Mona Louise Parsons (1901-1976)

Many who know me are aware of the story of Mona Parsons — the only Canadian female civilian to have been imprisoned by the Nazis for her work in the nascent Dutch underground from May 1940 to September 1941 (married, as she was at the time to a Dutch businessman, and living in Holland). Convicted of treason by a Nazi military tribunal (one of the first, and few women to be tried thus), she was initially condemned to death by firing squad. Her composure and courage so impressed a judge, that she was permitted to appeal her sentence which, in January 1942, was commuted to life at hard labour. She went through many trials and tribulations, humiliations and cruelties, but never lost her nerve or her hope. At age 44, she escaped from the Vechta prison in March 1945 in the company of the indomitable 22-year old Dutch baroness, Wendelien van Boetzelaer.
The book I wrote about Mona Parsons is now, sadly, out of print (even though last December it was approved for the supplemental reading list for the Grade 11 history course in Nova Scotia). The documentary I co-wrote for History Television back in 2000 has also receded into the background. So, I was delighted to learn in the autumn of 2011 that the Women of Wolfville were gathering support to have the new town park in Wolfville — the town where Mona spent her formative years and her final years — named after her. Unfortunately, in Wolfville, there are those who wish Mona to be remembered as an addled alcoholic unworthy of remembrance. Despite passionate support from Wolfville citizens such as Wendy Elliott, Ramona Jennex, Jeremy Novak, Gillian Poulter, Donna Holmes and Emily Levy-Purdy the Town made a decision that is a bland attempt at political correctness, in which it determined that no one was more worthy of such an honour than another. Apparently in the Utopia that is Wolfville, we are every one of us equal. Too bad that sentiment doesn’t get any further than paper. Further, when asked if a simple statue could be erected in her memory in Ye Olde Towne Clocke Parke, the representatives of the Women of Wolfville were told that a policy would need to be drafted about such matters… perhaps February. Well, it’s now halfway through April, and there’s been no movement. In the meantime, however, someone offered a free statue of some Dead White Man to be erected in Ye Olde Towne Waterfronte Parke, and Wolfville Town Council has been honoured to give its approval for such a Worthy Noble to be thus honoured.
Long before last October’s town park naming debate, Robbins Elliott – who knew Mona when he was a boy, and as a young Army officer saw her in the Canadian Field Hospital after her rescue (when she carried a mere 87 lbs on her 5′ 8″ frame and was suffering from septicemia), and was so keen and so instrumental in helping me to bring Mona’s story to light in the 1990s – proposed in 2000 that a street in Wolfville be named after her. The suggestion was ignored, and instead new streets were named after some of the town’s founding “fathers” (more Dead White Men) – including the first chief of police and a real estate developer. Robbins Elliott once told me that, before he left this earth, he wanted to see a book, a documentary and a film about Mona, and a permanent memorial – appropriate to her vivacity and spirit – created for her in Wolfville. Robbins died November 13, 2003, having seen two of his four wishes granted. But his fervent desire for the other two are not forgotten. Back in 2005, there was even discussion at Parks Canada for a permanent memorial for Mona Parsons in one of Canada’s National Parks.
Closer to home, suggestions in 2003 to include her in a proposed display in the Kings County Museum of its leading citizens – among them Gladys Porter, first female mayor in eastern Canada and Nova Scotia’s first female MLA; Alfred Fuller, founder of the Fuller Brush Company; Abraham Gessner, father of the modern petroleum industry; and Walter Ryan, the man who created the permanent lighting of Niagara Falls – met with no enthusiasm. In fact, I was asked to remove Mona Parsons from a talk I gave to community groups about these historical characters. Initial reason given for excluding Mona was that she had done nothing for her community. Annoyed, I asked if the “nothing” she had done could be equated with the “nothing” done by WWII veterans like my father and Robbins Elliott. With the strained patience one shows to a four year old whose only response to every statement is “But why?”, it was explained to me that Mona had left Nova Scotia, married a foreigner, made some sacrifices in a foreign country, returning to her home town only to die. After arguing that every other figure proposed for the permanent display, with the exception of Gladys Porter, had also left their community (all to the United States) and had died elsewhere, another excuse was offered — one I’d not heard before.
I was told she was considered unacceptable by some members of the community — and especially by a couple of key members of the Wolfville Historical Society at the time — because of an alleged drinking problem. Apparently colourful historic anecdotes describing men’s alcohol-induced antics – including Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald being so drunk for an appearance during an election campaign that, while standing on the back of a train, he vomited and proclaimed words to the effect “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I think of my opponent” – are considered amusing occurrences and elevated to the status of legend, but in a woman are to be judged as unladylike, and sufficient grounds to deny her recognition in history for whatever heroic actions she may have undertaken. But no such anecdotes exist about Mona. There are only her painful writings of her inability to remember things, or of becoming confused and befuddled, unsteadiness on her feet – all of which can be attributed to the transient ischemic attacks or “mini strokes” she suffered. And besides, after experiencing what she did in Nazi prisons and camps, who could blame her if she had developed a drinking problem? Hundreds of people came through World War Two with scars that could not be seen and which they dulled with alcohol or drugs – conditions we now recognise as Post Traumatic Stress. Would the Self-Appointed Protectors of Wolfville’s Moral Fabric like to review histories of the names of those who appear on the town’s WWI and WWII memorials to determine which of them should be struck from the stone for perceived activities or beliefs deemed inconsistent with those of an upstanding Wolfvillean? What on earth could be done, for example, if one of them was found to be — gasp! — GAY?!
Perhaps someday, when both the self righteous who would condemn her, and Mona’s idealistic promoters who would have us believe she never fell off a virginal pedestal have all gone the way of all flesh, Mona will find some perspective as a human being who had flaws as we all do — even the self righteous and self-declared upright members of the Wolfville community — and who took exceptional risks that few of us are ever called upon to do, to support the freedom she believed in, without ever having carried a gun or having worn a uniform. And it is for those actions alone that she deserves to be remembered long after the rest of us in the ranks of the unremarkable and ordinary have faded from memory.