SAVE THE HOITO!

Okay, Canadian trivia fans. What’s the only restaurant in this great country where, depending on your palate, you can order mojakka, suolaka, lohiperunalaatikko or kalakeitto, finished off, if there’s room, with a delicious dessert of karjalapiiraka? A free canoe trip to the nearest Hudson Bay Company trading post if you correctly answered: The Hoito, Thunder Bay’s renowned landmark eatery that has been filling bellies with traditional Finnish food for more than 100 years.

But now, as if there were not enough bad news, word has come through that the beloved institution is at risk of keeping its doors, already closed by COVID-19, shut forever. Faced with renovation debt and a refusal by the RBC to defer loan payments in spite of the pandemic, members of the Finlandia Association, which owns both the Hoito and the heritage Finnish Labour Temple that houses it, voted May 20 to liquidate. Ugh.

The end of the historic restaurant would be a terrible loss, not only to my ancestral Swede-Finnish roots, but to Thunder Bay and lovers of heritage everywhere. It’s no overstatement to call the Hoito a national treasure.

And just to be clear. We are not talking about some forlorn vestige of a once-thriving enterprise falling victim to changing times, preserved in nostalgic amber. Before the lockdown, the Hoito was way popular, with weekend lineups and high marks on all those Yelp and Trip Advisor sites from charmed tourists. I was there for Sunday brunch last summer and, the place was packed. Orders for its thin Finnish pancakes, which our family calls Swedish pancakes, kept the friendly servers run off their feet.

(Rod Mickleburgh photo)

Not surprisingly, news that the Hotio may have served its last lätty has prompted a wave of dismay in Thunder Bay. Local Finnish-Canadians have banded together to explore a new, cooperative direction for the beleaguered Finnish Labour Temple, itself proclaimed a national heritage site in 2015. And a GoFundMe drive has been launched aimed specifically at saving the Hoito, which had been the major revenue producer for the Labour Temple. It didn’t take me long to donate.

Besides the Hoito’s long culinary tradition, the restaurant has a fascinating, working-class history. It was launched in 1918 as a workers’ cooperative by supporters of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW was the union of choice for immigrant Finnish loggers cutting trees in the rugged, isolated bush camps of Northern Ontario. In the early years of the 20th century, the camps had some of the worst working conditions and poor pay in Canada. So perhaps it was only natural that they came to be populated in large numbers by tough, independent immigrants from Finland, used to hard work and drawn to the bush by the same conifer forests and cold weather that prevailed in their hardscrabble homeland. Their urban base was Port Arthur, which amalgamated with adjacent Fort William in 1970 to form present day Thunder Bay.

Many were radicals, already politicized by the state of affairs in Tsarist-ruled Finland or driven leftward by the harsh capitalism they found in Canada. They shared a strong cooperative spirit, preferring collective action over individualism and leaders. To fight back against the lumber camp bosses, the loggers shunned centralized unions in favour of the IWW, the legendary Wobblies, even as support for these warriors of the working class waned in the rest of Canada.

By 1910, Port Arthur had an imposing Finnish Labour Temple, which quickly became a hotbed of socialist and cultural activities for the city’s growing Finnish community. A few years later, IWW organizer Armas Topias Hill heard from men in the lumber camps of their pressing need for a place to eat inexpensive, home-cooked meals when, they came to Port Arthur. The Labour Temple’s board of directors agreed, and the Hoito restaurant opened in the building’s lower floor on May Day, 1918.

It was a cooperative from the start, financed by 59 member shareholders, who each kicked in $5 “comrade loans”. The name was chosen from the Finnish word for ‘care’: hoito. Customers ate at long communal tables. With Hill, the IWW organizer as its first manager, and all restaurant staff members belonging to the Wobblies, the workers were in charge. The Hoito advertised itself as “the only restaurant in the city owned and controlled by the (customers and workers) themselves”. When revenue eclipsed costs, prices came down. The restaurant’s communal policies were vital during the dark days of the Depression, as its hastily-established food kitchens helped feed many of the impoverished unemployed that crowded into the city.

The Finnish Labour Temple upstairs, meanwhile, buzzed with political and cultural activities with a socialist slant. Where else could you see such plays as Luokkaviah (Class Hatred), Yleislakko (The General Strike), or Tukkijoella (The Lumberjacks)? The Wobblies maintained office space there for years, including the Canadian bureau of the Industrialisti, the Finnish-language IWW newspaper that did not cease publication until 1975. All this reflected the fact that the large majority of Finnish immigrants to Northern Ontario were “Red Finns”, as opposed to the right-wing “White Finn” faction that emerged triumphant from the vicious civil war that convulsed Finland, after the country’s independence from Russia. One of the women cooks at the Hoito had spent a year in jail in Finland for her Red Finn activities during the civil war.

LIke the IWW labour martyr Joe Hill, the Hoito never died. It survived the economic ravages of the Depression, World War Two, the gradual disappearance of the radical left and anti-capitalist loggers who provided its base for so many years , changing eating habits, and a decline in the city’s once-significant Finnish-Canadian population. And let’s say it one more time: it was revenue from the still-popular, bare-bones Hoito that helped keep the Finlandia Association going, not the other way around. Let’s hope it doesn’t go down with the ship.

Five years ago, the last time the Hoito’s future was threatened by the financial predicament of the Finlandia Association, local filmmaker Kelly Saxberg, a great grand-daughter of Finnish immigration, issued an impassioned plea on its behalf: “It’s time to say, ‘listen, this is an historic landmark, this is a unique restaurant, this is the only living monument to Finnish immigration in North America.’” That hasn’t changed.

My Canada includes the Hoito. There’s no place like it. Please help, if you can. You can donate here: https://ca.gofundme.com/f/save-the-hoito?utm_source=tbnewswatch.com&utm_campaign=tbnewswatch.com&utm_medium=referral

 

 

 

POETRY BLOG #7 MINERS AND HUMMINGBIRDS

This poem was written, who knows when, by my redoubtable Auntie Irene, aka Irene Howard, who continues to keep on ticking at the impressive age of 97. It is a working-class poem, inspired by her father Alfred. Arriving from Sweden in 1905, Nils Alfred Nelson worked hard all his life, helped raise five children, never got rich, and died at the age of 71 from tuberculosis, brought on by the miner’s disease, silicosis. One of his first jobs was working construction on the building of the Grand Trunk Railway as it stretched east from Prince Rupert. You can tell by the poem that he had a Swede’s sardonic sense of humour.

Let me tell you about Auntie Irene, sister of my Uncle Ed, who married my mother’s sister, Greta. She was born in Prince Rupert in 1922, shortly before the family decamped for the remote Duthie Mine on Smither’s Hudson Bay Mountain, where Alfred found work as a hard-rock miner. It was the trade he pursued for the rest of his working life. The family of seven – Alfred, his wife Ingeborg, and their five kids — took up residence in an abandoned, prospector’s cabin in the woods. Irene was 9 months old. They moved from mine-to-mine four more times over the next 10 years, sometimes living in nothing fancier than a big tent. In Kamloops, Ingeborg, worn out and worn down, passed away shortly after the stillbirth of a sixth child. She was 42.

(Their log cabin near Smithers. From left, Arthur, Edwin, Ingeborg, Irene, Alfred, Verner)

This was the life of so many BC miners, whose hard work helped build this province and for which they got little thanks or compensation. Auntie Irene emerged from her hardscrabble childhood to become an academic/historian. A strong feminist, she wrote many articles on progressive movements involving women, along with several books, including the definitive biography of Helena Gutteridge, a suffragist, trade union organizer and the first woman elected to Vancouver City Council. When the city recently named a new plaza after Gutteridge, Auntie Irene was front and centre as a special, invited guest. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/helena-gutteridge-plaza-first-female-vancouver-city-councillor-1.4568793)

(Former Vancouver City Councillor Ellen Woodsworth and Auntie Irene, at the opening of Helena Gutteridge Plaza on a blustery day in March, 2018.)

But her tour de force is Gold Dust On His Shirt, The True Story of an Immigrant Mining Family. Published when she was 86 (!), the book weaves the moving story of her own family with accounts of the struggle and conditions faced by all working people in the province. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet tale.

CANADIAN VETERANS REMEMBER THE LAST DAYS OF THE WAR

To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe (VE Day), here are some Canadian veterans of World War Two recounting their varied, often sobering experiences as the war drew to a close. They are excerpted from interviews I did for my oral history book, Rare Courage, Veterans of the Second World War Remember, published my McClelland & Stewart in 2005. We owe them so much.

Estelle Tritt-Aspler, 1919-2007.

(Tritt-Aspler spent three years overseas as a Lt. Nursing Sister. She relates her emotional experience as a Jew in Holland, gradually discovering the terrible impact of the Holocaust and taking part in a Seder, the first for a handful survivors in four years.)

“When we went up to Holland, I started searching for other Jewish people. There just seemed to be no Jews around. I found some who had been hidden, some who had served in the underground. But the Jewish population was just destroyed. What do you say when you meet someone who was taken for forced labour and managed to escape and went back home to find his wife and child had been deported? What do you say to a woman who says her daughter was deported? There were things like that. We didn’t know the full extent. We knew people had been deported, but we didn’t quite know what had happened to them. Some survived because people took them in. It was amazing what some people did. A lot of them paid with their lives. One woman showed me a picture of a child holding someone’s hand. You couldn’t see whose hand she was holding. You couldn’t tell what street they were on. You couldn’t tell anything. But this was the only proof she had that her child was okay.

“I was posted to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which was known for its chocolate. Another Jewish nursing sister and I attended a Seder together. We had met some people there and they invited us. There were about 10 or 12 of us, and for some of them, it was their first Seder in a long time. They were traumatized and in rough shape. There were a lot of tears and emotion. It was a very unusual evening. The family that gave the Seder had two teenaged children who refused to speak German. There was another lad there, and he was wondering what happened to his parents. Should he stay and look for them, or join the Dutch Army? There was also a rabbi from Germany who looked as if he’d had TB. He was underground during the war, in the Resistance. It was the only Seder I attended until I returned to Canada. I always had my Jewish faith. I didn’t always observe it, but I tried to observe it more after this. Wherever I went, I tried to find Jewish people.

“The day the war ended, there wasn’t a big celebration. There was only one feeling. Relief. We just sat around and said, ‘Thank God.’”

 

Michael Fedoruk , 1921-

(The only survivor of his downed bomber, Fedoruk managed to elude capture for 13 months, seven of them while being looked after by a rural Dutch family near Nijverdal.)

“In a few days, I was transported back to England. The family never talked about why they were risking their lives for us. I think they were just being friendly to people who were trying to free them. They got money and ration coupons from the underground. In return, they kept us hidden. I always said to myself, I could never repay those people for the good they did me. I wish I’d had the bucks to do it. But you just can’t repay kindness like that. I figured maybe the army and the air force would repay them a little bit. Because they suffered an awful lot. Food in Nijverdal was very, very scarce. They had a terrible time. I was just skin and bones. When I got back to England, I went to a warehouse where the parcels sent to me were stored. I had smokes. I had jam, jellies, fruits, canned goods, everything. My kid brother was in Holland and he came to England to visit me. We spent VE day together. For his return, I gave him kit bags full of grub. ‘Take them back to my family at Nijverdal.’ And he did just that, and they were happy.”

 

Grant McRae, 1922 –

(Shot down over Germany, McRae survived a year in the notorious POW camp, Stalag Luff III, and the deadly winter march, when weakened prisoners were forced out into the bitter cold to barely livable, new quarters to avoid the advancing Red Army.)

“The war was over in May, but we stayed in the camp because the Russians wouldn’t let us leave. Some American truck drivers came one day with orders from Eisenhower to liberate all British and American personnel. So we got back in the back of the trucks, but the Russians, who were supposed to be our Allies, fired over our heads. We had to get off. Some of the guys were practically crying because they’d been there three or our years and this was their first chance to get out. The Russians said the orders had to come from Moscow. They said they didn’t know anything about Eisenhower. The trucks went back empty. We had no way out. We wondered if the Russians were going to send us to the salt mines. At last, some Russian troops took us back to the Elbe. That’s where the dividing line was. We got out of the trucks and walked across a Bailey Bridge built by the American engineers. We were liberated.”

 

Peter Cottingham, 1921-2014.

(Cottingham served with the legendary Devils Brigade, a joint Special Services, Canadian-American commando force. He was bitter about how they were deployed, feeling they were used more as expendable, shock troops, than in any strategic way.)

“The Special Services unit was disbanded in December 1944. They felt the war had advanced beyond the point where they needed us. They could now spearhead with tanks and stuff like that. Some people like to say there wasn’t a dry eye when we held our last parade, but I wasn’t crying. I’m sure we spent about 200 days in contact with the enemy. It was awful. But in retrospect, you couldn’t pay to do what I did. It was just so fantastic to know the guys I knew. It was a lifetime experience that very people should have. Once you have it, you can’t take it away. I’m glad I experienced it.

“After VE Day, I was in an officers school in Burma, learning how to fight in the jungles of Burma. The army owned me. I was just a bloody volunteer, you know, but once you sign up, they own you. When they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, I thought, I’m going to live.”

 

Rex Fendick, 1924-2010.

(A Canadian volunteer with the British Army, Fendick served as a crack machine-gunner.)

“As we moved through Germany, we began to see all kinds of refugees on the road. There were a lot of concentration camp uniforms mixed in with them. The first camp to be liberated was in our sector. Belsen. I always remember when our CO came back and told us about it. He’d seen Belsen. Been in it. He was just livid. He was almost speechless. It was unbelievable. They wouldn’t let the troops go into those places, so I didn’t see it myself. But we did see a lot of concentration camp survivors wandering the roads in their black-and-white-striped uniforms with the little pillbox hat. It’s the saddest memory I have of the way the Germans treated people.”

 

Stanley Grizzle, 1918-2016.

(Grizzle served overseas with the Medical Corps, for a country that was capable of denying him a room in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel on his wedding night, because he was black.)

“The week after we got to Germany, the war ended. We had instructions before we got there. No talking to any German women or men. No conversation. The day the war ended, the quartermaster gave us each a bottle of Scotch. I didn’t drink, so I brought it home and gave it to my dad. I got back to Canada in 1946. I saw my daughter for the first time.

“When I look back at the war, I thank God for the experience. It matured me. Because of my army life experiences, I became a strong advocate of non-violent direct action in the settling of human differences. I was a chairman of the Toronto chapter of the Martin Luther King Fund, the only chapter in Canada raising funds for Dr. King’s American struggle. In 1983, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed me a judge of the Court of Canadian Citizenship – the first Afro-Canadian to serve in that position.”

 

William Newell, 1922-2011.

(A member of the Canadian Navy, Newell was in Halifax when the war ended. What followed wasn’t what anyone expected.)

“I went through the Halifax Riots at the end of the war. Halifax was anticipating a big celebration, because there were something like 40,000 sailors there. So everyone was afraid of a big rough party, I guess. About a week before, they began boarding up the restaurants and the liquor and beer stores. They boarded everything up. Barrington Street was vacant. This was the wrong thing to do. When the ships came in, the sailors were given leave and they just ganged up. First they broke into a beer store, then they took five liquor stores. Three fellows were killed in the riots. They found one of them outside my bedroom window, out in Dalhousie. They finally imposed martial law. It was quite an experience.”

 

(Gould, centre, greeted by his family on his return home.)

T. Garry Gould, 1922-2015.

(Gould drove tanks with the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. He was badly wounded by a direct mortar hit during an advance on the Siegfried Line.)

“They evacuated me by air for England. There was a fair amount of metal in me: in the backside, the back, the legs. One arm broken. One hand in pieces. I had been knocked unconscious and had back strain. I was in hospital there for five months. One time I woke up screaming because I saw this horde of German uniforms coming at me, and there was no way I could stop them. The fear and trauma finally caught up with me. I came home on a hospital ship in July, 1945. The war was something I wanted to do. I hope I did it well. I had my Bible all the way through and the regimental badge. That’s something you don’t dishonour.”

 

Yvonne Jukes, 1921-2011.

(Jukes served fearlessly in the Women’s Division of the RCAF, narrowly escaping bombing raids and a hail of bullets from a German plane late in the war.)

“The war ended when I was on leave in London, but I couldn’t celebrate. We had to rush back by train to our headquarters to help in the repatriation of prisoners of war. We didn’t waste any time. Our squadron flew out to Germany the day after VE Day to pick up the Canadian prisoners. It was a great feeling of relief that we were not going to lose any more of our young friends. We had high hopes that those still listed as missing might turn up. Some did, but we did get bad news about the others. After that, I spent five months in Torquay, repatriating aircrews. Finally, there were just a few of us left and it was my turn.

“I was relieved but I also apprehensive about going home. We lost so many friends. Three went down on the British battleship Hood. Our navy friend Johnny Stubbs’ destroyer went down off the coast of France. He came up on shore and was murdered by the Germans. Two of my air-force friends from Victoria went missing and have no known graves. Another was shot down and evaded the Germans for six months in a Belgian town where he organized an underground movement. He was betrayed and ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he later died.

“I had to start over, build a new life. But I could not have stayed home. Although many times were stressful and painful, I was proud to have served. Before the war, women could be housewives, nurses, and teachers, but little else. The war changed all that. It altered the whole structure of the workforce for women. After having been part of the war, women grew more independent and asserted their rights.

“I celebrate all veterans who have a right to be proud of the part they played in defeating the greatest evil the world has ever known.”

Lest We Forget.

 

 

LIBERATING THE NETHERLANDS, THROUGH THE EYES OF A HEROIC CANADIAN SOLDIER.

(Members of Vancouver’s Seaforth Highlanders celebrate the Liberation of the Netherlands.)

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands on May 5, 1945. The victory came only after nine months of hard, deadly slogging by our soldiers across the country’s treacherous flat landscape, against crack German troops. More than 7,600 Canadians lost their lives. The Dutch have never forgotten their sacrifice. Whenever our vets have returned to the Netherlands, they are showered with cheers and tears of gratitude. Every school child is taught about the brave young Canadians, who fought to free their country from the Nazis. Their graves are kept in meticulous order, and every year, they are remembered as part of the Netherland’s official Remembrance Day holiday on May 4.

With surviving veterans now well into their 90’s, this year was to have been their last official return. A host of commemorative ceremonies had been planned. But of course, COVID-19 cancelled everything. Those few who had been planning to make the trip are unlikely to have another chance.

As a reminder of the terrible fighting Canadian troops had to endure, I offer the personal reminiscence of Charles Forbes, who recounts in harrowing detail one particularly fierce battle in the fall of 1944. Forbes was among 20 veterans I interviewed for my oral history book, Rare Courage, Veterans of the Second World War Remember, published by McCelland & Stewart in 2005. He was with Montreal’s Maisonneuve Regiment, which took part in the bloody battle for Walcheren Island against dug-in, heavily armed German forces. It is a gripping account. Forbes tells it like it was, including the stress and mental breakdowns, with no attempt to gussy it up. War, he reminds us, is not for the faint of heart. What follows is taken from Rare Courage.

Forbes starts with an extraordinary tribute to “the guts of the Canadian soldier.”

“I was a platoon commander, and you are the one in closest contact with the enemy because you have to lead your men. You don’t tell them to ‘go there.’ You say, ‘Follow me.’ That’s the way we fought in the Canadian Army. We had no professionalism, but we were adventurers. We were go-getters. We were voyageurs. We were full of courage. I lift my hat to the guts of the Canadian soldier. A German officer said once, ‘I know why the Canadians fight so well. It is because their officers fight with them.’ By the end of October, we were tired. Really beat. We had been in battle in France, northern France, Belgium, and Holland. No rest since July.

“Walcheren Island was the final battle for the liberation of Antwerp….The harbour entrance was controlled by eight-inch, ten-inch, twelve-inch German guns buried in concrete casements on Walcheren Island. On Oct. 31, the weather was very bad. It was freezing. It was raining….The Black Watch was ordered to walk across the causeway and capture the dikes on the other banks of the island. The causeway was a thousand yards long, a sixty-foot wide target with water on each side. The Black Watch had a hell of a time. They went in with no preparation. The brigade major, George Hees, who became minister of Veterans Affairs, was a glorious man, but the operation was in daylight and utterly ridiculous. Once they were 500 yards across the causeway, the Germans put a terrific bombardment on and they had to be pulled back.

“Then the brigadier committed what I call a major mistake in tactics. Reinforced failure. If a one-inch cork doesn’t fit in a bottle, don’t try again with a one-inch cork. But he tried to cross the causeway again, this time with the Calgary Highlanders, a fantastic battalion. They made it across to the dikes, but the Germans threw in another murderous counterattack and the Calgarys suffered heavy casualties….

“That night, my Maisonneuve Regiment had been ordered on leave to the city of Liere. This would be our first rest since Normandy, so we were all anxious to go. We were shaving, cleaning up. We knew the Calgarys would make it. But soon I could hear the guns and I knew something was wrong. When the CO wanted to see me, my hat turned green. He told me, ‘Charley, we’re attacking over the causeway, through the Calgarys position, to capture the right- and left-hand dikes. You’re going to be leading the attack with your platoon. You go at four o’clock tomorrow morning.’

“At four o’clock, we were standing by, and the artillery bombardment began. A huge bombardment. And away we went. I had my machine-gun guys on each side. The Arsenault brothers from New Brunswick. I told them, ‘If you see anything, just fire and keep firing until we reach the other side.’ I saw some troops moving towards us. We couldn’t identify them clearly, so the Arsenault brothers started to fire. Suddenly, in the flash of an explosion, I saw the steel helmets of the Calgarys. We were shooting our own troops down! I had to jump on their backs to stop them. It was a very, very bad start. It more or less broke our spirit and our momentum. We had to regroup. But we did make it to the island.

(Detail from an oil painting by Charles Forbes, portraying the battle of Walcheren in Holland, Nov. 2, 1944)

“When we got there, an anti-tank gun was firing. So the boys jumped on the two gunners. They surrendered. Guy Demarie was following me with the No. 17 Platoon. I told him, ‘Lets go.’ But we couldn’t see. The artillery had stopped firing. There was no longer any light. We were on the island and all we could see was water. I figured we still had to get to the two dikes. So we kept on running. His platoon on the left side, mine on the right. There was no opposition. We didn’t see a single German soldier. We ran and ran until we came to an overpass. We suddenly realized in the excitement, we had bypassed our objectives and gone 500 yards inside the island. Jesus. We decided to hold it there, and wait for the British to come.

“Six o’clock passed. Seven o’clock. We didn’t see any Brits. We waited and waited, hanging on, ladderlike, to the bank of the dike. Then I saw movement in the fog and the rain. A column of troops was coming towards us along the bank. I yelled to m boys, ‘Be careful now. I think it’s the Brits. Don’t fire. Let’s go and meet them.’ I’m about to pull myself out of the water, and I recognized the German helmet. Lord and God! So I got back into my hole, holding my pistol in one hand, and I waited for the Germans to come. I yelled, ‘When I open fire, fire!’ We fired on them at close range. I hit the first one in the shoulder with my pistol. He fell in the water. Then we emptied a couple of mags of Bren guns and rifle fire. There was a moment of quiet, and 50 to 60 Germans troops were then withdrawing along the bank. But we were right in the middle of a bees’ nest. What could we do? We were all lying in water, as close to the banks as we could, to protect ourselves. We tried to pull the man I had shot out of the water, as the tide was going up. But I pulled on the arm that had been dislocated, where he was bleeding badly. He yelled, so I had to leave him there. I was exposed. The Germans started to creep toward our position. Sniping at us. By then, it was four o’clock in the afternoon. At last we were given orders to withdraw and we made it back to the start of the causeway.

“I asked for a smokescreen and started to run back across the causeway toward the mainland. We had a thousand yards to go. As we were running, one of the German heavy guns was firing at the causeway. A shell hit one of my soldiers, Talbot. Shrapnel in the spine, I said. ‘Don’t move. I’ll drag you into a hole.’ We took cover and I looked at his wound. There seemed to be a bit of steel caught between two vertebrae. I decided to pull it out right there, and he felt better.

“I stayed with Talbot until 11 o’clock at night. When we finally made it back to our lines, they put Talbot in an ambulance and I looked around for the soldiers of our battalion. There wasn’t a goddamned soul to be seen. The ambulance driver told me, ‘Your battalion has gone to Belgium for a rest. Enjoy yourself, buster.’ I got so sour and sad inside. I started to shake. I was wet. I was frozen. I was hungry. And particularly, I was hurt inside. I thought at least someone could have been left behind when they went on leave. There were some Dutch resistance there, and I said, ‘I’m completely finished. I’m out. I’m going nuts. I could hear the sound of machine guns flying through my head. They took me to a Dutch house and the girls made some hot-water bottles and they laid me on a bed and I stayed there for a couple of days. They looked after me as if I was a 20-carat diamond. I regained some of my energy. In the meantime, my mother received a telegram that I’d been reported missing. Eventually, she got another wire saying they had found me. Or that I had found myself.

“I finally hooked up with my battalion in Liere, but five days later, on the way back to cross the Maas River, a German artillery shell killed my driver and wounded my right eye quite deeply. The medics picked me up and put me in a barber’s chair. They put a piece of wood in my teeth and a corporal sewed my eye up cold. No injections whatsoever. He did a rough job. He told me it would have to be redone. ‘but I’m going to do it so you don’t get infected.’ They fixed it up with plastic surgery back in England.

“In 1945, the corps commander approved that I be the recipient of the highest Dutch decoration, which is their equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Then the war ended, and that was that.

“I have asked myself many times how I did it. Six months under terrible stress, enduring war with all its ugliness. I have killed three times. It is terrible to kill to save your skin. It’s shoot or get shot. Like what happened on Walcheren Island with the man I shot in the shoulder. And when Fortie, one of my men, was killed and left behind. All these things. You get to be a zombie. One day after the other. One step at a time. The left foot goes down. The right foot replaces it. That’s the way an operation goes. You do your best, but you wear down. One of my corporals broke down in Brussels. He had come all the way with me from Caen. He was dressed like a funeral director: top hat and a black coattail. He was arrested by a British MP. My case was the same after I was hit in the eye. I was shaking all over. I had lost my place. You have no idea what it’s like, when you’re lying on the frozen ground, scratches on your hand that are full of puss, and you are trying to grab a bit of sleep, and you start to urinate. You’re like a spring on a clock that goes and goes, and as long as there’s some energy left, it keeps marking the time.”

Lt. Col. Jean Charles Forbes (1921-2010). Lest We Forget.

(Lt. Col. Forbes stayed with the Canadian Armed Forces for his entire career, also fighting with the Royal 22nd Regiment, 2nd Battalion in the Korean War.)

The saga of Fitz St. John — “A longshoreman’s longshoreman”

Esi Edugyan may have won a Giller Prize for her novel about the astounding exploits of Barbados-born Washington Black, but the story of William Fitzclarence “Fitz” St. John was the real thing. His long, remarkable life, which, like the fictitious Washington Black, also began in Barbados, stretched from the age of sail to man walking on the moon, before coming to an end at the ripe old age of 95 in 1970 in North Vancouver. Its breadth and diversity would have delighted any chronicler worthy of the name.

(William Fitzclarence St. John in front of his North Vancouver home in 1911. North Vancouver Museum & Archives, #7613)

He was a stowaway, a seaman, a sealer, a writer of poetry for church ladies, a boxing promoter/manager and a hardworking longshoreman for a near record 51 years. He was a union man through and through, a Wobbly, in the forefront of a pioneering group of mostly indigenous lumber handlers who formed one of the first longshore unions on the Vancouver waterfront and later, a stalwart on the picket line through several bitter, bloody strikes during the dock workers’ 40-year fight for union recognition. In 1953, after years of struggle, he was among 46 retired, union stevedores to receive the very first pension cheque handed out by the shipping companies — $60 a month.

Befitting his panoramic tale, St. John’s background is enticingly murky. He was born in British-ruled Barbados in the mid-1870’s into a family variously described as “a wealthy family of black plantation owners” or “a prominent Barbadian family”. Yet his 1911 Canadian census lists his racial origin as “Irish”, which could mean his father was descended from the Irish labourers who signed on as indentured labourers to work on the island’s plantations before the influx of slavery. Married twice – 1905 and 1911 (this one, to Ellen Lockley of Staffordshire, England, lasted), his parents are listed on the two marriage certificates as “William and Rebecca St. John”, and then “William St. John – Naschez Prescod”.

At 14, as recounted by “Fitz” to other old-timers on the docks, he was already a “brilliant writer and scholar”, but still worked as a chandler when not in school, supplying provisions to ships in the harbour. On a whim, he stowed away on al barquentine to take up the wayfaring life of a sailor. One is left to ponder why the aspiring black youth would abandon his apparently privileged background for the seven seas. Perhaps tiring of the hard life, he jumped ship and wound up in Victoria in 1897. After a spell on the docks and an ill-fated attempt at sealing, he drifted up to Chemainus, where he hauled lumber by horse and wagon and supervised its loading onto waiting ships. He was also a hit at the local Baptist Church. Veteran stevedore Sam Engler recalled St. John telling him that he “became very popular in the community, writing poetry and cards for the ladies of the Calvary Baptist Church.”

Churchgoing, however, didn’t deter his involvement in the bruising fight game. He promoted and sometimes managed a Puerto Rican friend of his, Frank Fernandez, who was well known on Vancouver Island for his prowess in the ring.

At some point, the likeable longshoreman settled in North Vancouver and began his long tenure on the busy, Vancouver docks across the water. Initially, he worked at loading and unloading lumber. In the days before mechanization, this was one of the toughest jobs on the waterfront, requiring both strength and skill. Most workers on the lumber gangs were indigenous, belonging to the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, who seemed to relish the job. They were widely hailed as “the best men who ever worked the lumber”. St. John often joked about his race. With a hint of mischief, he would say: “I’m the only white man among a bunch of Indians”. But there was a handful of Chileans and Hawaiians, too.

(A group of indigenous longshoremen gather for this historic waterfront photo. City of Vancouver archives.)

In 1906, the mostly-indigenous lumber handlers made history. Seeking better compensation and rights for their hard work, they formed a union. It was one of the first on the waterfront and certainly the first ever for indigenous workers. Not only that, they affiliated with the militant Industrial Workers of the World, the most radical labour organization North America had ever seen, dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. It’s not known precisely why they joined the Wobblies, but a major factor might well have been the IWW’s credo that class, not race, is the enemy. Most unions at the time spurned ethnic Asians and were not known to be overly friendly to indigenous workers. The Wobblies welcomed all races.

IWW Local 526 held their meetings on the Squamish reserve. “Fitz” was in the forefront. He served as secretary and designed the local’s insignia, a crossed peavey and crowbar. The local was soon known by everyone on the waterfront as “the bows and arrows”. Rather than pejorative, it was meant affectionately, embraced by indigenous dockyard workers, themselves. Although Local 526 disappeared after a year or two, following a difficult strike, indigenous lumber handlers continued to form unions over the years, the last existing until 1933. All were called “the bows and arrows”.

“Fitz” St. John had showed his strong union commitment even earlier. While a supervisor, he was fired by the shipping company for speaking out against the10-hour day.

In 1903, after the city’s most prominent labour leader and a longshoreman at the time, Frank Rogers, was fatally gunned down during a strike on the waterfront, St. John was part of the longshore contingent who walked in front of Rogers’ horse drawn casket on its way to Mountain View Cemetery. The procession of workers that stretched out behind was said to be the largest in the city’s history, as they braved a tumultuous rainstorm. According to an account by well-known worker-poet Peter Trower, St. John kept the damp bowler hat he wore that day “to his dying day”. It remains in the family as a treasured keepsake.

Ensuing strikes by waterfront workers to win union recognition were some of the fiercest in Vancouver labour history, particularly in 1923 and an all-out confrontation in 1935, when police unleashed tear gas for the first time and charged into the ranks of unarmed strikers on horseback, swinging their batons, during the notorious Battle of Ballantyne Pier. St. John took part in both. But the persistent use of strikebreakers, protected by the forces of law and order, made strikes impossible to win, no matter how valiantly union members fought. It was not until legislation was passed in World War Two, forcing employers to bargain, that Vancouver longshoremen finally won the right to union recognition.

(Striking longshoremen march towards Ballantyne Pier on June 18, 1935 to confront strikebreakers who had taken their jobs. They were met by police tear gas and clubs, injuring scores of strikers.)

On the job, St. John mostly drove winch, a welcome change from the strenuous work of manually loading and unloading ships, before sail died away and mechanization made increasing inroads. One of his workmates, Paddy McDonagh, told a funny story about a time the two were working together, McDonagh on winch and St. John down in the hold directing him by hand signals. In those days, lanterns provided the only lights. As it got dark, McDonagh found his black partner less and less visible. “I can’t see you, John,” he yelled. The next day, as the same time approached, McDonagh looked down and saw something white. “I couldn’t make out what the devil it was. St. John hollered up: ‘Hey, boy, can you see me now?’ He’d gone out and bought a white shirt and white gloves.”

(Vancouver Sun, August 30, 1947)

With no pension and no nest egg to fall back on, St. John, like many of his fellow longshoremen, continued working into his 70s, before retiring. But by then, the union was in place, and St. John was one of the benefactors of the first union-negotiated pension plan to cover the waterfront. After more than half a century of hard work, he received a company-paid stipend of $60 a month. Until his health began to fail, St. John was an active member of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Pensioners’ Association.

He passed away Aug. 31, 1970 in his tidy bungalow in North Vancouver. He left a son, Clarence St. John, who was a well-known barber on Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver.

Calling him “a longshoreman’s longshoreman,” his long-time friend Sam Engler observed: “Fitz was dedicated to helping his fellow man. He always stood firm on his principles, which included unionization and doing unto others as you would have them to do you.”

— Thanks to Donna Sacuta and Bailey Garden of the BC Labour Heritage Centre for their diligent help with research.

(St. John on an ILWU pensioners’ outing sometime in the 1960’s)

 

 

THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE: ITS LEGACY IS WITH US STILL

On June 25, 100 years ago, the remarkable Winnipeg General Strike came to an end. For 41 days, more than 30,000 workers had stayed off the job, unwavering in their support for free collective bargaining and better wages to combat sky high inflation. They had stood defiant against unrelenting pressure from all three levels of government, the media and an hysterical so-called citizens’ committee convinced they were combatting a Bolshevik-style revolution.

But after the arrest of their leaders, the banning of their strike newspaper, the authorities’ violent crackdown on “bloody Saturday” that left two strikers dead and the military and armed citizen vigilantes in control of the streets, there was no way forward.

Remaining members of the strike committee issued a call for a return to work, its demands unmet. Like all previous instructions, it was obeyed to the letter, and on Thursday, June 26, the workers of Winnipeg, except those who had not been fired (police, firefighters and postal employees), went back to their regular jobs.

The aftermath of the momentous struggle, however, was anything but immaterial. Indeed, a century later, its legacy continues.

One thing right off the bat. A Royal Commission into the causes of the strike concluded that it was motivated by onerous post-war conditions, including the high cost of living, inadequate wages and profiteering, with workers having no right to improve their lot through collective bargaining. The Commission, headed by Judge H.A. Robson, was clear: there was no evidence of the consistent claim by authorities and anti-strike businessmen throughout the strike that it was led by foreigners and/or Bolsheviks out to install a Soviet-type government. Fancy that…

Nonetheless, six strike leaders were convicted of “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the government. Five were sentenced to a year in jail. One of them was Vancouver’s William Pritchard (incidentally, the grandfather of former BC NDP cabinet minster Bob Williams), who was nabbed by police in Calgary on his way home after spending just two weeks in Winnipeg. Fervent One Big Union proponent and prominent strike leader Bob Russell was tried separately and decked with a two year sentence.

(Strike leaders posing outside the city jail, after their arrest.
l-r back row: R. E. Bray, George Armstrong, John Queen, Bob Russell, R. J. Johns, William Pritchard. l-r front row: W. A. Ivens, Abraham Heaps.)

While many analysts consider the Winnipeg General Strike a failure since none of its goals were achieved, few unions in the West thought so at the time. In Winnipeg, workers returned to their jobs with heads high, knowing they had not been done in by any lack of resolve or solidarity, but by the forces of repression arrayed against them. And the quasi-revolutionary One Big Union was now in full swing. Far from disheartened, industrial workers throughout the West flocked to join the OBU. By the end of the year, the organization had anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 members. Surely, the next general strike was just around the corner.

It was not to be. Little more than a year later, the OBU had flamed out, decimated by internal divisions and harsh attacks by employers and governments petrified by its overt advocacy of socialism. The Winnipeg General Strike and the OBU’s brief run turned out to be the last gasp of truly radical trade unionism in Canada.

It took another 25 years – nine years after the landmark Wagner Act in the United States — before Canadian governments finally passed laws recognizing collective bargaining and forcing employers to bargain with unions chosen by their workers.

Still, the Winnipeg General Strike remains a watershed event. The strike and the OBU which inspired it paved the way for the great industrial organizing drives of the 1940s. But its more lasting impact took place and remains today in the country’s political landscape.

For all the fiery talk about socialism, revolution and changing the system through industrial action, the Winnipeg General Strike demonstrated that none of this was possible against a foe that had all the power and was not shy about using it.

The lesson was quickly learned. On the very day strikers went back to work, Frederick Dixon, a pro-union member of the provincial legislature, proclaimed the new message in a quickie strike newspaper cobbled together to replace the banned Western Labour News. “Labour was not prepared for the long and bitter struggle which was forced upon her by the bosses six weeks ago,” Dixon wrote. “Now get ready for the next fight…the next fight will be in the political field….Never say die. Carry on.” Dixon was subsequently charged with seditious libel for his writings during those final days of the strike, then acquitted after a brilliant courtroom defense. But his message of moving the fight to the political arena was taken to heart.

In the Winnipeg civic election that November, pro-labour candidates won half the seats on city council. In the 1920 provincial election, the new Manitoba Independent Labour Party, formed in response to the Winnipeg General Strike, took 11 of the 17 seats it contested. Three of those elected were strike leaders still incarcerated in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. One of them, John Queen, went on to serve seven terms as a progressive mayor of Winnipeg. Solid sections of the city, particularly its legendary North End, retained a working class consciousness arising from the Winnipeg General Strike for years and years.

However, the most lasting political fallout from the strike took place in federal politics. J.S. Woodsworth, who was also arrested for seditious libel – the charge was dropped after Dixon’s acquittal – ran as a labour candidate in Winnipeg Centre in the 1921 federal election. A Methodist minister consumed by social activism on behalf of workers and the poor, Woodsworth cruised to victory by more than 3,700 votes. He held the seat until his death 21 years later.

(J.S. Woodsworth)

In 1925, Woodsworth was joined in the House of Commons by another high-profile participant in the Winnipeg General Strike, Abraham Heaps, elected in Winnipeg North. Together, the two pro-labour socialists took advantage of a minority government to ensure enactment of Canada’s first Old Age Pension Act.

Even more importantly, in 1932, during the teeth of the Depression, Woodsworth co-founded Canada’s first broad-based socialist party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, serving as its leader for the next 10 years.

Many participants in the Winnipeg General Strike and former leaders of the OBU were also prominent in the early CCF, which has had a significant impact on Canadian politics ever since.

The party, and its successor the NDP, have formed governments in all four western provinces, plus Nova Scotia. As such, it has had a profound influence on social programs in Canada, ushering in socialized medicine in Saskatchewan, public auto insurance in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia, and in BC, the preservation of all provincial farmland under an Agricultural Land Reserve, plus a raft of other progressive measures, including many that leveled the playing field for workers and unions.

Would any of this have happened without the Winnipeg General Strike? Of course, we will never know for certain, but it is certainly arguable that the founding of the CCF was a direct result of the strike and labour’s growing awareness of the need for political involvement. It was hardly a coincidence that a number of the strike leaders, particularly Woodsworth, were among the pioneers of the CCF. And for that, even if only for medicare, I think all Canadians should be grateful.

A final postscript. Bob Russell was the most ardent of all the OBU firebrands. For that, he was punished with double the time behind bars that other strike leaders received. In 1967, Manitoba named the R.B. Russell Vocational High School after him. History is a funny business.

WILLIAM PRITCHARD AND PAYING A PRICE FOR THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE

(Defendants accused of seditious conspiracy for their roles in the Winnipeg General Strike pose outside the jailhouse after their arrests. William Pritchard is in the dark clothes, on the far right.)

On a wintry March morning in 1920, William Pritchard stood in a packed Winnipeg courtroom, far from his home in spring-like Vancouver, to defend himself against six charges of seditious conspiracy. “I owe a duty to my wife and children in this matter,” he began. “I also owe a duty to my fellow workers, and I do not propose to shirk those duties in any particular.”

And indeed, he did not. For two full days and into the evenings, the socialist union leader gave a riveting discourse on why workers are driven to resist those who oppress them, why the charges against him represented a fundamental breach of the right to freedom of speech, and why the working class yearns for a better world, where production is for use, not for profit.

At the end, close to collapse from the strain of his long oration, he told the spellbound courtroom: “Standing on the threshold of the parting of the ways, one path leading to concrete and iron-bound walls of the penitentiary, and the other to freedom, I say I have done nothing for which I feel I need apologize. What I have done, I have done in good faith with sincerity and the purest of motives.” As the 32-year old Pritchard concluded his remarks, the courts normally restive onlookers were moved to silence.

The next day the Winnipeg Evening Tribune praised the West Coast labour leader on its front page. “Speaking with gripping intensity, Pritchard seemed to hold the entire court through the sheer force of his personality and the power of his logic,” the paper’s reporter wrote. “His closing words showed him a man apparently earnest in his convictions, unafraid to stake his future on the sincerity of the motives behind the actions which had brought him before the bar of Justice, charged with seditious conspiracy.”

Well might Pritchard defend his alleged criminal actions, since they had nothing to do with those of his six fellow defendants, all local trade unionists charged for their roles in actually leading the previous year’s six-week Winnipeg General Strike. The mass walkout by more than 30,000 workers had terrified government and business leaders, who believed a Bolshevik-like uprising was at hand. But Pritchard had spent only a week or two in Winnipeg near the end to make some speeches and offer support. He had had nothing to do with the strike.

He was nevertheless nabbed in Calgary on his way back to Vancouver, charged with the same seditious conspiracy as those directly involved. His arrest showcased authorities’ determination to pin blame for the working class revolt on the industrial unionism of the radical One Big Union, of which Pritchard and most Winnipeg strike leaders were major proponents. No matter that the OBU was only in the planning stage when the strike began. Winnipeg workers could not have had legitimate wage demands or been so willing to fight for union recognition on their own, reasoned the powers-that-be. They must have been provoked by revolutionaries intent on overthrowing capitalism, and this incipient revolution had to be nipped in the bud.

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As a result, leaders of the general strike and any other prominent advocates authorities felt were spreading the socialist gospel of the OBU were rounded up, including Pritchard and the future founder of the CCF, J.S. Woodsworth. Like Pritchard, he had only stopped off in the city to lend support to the strike, through speeches and, at the very end, co-editing a stopgap strike newspaper after the Western Labour News was banned. “One cannot escape the conviction that the real prisoner in the dock was the OBU,” said Woodsworth. However, charges of seditious libel against the ordained minister, who had also worked on the Vancouver docks for a time, were dropped after, among other things, prosecutors realized that some of his “seditious” material came from the biblical prophet Isaiah.

But the Crown went after Pritchard with a vengeance. Son of a British miner, he had come to Vancouver in 1911. An early member of the Socialist Party, he edited the party’s Western Clarion, from 1914 to 1917, then found work in a sawmill and on the waterfront. He was in Cumberland the day after labour martyr Ginger Goodwin was shot dead. At the funeral parlour, after examining the angle of the bullet holes in Goodwin’s body, he pronounced his certainty that Goodwin had been murdered by the special constable who fired the fatal shots. Years later, Pritchard reiterated his conclusion: “He was taken unaware by a minion of the government, given no chance to surrender, as he evidently was unaware of what was taking place, shot from an elevated position at close range.” Pritchard paid the final tribute to his fellow Socialist over Goodwin’s grave in the Cumberland cemetery.

A true class warrior, Pritchard played a leading role in the Socialist Party, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, the B.C. Federation of Labour and the OBU. He had a purity of belief that, later, caused him to spurn both the Communist Party and the CCF. Eventually, he settled in Burnaby, where he was elected Reeve during the 1930’s. As a fascinating aside, he was the grandfather of former NDP cabinet minister and left-wing guru to some, Bob Williams.

images

Yet in 1920, Bill Pritchard was in that Winnipeg courtroom, asserting his innocence and laying his socialist beliefs on the line. “Did you ever consider, gentlemen of the jury, that you cannot kill ideas with a club?” he postulated. “You cannot drive theories into oblivion by machine guns. If an idea be healthy, sunshine will help it grow. If it is not healthy, sunshine will help to kill it.”

He denounced the newly-introduced income tax as yet another burden imposed on the people, designed to “fatten a whole host of parasites on the public wealth”. As for the stream of anti-union vitriol in the newspapers, “some of these scarred, black-faced toilers from the depths of the mines could write better editorials with their picks, than the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press with his pen,” Pritchard told the court. Towards the end, he proclaimed his Utopian vision for the future. In the face of “the sins of their blind or corrupt masters”, said Pritchard, “the proletarians shall remain erect; they will unite to form one universal proletariat and we shall see fulfilled the great Socialist prophecy. The union of the workers will be the peace of the world.”

His ringing words had no effect. A day later, the jury found William Pritchard and four other defendants guilty of seditious conspiracy. All five were sentenced to a year in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. One got six months on a common nuisance charge, while strike leader A.A. Heaps was acquitted. Before they were taken away, the men were given a few minutes in the cleared courtroom to bid an emotional goodbye to their wives and other distraught family members. A reporter for the Winnipeg Evening Tribune called it “the most moving spectacle ever enacted in a Winnipeg courtroom….Women crying. Men doing their best to comfort them.”

As Pritchard’s wife, her eyes wet, sat talking to her husband, he tried to calm her spirits. From one of his pockets he produced a blue streetcar ticket. According to the reporter, he smiled and handed it to his wife, explaining: “You’ll have more use of it than I will, for some time to come.” At this point, wrote the reporter, “Mrs. Pritchard almost broke down. She stood for several minutes crying, as she gazed at the car ticket in her hand.”

On Pritchard’s release from prison, his health weakened by the ordeal, an estimated 10,000 people turned out to greet his returning train to Vancouver, more, it was said, than showed up for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1919.

HEROES. TWO BRAVE CANADIANS TELL THEIR D-DAY STORIES.

In 2004, I was fortunate enough to be asked to do a book consisting of 20 first-hand accounts of their wartime experiences by Canadian veterans of World War Two, in their own words. They are as varied and fascinating and heartfelt as one could possibly imagine. What they went through to take on the might and evils of German fascism and Japanese imperialism….and basically, they were just kids. The book’s title Rare Courage could not be more appropriate. Most have since passed on since I interviewed them, but their compelling stories remain.

On this, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, here are two vivid, eye-witness accounts from my book of the historic landings that day on the fortified beaches of Normandy. Gorden Hendery was in charge of one of the landing craft for Canadian troops. Hugh Neilly had volunteered for the British Army. On D-Day, with the East Yorkshire Regiment, he was one of the first soldiers ashore. History doesn’t get much more gripping than this.

GORDON HENDERY

“I didn’t get any sleep that night. I was excited. As I walked up and down [the deck], officers were in our cabins, writing letters to their loved ones. We had breakfast at four o’clock.

“Finally the boys were up on deck, opposite their landing craft. We issued them all vomit bags. We boarded the craft, loaded them in the water, and, was it ever rough. It was awful. We were about four mile from the beach. All of a sudden, every battleship, destroyer, every ship that had a gun started to bombard the beaches. The smoke and the flames and the roar were overwhelming. And the boys on the craft said this was going to be a picnic, if they were going to bombard the beach like that. But we knew damn well from experience that whenever we got on a beach, there was enemy fire to greet us.

“The boys were loaded on the deep side of the landing craft under the deck, so they wouldn’t get wet. But it was very, very choppy. Fear and seasickness from the rich dinner the night before and everything else all accumulated to make them as sick as could be. They were so happy to have the vomit bags. There were 30 soldiers to a craft. Some had machine guns. They all had rifles and 60-pound packs. They must have been terrified, but you know, they trained for this. They were soldiers.

“On the way in, a wonderful thing happened. A young sergeant got up on the deck beside me and started to sing a song, “Roll Out the Barrel.” Everyone joined in. It was one of the most moving experiences I had during my almost five years in the service. There was fear on everyone’s faces, and he tried to brighten up their spirits. I was in the same fix. I was human, too. And it worked. The fear left our faces.

(PIcture taken by Gordon Hendery, shortly before their craft hit the beach.)

*Then we saw these nasty spikes that came up out of the water. They had mines on the end of them. We knew if we touched one we’d be blown to smithereens. We wanted to get the boys landed on dry sand, but the craft got stuck on an obstacle under the water. Just think how the boys felt: seasick, packs on their backs, being splashed from machine-gun bullets beside the craft. I hesitated to order “down doors,” but it had to be done.

“They jumped into the water. Some were up to the waist. Two of the shorter lads jumped in and didn’t come up. Terrible. They only had 20 feet of water to go through, but it was deep. And there was not a damn thing we could do, because our orders were to get out of the way and back on the ship as quickly as possible.

“The guys got out in one heck of a hurry. They dashed across the beach. Some fell from machine-gun fire. Some were hit before they even made the beach. We could see all this. Imagine training in England for three years and not even being able to get to the beach before being killed. I don’t think people realize what our boys did.

“When we got back to the ship, Scott Young was on board. He was a reporter, I think, from the Globe and Mail. He asked me what happened. I told him everything and he passed this on to Matthew Halton, who was a Canadian radio reporter [CBC]. And when they announced the Normandy landing, they referred to our ship and my name was mentioned. So my family knew I was safe.”

HUGH NEILY

Our troop ship was the Glenearn. We stayed there overnight before the landing, and someone said, “Winnie’s here! Winnie’s here!” I went up on deck and sure enough, there was Churchill standing in a launch, with cigar and bowler hat. He waved his cigar at us, and that was the biggest excitement of that day.

“Leaving the harbour that night is the one thing in my life that I will never forget. As far as you could see in every direction, nothing but boats. Nobody went to sleep. We were all leaning on the rail, watching. But we couldn’t see lights over there. Just a dark, low coastline. We had a huge breakfast at three in the morning. Bacon and eggs, which was a real rarity. We had to put blacking on our faces. Our helmets were covered in netting that we called scrim. We were ready.

“When the ship stopped, we knew we were off the coast of France. Watches were synchronized, checked and re-checked, along with the rifles, the Bren guns, the Sten guns, the ammunition pouches. Day was breaking fast and the waves were very high. We were the first ones to go down. Colonel Hutchinson came on the loud hailer and wished us all luck. “I want you to repeat after me: ‘It all depends on me.’” So we all repeated that. It was very tricky getting into the LCA because the waves were high. But we made it all right and we pulled away. We lined up four abreast. On the far side there was B Company. We were followed in three minutes by C and D Companies. And behind them, other companies were coming in. You had to get in there, get landed, and get through their defences in three minutes so the next wave can come in after you. That’s how tight it was.

“There was a terrible noise all the way in. Navy boats were firing shell after shell. And planes were going over. If there was sky, we couldn’t see it. The German shells started coming, too. When we landed, there were these beach defences ahead of us. I got my men out, and I dashed forward. Then flat on the sand. We were first. There were no other footprints. My men followed me and immediately spread to the right. Within 30 seconds of landing, one of my men went down. I heard someone say, “Oh God, Billy’s been shot.” He was dead before he hit the ground.

(An excerpt from Hugh Neily’s log book listing the platoon members he led onto Sword Beach. He drew lines through the names of those who were wounded and killed during the landing.)

“I looked to the left. Nothing moving there. I looked to the right, and I said to my sergeant, “I’m going to go in. Follow my tracks.” So I ran straight forward to where this machine-gun post was. My runner was right behind me, carrying the wire cutters. We cut the wire in just seconds. We’d practised this. And I crawled up the dunes. I can still feel those little reedy grasses on my face. Because of our model, I knew exactly where the machine gun was. The post was circular, about eight feet in diameter. I crawled up on my belly as close as I could, reached back a got a grenade. I tossed it and it hit the concrete parapet. My first reaction was, For God’s sake, don’t go down there and kill them. My next reaction was, You damn fool. That’s why you’re here.

The grenade exploded right on the parapet, and immediately a white flag came up. But nothing happened. So I fired one round and four fellows came out. They were the sorriest excuse for soldiers I’d ever seen. I thought, My God, is this what we’re fighting? They stood there with their hands behind the back of their heads. Then they sat down and we left them behind.” (Hugh Neily was wounded a few days later, as his Regiment advanced against fierce German opposition.)

Heroes all. We owe them so much.

Workers of Canada Unite! Striking in Support of the Winnipeg General Strike

(This is Part Two of my three part blog on the momentous Winnipeg General Strike that unfolded 100 years ago, striking terror into the hearts of the ruling class. It covers the astounding wave of spontaneous strikes by Canadian workers near and far for the 30,000 striking workers in Winnipeg.)

In addition to everything else that is remarkable about the Winnipeg General Strike, one aspect inexplicably ignored by most chroniclers is the extraordinary support the strike received from other workers across the country. Sympathy strikes of various lengths and success took place in Victoria, Vancouver, New Westminster, Prince Rupert the Kootenays, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Moose Jaw, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Brandon, Fort Willliam, Port Arthur, Toronto, Montreal and of all places, in the small, far-off industrial city of Amherst, Nova Scotia, where Leon Trotsky was temporarily imprisoned on his way back to Russia to lead the revolution.

The biggest of all the sympathy strikes took place right here in Vancouver. More than 10,000 workers walked out on June 3, to protest the firing of Winnipeg’s postal workers. Confined mostly to the private sector, most of the 37 participating unions stayed out for a full month. They did not return to work until a week after the Winnipeg strike ended. While much is written and celebrated about the one-day Ginger Goodwin general strike the previous year, there’s been barely a peep about the city’s worker revolt nine months later.

The striking unions had their own set of demands: reinstatement of the postal workers; immediate settlement of the grievances in Winnipeg; the right to collective bargaining; pensions for WW I veterans and their dependents; $2,000 for all who served overseas; nationalization of cold storage plants, abattoirs and, naturally, elevators; and the six-hour day.

The strike was strongest on the docks, where stevedores, sailors and other marine workers united to force all maritime shipping that came into port to tie up. A seaman named Jimmy O’Donnell has left us with a rare eye-witness account of the strike and his own experience during its last few days.

“It was the time of the Winnipeg Strike and everyone went out in sympathy. The sailors and the mess boys and firemen,” O’Donnell told an interviewer sometime in the 1970’s. “So when we come into Vancouver, the skipper said, ‘Don’t go ashore.’ And I said I gotta go ashore. I gotta go to the union hall and report in. I got my union button on and I went up to the union hall and say that I just come in. What do I do?

“And the guy says to get my stuff off, there’s a strike on. So I walk out and this little Cockney guy comes running up to me and says, ‘Waddya doing with that button on?’ I say that I belong to the sailors’ union. He says, ‘Don’t you know there’s a strike on?’ I said, ‘Yeah.” And he says, ‘Where you going? You gonna cross the picket line?’ And I said ‘Yeah. I’m going to the [ship]. We just been in last night and I’m gonna take my stuff off. I’m gonna go on strike with you.’ Two days later, the strike was over and I lost my job.”

After intense pressure from other unions, streetcar operators, who initially voted against the strike, went out on June 5. This sparked a fierce confrontation with city hall and the business community, who immediately sanctioned fleets of small buses known as jitneys to pick up fare-paying passengers. Labelling them “legalized scabs”, the strike committee warned the city that they would call telephone operators out on strike if the jitneys kept running. The warning was ignored.

 

So, on June 14, after locking the doors and dropping keys through the windows of BC Telephone headquarters on Seymour Street, 300 unionized “hello girls” and some of their supervisors joined the general strike. The phone company recruited strikebreakers, many of them high-society matrons, to keep the phones operating. But there was no wavering in the operators’ resolve, despite the financial pinch. “My landlady didn’t come looking for rent money. She kept me going,” operator Leone Copeland told the BC Federationist. “I was pretty close to brass tacks. Most of us who stayed out couldn’t afford to stay out, but we did.”

IMG_2155(I love this cartoon, deriding the women who took the jobs of the striking telephone operators. Note the cat calling the woman’s high-society cat a “Scab”. )

Not only did they stay out, the telephone operators did so for another 13 days after the official Vancouver strike ended. They held out in a noble but ultimately failed attempt to prevent supervisors who joined them on strike from being disciplined. They were the last sympathy strikers in the country to go back to work. “The action of the telephone girls in responding to the call for a general strike has placed them in a class by themselves amongst all women workers in this province,” lauded the BC Federationist.. They have won the admiration of all those who admire grit and working class solidarity.”

Another unusual feature of Vancouver’s general strike involved the International Typographical Union. Rather than strike, union printers set up a censorship board, warning city papers that if they deliberately misrepresented facts or failed to fairly represent the strikers’ views, they would face job action. Sure enough, the Vancouver Sun was shut down for five days over its anti-union diatribes. The last straw was an editorial referring to the martyred Ginger Goodwin as “a dead poltroon” (an utter coward). “Had the wretched creatures responsible for that outbreak (the one-day Goodwin walkout) been imprisoned, as they deserved,” the editorial continued, “the city would probably have been spared the effort being made today by the revolutionary element to impose its will upon the community.” “The Vancouver Province lost one edition because of an anti-strike ad that ITU members refused to print.

All in all, it was an exceptional display of support by the Vancouver working class for the Winnipeg strike, considering that the initial vote in favour was a far from overwhelming 3,305 to 2,499. Labour historian Elaine Bernard suggest it was even more radical than the Winnipeg General Strike, itself. “While the Winnipeg strikers were supporting workers engaged in a struggle with the local captains of industry, the Vancouver strike was remarkable in that it was motivated by solidarity for workers more than a thousand miles away,” she wrote.

They were far from alone.

In the British Empire outpost of Victoria, a split between radical and moderate union leaders prompted weeks of dithering. After the arrest of Winnipeg strike leaders and the violent “Bloody Saturday” crackdown by police and military, however, there was no holding back. On the morning of June 23, 70 per cent of the city’s 7,000 workforce – longshoremen, machinists, boilermakers, caulkers, factory workers and tradesmen – walked out. Virtually all industrial activity came to a halt — shipyards, the waterfront, marine traffic and machine shops. On June 26, the day Winnipeg workers returned to work, a mass public meeting of strikers at Royal Athletic Park voted overwhelmingly to go back the next day, bringing staid Victoria’s one and only general strike to an end.

IMG_2159Far up the coast in Prince Rupert, the spirit of solidarity with Winnipeg was also strong. But, like Victoria, it was not without division. Votes went back and forth. Job action was initially confined to the Grand Trunk Railway and the docks. Those off the job became increasingly angry at the reluctance of other unions to support an all-out strike. Finally, the Labour Council’s George Casey called a meeting June 8 to hold a final, once-and-for all vote. To make sure of their commitment, he ordained that the vote had to pass by a two-thirds majority.

At the highly-charged mass meeting at the Carpenters Hall, Casey, a fiery, charismatic speaker from the Fish Packers’ Union who subsequently spent 23 years on city council, declared in ringing tones that the workers of Prince Rupert “had a duty to organized labour and workers in general throughout the whole dominion.” When the ballots were counted, the vote in favour was 345 to 170, just making the mandated two-thirds majority. When American leaders of some unions ordered their members to stay on the job, the Labour Council’s Ralph Rose tore a strip off recalcitrant unions who “[expressed] themselves in favour of the strike, but when it was put to them, refused to come out”.

Prince Rupert’s general strike began at dawn, June 10. Nine industrial unions went out– dock workers, loggers, boilermakers, machinists, pipe-fitters, railway checkers (not a game, apparently), freight handlers and fish packers. Despite the usual pressure from the business community, foaming at the mouth about violence and Reds under the bed, they stuck it out to the end of the Winnipeg General Strike. And then beyond.

The strike committee refused to recommend a return to work, until 10 workers fired by the Grand Trunk Railway were reinstated. The pledge was strongly supported at another overflow gathering. “We will stick it out until we are starved out and become busted and have to leave town,” roared George Casey. This time, the emotional principle of protecting fellow workers’ jobs spurred all unions to rally to the cause. An expanded walkout was set to begin July 4 at 6 p.m. The pressure worked. Just 30 minutes before the deadline, the strike committee announced “as good [a deal] as we can expect under the circumstances”. Even so, the Labour Council voted only 15-12 to accept. (This account relies largely on original research by Donna Sacuta of the BC Labour Heritage Centre.)

In Edmonton (Edmonton!), thousands of union members were off the job for a month. City hall closed, trains and streetcars stopped running. Most utilities, including the telephone system, shut down, along with factories, packing houses, cold storage plants, shops and restaurants. Workers at Chinese restaurants and laundries courageously risked deportation to walk out. Police voted 74-4 to strike, although, as in Winnipeg, they stayed on the job.

City Mayor Joe Clarke was sympathetic. He refused requests from the Board of Trade and the inevitable “citizen’s committee” to call in the militia. He further vowed the city would not allow strikebreakers. When he was accused of being a dupe of the “Bolshevik” strike committee, the mayor retorted that he would not be forced to break the strike “by the Bolsheviks on the Board of Trade”. Although the strike wavered as June progressed, some unions stuck it out until the Winnipeg General Strike was called off.

In Brandon, Manitoba hundreds of workers stayed on strike for six weeks. Their ranks included civic employees who had just won their own strike, yet came out again to protest anti-strike crackdowns in Winnipeg.

And yes, in Amherst, Nova Scotia. (who knew?)  Workers there were as radical a bunch as any in North America. The Amherst Federation of Labour voted 1,185 to 1 (who was that guy?) to join the western-based One Big Union, even before the radical organization had been formally established. They campaigned successfully against the introduction of daylight saving time as a capitalist plot to lengthen the working day. In May, stirred by the Winnipeg General Strike, several thousand Amherst workers at the city’s eight largest industries walked off the job for three weeks. Their demands were the same as workers in Winnipeg: shorter hours, better pay and the right to collective bargaining.

Other strikes were briefer but no less heartfelt, as workers took up the cry to fight back. The defiant words of Jean MacWilliams, a laundry worker and organizer in Calgary, could have echoed anywhere: “Are we in favour of a bloody revolution? Why any kind of revolution would be better than conditions as they are now.”

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It was a time of unsurpassed working class consciousness and resistance, the likes of which Canada had never seen, before or since. Few demands were achieved, but the Winnipeg General Strike had a profound impact on events to come. That will be covered in Part Three, The Aftermath.

 

 

WHEN THE WORKERS ROSE. THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE, PART ONE

(May 15 is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Winnipeg General Strike. It remains one of Canada’s signature events, yet few Canadians know much about it. Mickleblog marks the occasion with a three-part account of the strike, the little-known but remarkable sympathy strikes, including a big one in Vancouver, that it inspired, and its aftermath, particularly the political impact. Much of this was presented at the recent annual conference of the Pacific Northwest Labour History Association. Here is Part One.)

The Winnipeg General Strike was by far the longest and largest worker uprising in the history of Canada, or, for that matter, all of North America. For 40 days, from May 15 to June 24, 1919, more than 30,000 workers, in a city with a population of 180,000, took part in a walkout that remained solid until the end. In the face of relentless opposition from all three levels of government, police higher-ups, the military, renegade forces of citizens and the press, convinced they were about to be overthrown by the forces of Bolshevism, the discipline and morale of the strikers, a majority of whom were non-union, was remarkable.

The photo of a mob of workers and pro-strike ex-soldiers overturning a stranded streetcar, shown above, has come to characterize the strike. But this was an isolated event, a reaction to the escalating crackdown by authorities against the strike and its leaders. For the most part, the streets of Winnipeg were quiet. Workers heeded the dictates of their savvy leaders to stay home and avoid any pretext for martial law, or any action by forces itching to intervene. “Do Nothing!” proclaimed the strike newspaper. “Just eat, sleep, play, love, laugh, and look at the sun.” So much for Bolsheviks out to storm the Winnipeg equivalent of the Winter Palace.

Yet the issues and anger that led to the Winnipeg General Strike were very real. And they were hardly confined to Winnipeg.

One hundred years ago, much of Canada’s working class was in revolt, fueled by the pointless, terrible carnage of World War One. Workers had died in the millions, at the same time as profiteers far from the killing fields made fortunes and politicians and generals insisted the bloodshed go on until the other side collapsed. Workers were further sandbagged by a postwar economy that saw soaring inflation, while wages remained stagnant. More and more were receptive to the fiery socialist message that reforming capitalism was no longer enough. The system, itself, had to be changed. To one where production would be based on use and need, not profit.

From Victoria all the way to Amherst, Nova Scotia, there seemed to be strikes everywhere. There were even rumblings in the British colony of Newfoundland. And when the Winnipeg General Strike broke out, sympathy strikes swept the country in support of the Winnipeg workers.

Revolutionaries elsewhere took notice of what was happening, among them no less than Antonio Gramsci. In Canada, wrote the famed Italian socialist, “industrial strikes have taken on the overt character of a bid to install a soviet regime”. That was not quite right, but, seen from afar, Gramsci could be forgiven. In a country of just over 8.3 million people, much of it rural, a total of 3.4 million working days were lost because of strikes in 1919, the greatest year of industrial relations conflict in Canadian history. And rhetoric extolling the 1917 workers’ revolution in Russia was not hard to find. (Historian Allan Levine’s fine Globe and Mail piece on the Winnipeg General Strike reminded me that, at one point in Warren Beatty’s film Reds, John Reed — played by Beatty — says he wants to leave Russia and return to North America to assess labour militancy there : “I’ll talk about the general strikes in Seattle and Winnipeg,…”)

This mood of resistance and rebellion first showed itself in Vancouver in 1918. When trade unionist, organizer, pacifist and socialist Ginger Goodwin was shot dead in the hills overlooking the coal-mining community of Cumberland by a trigger-happy special constable trying to arrest him for evading the draft, the trade union movement erupted. On Aug. 2, 1918, the day of Goodwin’s mile-long funeral procession in Cumberland, union members in Vancouver walked off the job for 24 hours to commemorate their fallen comrade. It was the first general strike in Canadian history. Despite a ransacking of the Labour Temple and Labour Council secretary Victor Midgely only narrowly escaping being thrown out its second floor window by a mob of World War One veterans, egged on and, some say, liquored up by local business leaders, the strike was a resounding success.

Not long afterwards, western industrial unions, fed up with the Gompers-like approach of the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress, split from the national body to set up their own. In March of 1919, union representatives from Victoria to Northern Ontario gathered in Calgary to establish one revolutionary industrial union for all workers, called, with charming exactitude., the One Big Union. The OBU. Backed by ringing rhetoric calling for an end to capitalism, they demanded a radically shorter work week, higher wages and the untrammeled right to union recognition and collective bargaining. The weapon of choice to achieve these goals would be the general strike.

Winnipeg was an OBU bastion. Support was so strong they didn’t even wait for its founding convention. On May 2, 2,000 building tradesmen went on strike to force employers to negotiate with their bargaining council. The next day, they were joined by 3,000 metal craft workers whose employers also refused to deal with their bargaining council. Both groups appealed to other unions for support. There was a vote. The result was overwhelmingly in favour.

On the momentous morning of May 15,, telephone, telegraph, postal and civic services, streetcars, restaurants – so even strike leaders missed lunch at their favorite eateries –, newspapers, theatres, barbershops, along with factories, breweries and hotels – were all shut down. Bread, milk and ice deliveries came to a halt, although they resumed the next day by authority of the strike committee. Firefighters walked out. Police, who had voted 149-11 to strike, were asked to stay on by the strike committee. The Winnipeg General Strike was on.

Predictably, there was an immediate, over-the-top reaction by the “pillars” of the business community, governments, local media and self-styled citizens. Within hours, a Citizens Committee of 1,000 had been formed to combat the strike. They kept up a relentless din of anti-Bolshevik hysteria, while doing everything in their power to maintain strike-bound services and pressure authorities to crush what they charged was an “incipient revolution” by – are you ready – “undesirables, socialists, radicals, enemy aliens, Bolshevists, Reds, Marxists, foreign agitators, revolutionaries, reactionaries, extremists, and (of course) anarchists”.

Newspaper editor J.W. Dafoe, hailed as one of Canada’s legendary journalists, cried out with his pen that the strike was masterminded by revolutionary promoters of the OBU “seeking personal gain through a Soviet- style dictatorship supported by Winnipeg’s numerous enemy aliens”. No matter that all strike leaders but one were born in Britain, and the Union Jack flew over strike headquarters.

By contrast, the message in the strikers’ newspaper was restrained and to the point: “Our cause is just. What We Want: [1] The right of collective bargaining [2] the right to a living wage. What We Do Not Want: [1] Revolution [2] Dictatorship [3] Disorder.

Despite unstinting pressure and provocation, the workers’ resolve remained firm through May and into June. There was virtually no scabbing. Whenever workers were asked to expand the strike or resume some services, they did. Socialist and more conservative union leaders put aside their political differences and worked together in common cause. The cause was not revolution or installing a Soviet, but basic union rights.

Rather than firing up the workers with speeches, parades, rallies, banners and so on, the strike committee adopted, as mentioned, the unusual strategy of “Do Nothing”. Until the final few weeks, in this oddest of class conflicts, the only ones marching in the streets were members of the Citizens’ Committee, strutting around, vowing to maintain law and order in a peaceful city.

As the weather warmed in early June, however, frustrated by the strikes’ success, governments turned up the heat and began taking measures to end it. Striking postal workers, telephone operators and firefighters were fired. Police were ordered to sign a no-strike pledge. When they refused, they, too, were fired, replaced by citizen deputies and vigilantes.

And, in the early hours of June 17, on orders from Ottawa, police rousted the six principal leaders of the strike from their beds and bundled them off to Stony Mountain Penitentiary, charged with seditious conspiracy. Strike headquarters at the Labour Temple were ransacked, and the strikers’ paper, the Western Labour News, was banned, its editor and advertising manager among those arrested.

Meanwhile, officers of the North-West Mounted Police and the army had been hard at work preparing to suppress a new force in the streets. Thousands of edgy, demobilized former soldiers, also victimized by the worsening economy and in not much of a mood to “Do Nothing”, had begun a series of marches in support of the General Strike. The mayor quickly proclaimed them illegal, and authorities had their excuse to move.

Matters came to a head on June 23, commonly known as “Bloody Saturday”. Huge crowds gathered downtown as part of the ex-soldiers’ call for “a silent protest” against the arrests. They ignored the mayor’s order to disperse, and a wayward streetcar, running despite the strike, was trashed. Members of the Mounted Police rode into the crowd swinging their clubs. Pelted with bottles, stones and other objects, the Mounties regrouped for a second foray, this time firing their revolvers.

Mike Sokolowski was killed on the spot, with a bullet to the heart. Another striker who was hit subsequently died in hospital. Scores were injured. With the Mounties keeping up their horseback charges, the streets were gradually cleared by civilian anti-strikers and special police. Then the military took over. Soldiers in trucks brandished machine guns, while others with fixed bayonets sped around in cars. The melee was over and so, for all intents and purposes, was the strike.

With their arrested leaders pledged to stay away as a condition of bail, their newspaper shut down, editors of a quickie replacement charged with seditious libel, two workers dead and armed military patrols and citizen constables controlling the streets, there was no way forward. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council announced their historic general strike would end on June 25. And it did.

Without any sense of surrender, the workers of Winnipeg returned to their jobs, having demonstrated once again that there was no hope of obtaining justice for the working class in Canada., even with a struggle as glorious as theirs. Among those watching “Bloody Saturday” unfold had been 14-year old Tommy Douglas, peering down from an adjacent rooftop. Much later in life, he reflected: “Whenever the powers-that-be cannot get what they want, they’re always prepared to resort to violence or any kind of hooliganism to break the back of organized opposition.”