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Painting commemorates Halifax’s best kept secret

Celebrating Margaret Marshall Saunders, Canada's first bestselling writer

3 min read
caption Moore (left) and Scott unveil painting of Margaret Marshall Saunders
Jeana Mustain
Moore (left) and Scott unveil painting of Margaret Marshall Saunders
caption Jeff Moore and Wendy Scott unveil a painting of Margaret Marshall Saunders on Friday.
Jeana Mustain

The Just Us! Café on Spring Garden Road has unveiled a painting to celebrate the life of forgotten Halifax writer and activist Margaret Marshall Saunders, Canada’s first bestselling author.

Saunders was 27 and living on Queen Street when she wrote Beautiful Joe, the book that went on to sell more than seven million copies in the late 1930s.

The book was written from the point of view of a dog from Meaford, Ontario that had his ears and tail chopped off by an abusive owner as a puppy. The dog is rescued by a family whose lives he later saves.

Not only is Saunders a bestselling author, but she did extensive social reform work throughout her life, focusing on the abolition of child labour, slum clearances and women’s rights.

“We don’t tend to value people who pursue social justice,” says Jeff Moore, co-founder of Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op.

Saunders was inspired by one of Moore’s early heroes, Jane Addams, Moore says. Addams was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for her community work in Chicago, and is considered the founder of the social work profession in the United States.

One of the reasons Saunders is not well-known is probably because she was a woman, Moore says. Saunders used her middle name, Marshall, on her publications, so readers would think she was a man.

When Saunders died in 1947, Saturday Night magazine named her “Canada’s most revered author.” She wrote more than 20 stories, many of which provided social commentary on the issues that she championed.

Wendy Scott, a member of the board of directors for Just Us! Café, commissioned the painting from artist Jude Kinder, a barista at the coffee shop.

After doing research, Scott discovered that Saunders had lived across the street from the Spring Garden Road café. The house, at 1494 Carleton St., is slated for demolition.

The house that Saunders lived in is located across the street from Just Us! Cafe
caption A house Saunders lived in is across the street from the Just Us! Cafe.
Jeana Mustain

Saunders was awarded an honorary degree from Acadia University in 1911, was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire from the King in 1934, which was at the time was Canada’s highest civilian honour, and was given a medal from the Societe Protectice des Animaux in France, the same year Beautiful Joe was made into a movie, 1946.

The painting of Saunders hangs on the first floor of the Just Us! café.

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