Fund.
Christine (Teeney) McKinney remembers Tibbits’ editorials and the response they provoked in her family.
“My dad used to get so mad at her he wouldn’t buy her paper,” McKinney told The Richmond Review in 2002.
“But he’d take it out of somebody else’s mailbox.”
Tibbits’ hair was often messed up, sticking straight up, and she had a reputation for being a “bit queer sometimes,” McKinney said.
Many didn’t like her, she said, but McKinney wasn’t one of them.
“She was a great old girl. I liked her a lot. She’d get people riled up.”
“Ethel was a taller than average woman, slim and a little gangly looking,” recalled John E. Bouchard, who was one of the neighbourhood kids who used to pass by the Tibbits’ store.
“Her voice was deep for a female and rather monotone. She was often asked to sing at gatherings and sang in a contralto voice. ‘I Love You Truly’ was a favourite at weddings.
“She was a serious person that did not outwardly show a lot of affection but she did take every opportunity, where she could, to offer a helping hand. She was a socialist and a feminist.”
Tibbits was born in Walters Falls, Ont., but was taken West as an infant and given her early education in the rural school of Pomeroy, Manitoba, and later her parents came out to Nanton, Alberta.
Tibbits stayed at The Richmond Review until 1948, and in 1953 her book, titled On to the Sunset: The Lifetime Adventures of a Spirited Pioneer, was published. The book is her recollection of her father’s life and his journey following the path of the Canadian frontier as it spread west in the 1800s. The book was later reprinted by Fifth House Publishers.
Although Tibbits received a letter in 1957 from Ryerson Press, her first publisher, to write another book, it appears she never did.
Her husband died in 1946 and, in 1956, she married John Woolstone, a violinist and music teacher. The Woolstones used to travel to hospitals to entertain the sick.
They moved to a home on McCallan Road. She died in 1960, and had no children.
“I think the paper was her world,” said Alcock, who worked at the paper for three years under Tibbits. “There’s no two ways about that. She had the store...she didn’t care a hoot about it.”