If you took an urban cycling course in Vancouver in the 1990s, chances are a man taught you. If it was the early 2000s, chances are a woman did.
There's no message or hidden meaning here; just a fortuitous set of circumstances that led Mary into the active transportation advocacy world at a particular time (alongside Mona, whose story will appear on this blog another day, and Bonnie, who's already here).
But considering the gender and power dynamics at play, often on our city streets and for many years in the engineering and urban planning disciplines — to which, as road vehicles, we are all subject — the role of women, and when and how it played its part in cycling advocacy in Vancouver, is curious. At least, it's noteworthy.
And so is Mary.
Her story here begins in 1971 when, as a twenty-something, she left her home in the UK for Canada.
I never thought I'd stay because London was the centre of the universe. But it was radically different — in Toronto, everything exploded.
My life changed radically within two weeks. It was fabulous. And I never turned back.
Whereas Mary was lonely back home in London, a few things immediately clicked for her in the counter-culture youth capital of Canada. Viet Nam war resistance, feminism, communal living, and ultimately the back-to-the-land movement. Mary was into it all.
I was very involved in the war resistance community, AmEx it was called — American Exiles.
I'm not sure what got me into cycling, but I rode all the time. I rode to work at UofT. I lived near Broadview and Danforth, and rode all the time along College Street. And I always lived in the downtown area, sometimes in Chinatown, co-op houses, shared houses, moving around.
Cycling was just what I did, the cheapest and most sensible and pleasurable way to get to work, to get from A to B, you know? It wasn't a political thing.
It's not to say there weren't politics in Mary's life though. See, there was this boyfriend, also a war resister boyfriend.
He went back to jail, is what happened. That's a whole big story in itself.
He was facing thirty years in jail for war resistance. But he and I split up, and then I went really back to the land.
I was living off the grid with no electricity, no water, none of that, for a few years. It was very hard core. We didn't agree with electricity because a lot of hydro in Ontario at that time was nuclear powered — we disagreed with that. Very pure, very pure.
It was very difficult, and I think what we did was nuts. But we weren't unusual. There were a lot of war resisters around Bancroft area, and communes. It wasn't unusual. It was tough, but I loved it.
Eventually wanderlust took over, and Mary moved on. She traveled with a friend through Central America, and then by herself around South America for five months. It was while in South America that Mary met two different people who suggested that she should visit Strathcona Park Lodge near Campbell River on Vancouver Island.
At the time the lodge was just a decade or so into operations and a few buildings; today it's a small, self-contained community and outdoor education centre that hosts retreats and school groups.
Someone introduced me to the owner, Jim Boulding. They grow all the vegetables for their guests, for the community, and there's also an apprentice program where people go and train to be outdoor leaders.
Jim wanted them to have a holistic education and that included gardening. He needed a gardening instructor. And that also changed my life.
Mary spent a full season, from May to October, at Strathcona, and in the off seasons would visit Vancouver, picking up the occasional work and making connections. She knew Strathcona wouldn't be forever, and yet it wasn't time yet for this place ("I wasn't ready to be in a big city.").
So Mary took one last kick at the counter-cultural revolution.
I had come from back-to-the-land hippiedom, so I moved to Nelson.
I had heard so much about Nelson, and again had an absolutely wonderful time. It is, I think, the most interesting small town in Canada, in that there's a lot of culture - art, music, everything. There's a lot of politics.
Never one to eschew the road less traveled, Mary skied, she mountaineered, she went off on life-threatening adventures ("they were all fabulous").
She also worked, and had a child, and eventually answered the call from Vancouver. It's time to settle down. And as always, Mary leaned on her community, and still managed to do things her way.
A friend helped me buy this house where I live now, on John Street. I had a bit of money for a downpayment, but everyone advised me that I was crazy, because I couldn't afford to buy a house, and it was nowheresville. Everyone was either in Kits or on the Drive.
It was an old house, but I just was so determined to have a stable home. So I ate beans and rice for two years, and managed to pull it off.
It was a hundred and sixty five thousand dollars — now that's nothing.
Of course, it was the best thing I ever did. Now Sophie has something to inherit. I love it here.
Ah, it's nice to hear a good housing story. Especially when it allows someone to keep their lifestyle. The ways they want to live, not just the ways they're forced to live.
Though, sometimes reality bites. It's not always as easy as saying, "and I shall ride my bicycle everywhere."
I went to Langara and got training in special ed. I rode to all my jobs.
In fact, I finished my training and then I was on the sub list, and I remember clearly saying to the personnel director at the school board, "I will only take a job I can ride a bike to." And she said, "oh, well we can't cater to that." And I said, "well, it's important enough to me, so I'll sub until a job comes up that I can ride a bike to."
And it came up fairly quickly. I started with Dickens, and I've been at a few schools.
I was quite assertive. That's what I needed. Wanted.
Okay, well...maybe it is that easy.
What you learn, for one thing, is don't mess with Mary. Honestly, don't. She's the sweetest, most amazing spark of a woman you could meet, but I'm pretty sure you don't want to get on her bad side.
But that smile, that laugh. It comes from a life well lived. With so much more to come; in fact, she was only in the middle of it, I estimate, when the cycling thing really began to pick up speed.
It was about 15 years ago; with her partner Allison and Sophie, Mary did a house exchange in Amsterdam of all places. And of course, that did it.
I would ride everywhere in Vancouver, but Allison didn't, she was too scared.
So I noticed that she was totally comfortable riding in Amsterdam. And so that was this big thing for me, I thought, "I want to make Vancouver more like Amsterdam."
I'm fairly fearless now, but she's not. And I wanted to make Vancouver safe to ride for people with disabilities, or the 8-80.
I hadn't got that phrase in my head, but that's what I was thinking, kids, and older people. That's what I wanted.
At the time, B.E.S.T. was the main show in town, in terms of profile, action and results. In fact, as her first foray in cycling advocacy, Mary volunteered briefly with the organization, helping with a public ride to open the Central Valley Greenway in June 2004.
She met Gavin and Richard in part through her time with B.E.S.T. And then came Bonnie.
I must have been involved with VACC around the same time because I knew Bonnie Fenton well.
I'm not in the same category — she was incredible. She did everything. VACC courses came from her kitchen. That's where it all started.
And she decided that she wanted to train instructors to teach people. This was the beginning of Streetwise.
I was keen. So a whole bunch of us — Mona, she and I and a bunch of others were the early ones.
[Mona] and I were one of the first ones to do it, and we lasted the longest. In fact, I'm still doing it, I think she's training instructors.
Just over a decade separates that time from today, but it's a world apart in terms of the strides taken by the HUB Cycling organization across the Lower Mainland. At various times, municipal government funding has brought Streetwise courses into almost all 22 Metro Vancouver municipalities, to schools, community centres, immigration support services organizations, and people's homes. Mary has taught almost everywhere, bringing a quick laugh and soft, patient countenance to her students, and from what I understand talking to people who have learned from her, results.
But like the dyed-in-the-wool activist she is, it's hard to avoid talking about the issues. About the ones that really stick in her craw.
The antagonism was very disheartening, and it still is.
I was at 10th and Windsor, and I was riding fairly slowly. And a guy in a truck drove round the traffic circle the wrong way on his cell phone.
So I went up to him, and I'm usually good about not getting angry. I said, do you realize how unsafe that was? You're on a cell phone driving around the traffic circle the wrong way? He said, "Wear a fucking helmet."
Now that's why I'm against the helmet law. It's used as a weapon. Wear a fucking helmet he said to me. And he can continue going around the traffic circle the wrong way. And it was a bike route!
If we didn't have that law, he wouldn't say wear a fucking helmet. I understand it more now than I did at the time.
She, like many others, have deep and strongly-felt thoughts about the mandatory adult helmet law, now in its 23rd year. I'll save that for the book.
I got a lot from Mary, but not as much as we all get today, as a result of her efforts — instructor, advocate and, yes, activist. Whether formally as part of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, or informally as one in a sea of faces on Critical Mass rides, Mary helped push through the changes we all benefit from today.
I gradually got more and more political. I enjoyed it, had fun, and I learned a lot about the city works.
Every time I ride the Carrall separated paths, I think, "I helped. I put my two cents into this."
She's pretty much retired from teaching now, occasionally teaching older women to balance on a bike in her favourite location, the peaceful, paved path in MountainView cemetery in east Vancouver, once actively used by motor vehicle traffic as part of 37th Avenue (long since blocked to through traffic). She says she gets great pleasure from watching as they eventually, after much focussed determination, float down the gentle hill..
She also gets away every year with Allison to someplace warm, someplace they can walk, ride, and enjoy a different life. At this point, life can be both an adventure, and deeply rooted in something real. Perhaps that depth is reached with a certain maturity, a critical mass of experience, as opposed to anger.
But maybe that's not exactly paradise for Mary. Maybe for Mary, paradise is never letting anger burn out.
Some great rock and roll songs were written about that kind of thing. And a lot of them came from London, oh about half a century ago. Just like Mary.
I've been an activist all my adult life. Activism has changed.
I think we were much fiercer. I don't want to be on about how it was in the old days, but economics has changed.
I lived very comfortably with very simple jobs for a long time. It's much harder to do now, I think.
Times have changed a bit, that's all.