Auntie Irene, Helena Gutteridge and The Mayor

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At the age of 70, my beloved Auntie Irene, under her scholastic name of Irene Howard, published her definitive biography of Helena Gutteridge, Vancouver’s first woman “alderman”. Ten years later, when she was 80, she completed her remarkable book Gold Dust On His Shirt, a moving saga of her family’s working class life in the gold mines of British Columbia, feathered with impeccable research of the times. At 90 she published a very fine poem, which is reproduced below.

And one morning last month, at the age of 94 and a half, Auntie Irene sat in the front row of chairs arrayed in a room off the main lobby at city hall, looking as elegant and vivacious as anyone who pre-dated Vancouver’s Art Deco municipal masterpiece by 14 years could dare to look.

She was there as a guest of honour, and rightly so, for the unveiling of a national historic plaque paying tribute to Helena Gutteridge, the woman she had written so authoritatively about more than 20 years earlier. Without Auntie Irene’s book, Gutteridge would almost certainly be just another footnote in the city’s neglected history of those who fought to make life better. With justification, Auntie Irene had subtitled her biography: The Unknown Reformer. Not only did her chronicle bring Gutteridge to public prominence, it was she who submitted the application for her recognition to Parks Canada and the august Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The application had been gathering dust throughout the nearly 10 years of government by the Harper Conservatives, who evinced no interest in commemorating activists, let alone a strong, challenging woman like Helena Gutteridge.

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From the moment she arrived in Vancouver in 1911, Gutteridge had set to work to change the way things were. She was a relentless campaigner for women’s suffrage, a social reformer and active trade unionist, president of the local tailors’ union and the first woman to crack the executive of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council. In 1914, she established a successful cooperative to provide employment for impoverished women, producing toys, dolls and Christmas puddings. She was the driving force behind the province’s first minimum wage for women and led a courageous, spirited, four-month strike by women laundry workers in the fall of 1918.

Marriage and a move to a Fraser Valley arm curtailed her activism for a time, but the Depression re-ignited her fire. Her marriage over, she returned to Vancouver a strong supporter of the new CCF and in 1937, Gutteridge entered history as the first woman elected to city council, championing, among other causes, low-income housing. Demonstrating anew her commitment to the oppressed, she hired on as a welfare officer in a Japanese-Canadian internment settlement, quarreling at times with bureaucrats who criticized her for being too generous. At the age of 66, low on money, Gutteridge went to work for a time at a city cannery. Despite the physical toll, she told friends she appreciated the chance to learn about the harsh conditions faced by her fellow assembly-line workers. For the rest of her life, living on a small pension, she threw herself into the cause of international peace, rejecting attempts to brand her as a “red”. When she died at the age of 81, her passing was noticed, but barely.

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Now, thanks largely to Auntie Irene, the contribution to the cause by Helena Gutteridge will not be forgotten. The mayor was there, pointing out that “we continue her work in earnest at city hall”. Liberal MP Joyce Murray was there, along with four city councillors, reporters, and of course, members of our family. There was a fuss made over Auntie Irene. She was interviewed by the Vancouver Courier, providing her usual trenchant comments on the significance of Helena Gutteridge. “When she saw something that needed to be done, she rolled up her sleeves and did it,” she told the Courier’s Martha Perkins. “I admire the fact that she was so progressive. She looked at the slums and thought: ‘This shouldn’t be.’” To our pleased applause, she was singled out from the podium, and, at the end of the formalities, the mayor came over to say ‘hello’. Gregor Robertson was more than gracious, He sat down beside Auntie Irene, and the two engaged in a lively conversation both seemed to enjoy. After bantering that she didn’t know whether to call him Your Excellency, Your Worship or Gregor (she settled on ‘Gregor’), she reminded the mayor of Helena Gutteridge’s political work and her passion for social housing. “It was a big and sorry problem, which she just took on and brought the other councilors with her.”

His Worship told me later: “It was great to have a chat with her. It’s always a highlight to connect with elders who have seen this city and world transform.” Indeed, Auntie Irene is almost the last surviving member in our extended family who were part of the resolute generation that persevered through the Depression, World War Two, the Cold War and so much more. The toughest thing I ever faced was running out of dope at a be-in.

Born in Prince Rupert in 1922, she had a childhood of upheaval, moving from mine to mine, living in tents and log cabins, and one of tragedy, shooed into the kitchen at the age of nine, as her mother lay dying on the sofa. There were three elder brothers, Art, Verne and Ed, then Irene and young Freddie. Their life was all about hard work and survival in the toughest of conditions, similar to the lives of so many British Columbians, whose labour built this province. At last, ironically, just as the Depression began, there was permanent work for her father Alfred Nels Nelson and two of “the boys” at the Pioneer Gold Mine near Bralorne. No one got rich. It was the Depression, after all. But there was stability. Inevitably, perhaps, it did not last. In 1935, her father was diagnosed with silicosis. At 60, his life as a working miner was over, with little to show for it but a deadly disease.

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He took up chicken farming in the Fraser Valley. That’s where our families intertwined. My mother’s parents were trying to extract a living from a stone-strewn farm in nearby Aldergrove. She and Irene became lifelong friends. The bonds were further fastened when Irene’s brother Ed married my mother’s younger sister Greta. In January, 1948, Alfred Nels Nelson took his final short breath and was gone. Years later, Auntie Irene wrote, bitterly: “Miners have died before from silicosis, but these men weren’t my father. Some fifty years later, as I write this, I sit and cry, and it’s not just about the oxygen tent and the desperate last gasps and my not being there that night. It’s about the gold, the Christly useless gold (that’s his word, ‘Christly’) stashed away somewhere – in Ottawa at the Royal Mint I guess, and Fort Knox, Kentucky.”

Her upbringing and the stark injustices meted out to ordinary people led to a career that produced numerous historical essays on workers and women, plus, of course, her authoritative account of Helena Gutteridge, which was short-listed for both a BC Book Prize and the City of Vancouver Book Prize and, as mentioned, her moving story of her own immigrant family, Gold Dust On His Shirt. It is a book that cries out for a wider audience.

So, all hail Auntie Irene and her other persona, Irene Howard. When you are ninety-four and a half years old, just waking up to the breaking of another dawn is a big deal. But how gratifying to have had that special day, when we all paid court. Her smile could have melted armies. At times, it truly is A Wonderful Life.

As promised, here is her marvelous poem, a tribute to the working life of her Scandinavian father, published in her 91st year.

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THE STORY OF THE KOMAGATA MARU

At long last, a formal apology is being delivered in the House of Commons for Canada’s racist behaviour in its shameful treatment of Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru who had the effrontery to seek immigration to the West Coast more than a hundred years ago. Not only were they denied entry, they were subjected to two months of exceptionally inhumane treatment by unflinching immigration officers. While many now know the basics of the ill-fated voyage, the story has many elements that are less well known. I am indebted to Hugh Johnston and his definitive book, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru.

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Just days before the outbreak of World War One, the most direct challenge to Canada’s racist, anti-Asian immigration policies was about to come to a potentially bloody end in the waters of Burrard Inlet. Thousands of Vancouverites lined the waterfront to watch, while dozens of small boats bobbed about offshore for a ringside view. All eyes focused on the Komagata Maru, an ungainly Japanese merchant ship carrying more than 350 hungry and increasingly desperate immigrant hopefuls from India, and the HMCS Rainbow, the only seaworthy vessel in the Canadian Navy.

The cruiser had been dispatched, after the predominantly Sikh passengers resisted a deportation order by bombarding police trying to board their ship with rocks, bricks and other debris. As the Rainbow trained its guns on the Komagata Maru, those on board bolstered their spirits with patriotic war songs from their Punjabi homeland and prepared for further battle. They vowed to fight to the end. The presence of 200 armed militia gathered on the pier and 35 riflemen aboard a nearby police tug added to the tension.

By then a familiar sight to Vancouverites, the Komagata Maru had been marooned in the harbour for two months by a nasty, hard-boiled immigration agent, Malcolm Reid. An implicit believer in a “white Canada”, Reid took the law into his own hands to ensure not a single immigrant made it to shore. In this, he was actively assisted by local Conservative MP and white supremacist, Henry Herbert Stevens. Now, Reid had a deportation order to force the ship back to Asia. Except those on board were not prepared to leave. The looming showdown and potential of armed conflict so close to shore was a magnet for the people of Vancouver. As chronicler Hugh Johnston put it: “The city had taken the day off to see the show.”

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The saga of the Komagata Maru was yet another dark chapter in Canada’s racist past. A complex tale, with many twists and turns, multiple agendas and bitter factionalism, the basic issue was nevertheless straightforward. Among a series of race-based policies to curtail Asian immigration, Canada imposed its harshest restrictions on people from India. Orders-in-council in 1908 brought a complete halt to an immigration flow that had seen 2,500 Indians come to B.C. in less than five years. Though newspapers universally labelled them “Hindus”, almost all were Sikhs from rural Punjab. They proved tough, able workers, finding jobs mostly in logging and sawmills. At the same time, they suffered the same prejudice, harassment and white hysteria as immigrants from China and Japan.

Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, however, who mostly suffered in silence, those from India loudly protested the government’s immigration restrictions.

Arguing they had the same rights as all British subjects, they fought numerous and sometimes successful battles in the courts. In 1914, they took the government head on with the arrival of the Komagata Maru. Organized by Gurdit Singh, an ultra-confident Sikh businessman, the ship and its passengers defied the government’s ordinance that barred Indian immigrants from landing in Canada unless they came on a direct journey from India. No such passage existed. Singh boldly picked up passengers in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama, before heading to to Vancouver. His aim was to test the ban in court, confident their rights as British subjects would be upheld.

When the ship arrived on May 23, however, Reid refused to allow it to dock. He, too, had a goal: force the Komagata Maru back to Asia, if he could, without a court hearing. To that end, he kept the passengers imprisoned, their ship circled day and night by armed patrol launches. Ignoring instructions from faraway superiors in Ottawa, he stretched normally swift procedures into weeks. And periodically, he cut off food and water deliveries to the ship. At one point, passengers were so thirsty, some licked water off the deck when a small amount spilled from a barrel.

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Their fight was taken up by Sikhs on shore, who provided . extraordinary support for those on board. The Sikhs’ determined Shore Committee raised thousands of dollars from their relatively small community to pay for lawyers, ship supplies and expenses of the charter, itself. They kept up a barrage of pressure, until at last Ottawa over-ruled the obstreperous Reid and agreed to submit the matter to the B.C. Court of Appeal. With nothing approaching a Charter of Rights and Freedom, however, the five judges ruled unanimously that the ship’s passengers should be deported. Worn out by their many frustrating weeks at sea, those on board accepted the verdict.

Yet Reid, sensing Indian plots everywhere, continued to harass them, ordering the ship to leave without provisions and demanding its huge charter costs be paid first. The vessel remained at anchor, prompting Reid to cut off food and water for three more days. When he foolhardily came on board, the passengers threatened to keep him there. A tall, dignified Sikh told Reid: “If you were starving for three or four hours, you would soon take action to get something for yourself, but we have had nothing for three days. Now you are here, we would like to hold you until we get provisions and water.” The action worked, and supplies soon appeared. The passengers fought back again, when police subsequently tried to board the ship to send it on its way, still without adequate food. That battle brought in the navy, and that brought thousands of excited onlookers to the docks.

The hours ticked by. On the HMCS Rainbow, Commander Walter Hose warned authorities there could be heavy loss of life, if he were ordered to storm the Komagata Maru. Finally, much to the disappointment of the watching crowd and Malcolm Reid, the federal government blinked. They agreed to fully stock the ship for its return journey. At 5 a.m. the next morning, two months to the day of its arrival, the Komagata Maru weighed anchor and headed back to Asia. Racism had triumphed.

Tragically, this was not the end of the story. When the ship reached India, British authorities tried to force passengers directly back to the Punjab. When some resisted, imperial forces opened fire, killing 20 of them at an obscure railway depot named Budge Budge.

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And back in Vancouver, bitterness erupted over the role of community informers used by Reid to keep tabs on the situation. Two informers were fatally shot. Shortly afterwards, Reid’s chief Sikh informant opened fire himself at the funeral of one of the victims, killing two worshipers. When Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson, who headed surveillance activities for Reid, showed up at the courthouse, local Sikh Mewa Singh took out a .32 calibre revolver and shot him dead. Before being hung for Hopkinson’s murder, Singh said he acted to uphold the principles and honour of his religion. To this day, Singh is recognized as a martyr by many in the Sikh community.

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A SPECIAL REMEMBRANCE DAY, AND SYRIAN REFUGEES

Last week, two days before the numbing atrocities of Paris, I went to the annual Remembrance Day ceremony at the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park. It was a simple, almost homespun occasion, far removed from the military-like precision of the packed event at the main cenotaph downtown. A black-robed priest gave a purification prayer, clapped three times and performed a spiritual cleansing by waving about a long baton festooned with white paper streamers. He then talked six minutes past the proscribed 11 a.m. time for the two minutes of silence. No one seemed to mind. Beside me, a teen-aged girl wiped away tears, while an elderly Japanese-Canadian woman in an ordinary gray kimono stood with head bowed, eyes tightly closed.

There was also a pointed theme to this year’s Remembrance Day in Stanley Park that made it unique across the country even more relevant today, given some of the hateful fallout to the mass murders in Paris. The ceremony commemorated this year’s 70th anniversary of the formal acceptance of Japanese-Canadians into the Canadian Army. At a time they were still branded “enemy aliens”, had been forced into internment camps and work gangs, and their families stripped of their possessions, 120 Nisei signed up for a special, military intelligence unit to help in the fight against, yes, Japan. And then, it was only pressure from British and American military commanders that finally forced Canadian authorities to admit them into the army. In an intensely moving moment, Kazuko Yatabe, widow of veteran Eiji Yatabe shuffled forward to lay a memorial wreath on behalf of her husband.

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(Photo by Randy Enomoto)

Was it all only eight days ago? After Paris, bowing our heads in remembrance on that sun-bathed morning feels light years away. Yet, looking back, as hearts harden towards welcoming desperate Syrian refugees to this land of relative bounty, the event seems to take on a deeper meaning. Some of the same prejudice and unwarranted fear that imposed internment on thousands of law-abiding Japanese-Canadians is sadly afoot, again. Since Paris, a mosque in Peterborough has been torched, a Muslim woman in Toronto severely assaulted, others verbally harassed and some have reported being shunned in supermarket line-ups, over worries they might be suicide bombers. Ant-Muslim graffiti is on the upswing. Meanwhile, and arguably worse, there has been a disturbing rise of opposition to Canada’s plan to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. A sensible suggestion by Premier Christy Clark that the northeast of B.C. might be a good place to settle some Syrians sparked an immediate online petition calling for a referendum on admitting refugees to the region. It quickly attracted more than a thousand names. Similar petitions across the country to halt the influx have also attracted widespread support.

Of course, the petitioners don’t come out and say they don’t want Muslims here. They site security concerns. The possibility that one of the suspected nine Paris terrorists might have been among the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming through Europe has been seized upon. No matter that the terrorist ringleaders were French and Belgian. And no matter that Canada is taking refugees from relatively-stable camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, not from the huge, heartbreaking crowds thronging to Europe. While the government’s ambitious refugee deadline might be well served by extending it a month or two to ensure the process unfolds smoothly, “security concerns” have been seized upon on as reason to keep “them” out. With proper screening in place, there is no evidence that these refugees, most of them families, pose a security threat, other than to those, perhaps, who think just being Muslim is suspect.

All of which brings me back to last week’s Remembrance Day in Stanley Park and the special attention paid to the internment of more than 20,000 Japanese-Canadians. As with the current hostility toward Syrian refugees and Muslims, facts and context meant nothing. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese-Canadians were overtaken by a tidal wave of irrational fear and prejudice that stigmatized all of them, based only on their race. In British Columbia, where almost all lived, there was wild talk everywhere about a sinister “fifth column” of Japanese, loyal to their mother country, plotting to undermine the country from within. Japanese-Canadians were looked on with suspicion, merely because of events far beyond the borders of Canada they had nothing to do with. They were different. They might be up to something. Sound familiar? Yet not one incident of sabotage or disloyalty was ever uncovered.

It is distressing to see the same emotions whipped up all over again. Lest you think I’m stretching the comparison, I give you Roanoke, Virginia in the United States, where the anti-refugee hysteria is far more deep-seated and pronounced. Calling for an end to assisting Syrian refugees to resettle in the area, Mayor David Bowers drew a parallel to the fears Americans had about ethnic Japanese in the U.S., after Pearl Harbour. He applauded their internment, which, he said, had kept America safe. Sometimes, words fail….

There is some good news, however. In 1942, almost no one, except a few brave members of the CCF and civil libertarians, spoke out against internment. This time, many, many Canadians are rallying to embrace Syrian refugees and denounce those who single out Muslims, who use their prejudice to stand in the way of these unfortunate victims of a terrible war coming to Canada. If only more had spoken out 73 years ago. “Lest we forget,” event moderator Gordon Kadota reminded us on Remembrance Day. Indeed.

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CUMBERLAND AND THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR. NO PASÁRAN.

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I have more than a few books about the tragic Spanish Civil War. Yet I can barely bring myself to read them. Well, except for Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s bittersweet, affecting memoir detailing both the heroic commitment of those who fought for a republican Spain and the bloody witch hunt by hard-line Stalinists against those fighting with the anarchists. I just find it all so depressing. In addition to the millions of Spaniards caught up in the ferocious struggle, thousands of young idealists from all over the world headed off to Spain, fired by a zeal to fight fascism and support a democratically-elected government that sought to make progressive change. The issues could not have been more black and white. The conflict has been rightly labelled ‘the last great cause’. It ended, of course, in disaster, an aching reminder that the good guys don’t always win.

With the fall of Barcelona and then Madrid in 1939, Franco’s goose-stepping, fascist forces, backed by Hitler, Mussolini and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, were triumphant. Western countries had done nothing to support the Spanish Republic, while Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed and strafed soldiers and civilians at will, with nary a peep of protest from “the democracies”. In fact, many countries, including Canada, even made it illegal for their citizens to fight on behalf of the Spanish government. After they returned home, they were blacklisted, harassed and often jailed for their bravery, labelled as “premature anti-fascists”.

More than 1,500 Canadians defied their government to fight in Spain, their idealism and radicalism forged by the economic hammering they’d taken during the Depression. Of the 50 or so countries whose nationals fought in Spain, Canada had the second highest proportion of volunteers, after France. They formed their own fighting force, the famed Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, and their blood ran deep in the soil of Spain, as many as 400 killed or missing in action. One of them was Allan Howard, the older brother of Jack Howard, who was married to our “Auntie Irene”, not a blood relative but an aunt in every other way.

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Three of the Mac-Paps were coal miners from Cumberland, my favourite town in all the land: Arthur Hoffheinz, and the Keenan brothers, Archie and Gordon, who was universally known as “Moon”. They had a tough time. Captured by the IMG_3032Falange, Hoffheinz was held as a prisoner until well after the war ended. Archie Keenan came back early, and Moon Keenan was killed during the critical Battle of the Ebro, a disastrous defeat that basically sealed the fate of Republican Spain. He was 30 years old. For years there was a plaque in the Keenan family plot in Cumberland, attesting that Gordon “Moon” Keenan “died for democracy in Spain”.

Last month, during the community’s annual Miners’ Memorial Weekend to commemorate labour martyr Ginger Goodwin, a special ceremony was also held to mark the sacrifice of Moon Keenan. As a colour guard of flag-carrying, black vested fellows wearing red shirts stood at attention, the Last Post sounded, its last, lingering notes hanging over the silent graveyard.

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(Photo courtesy of the Comox Valley Record).

There were speeches. Archie Keenan’s grandson, and Moon’s grand-nephew, spoke for the family. “They were my IMG_3015grandfather and great uncle,” he told us. “There was a little bit of a rabble-rouser in them, and they went to Spain to help out. For that, I salute them.” Beside the tomb of the Keenan boys’ parents, a IMG_3021new, more detailed plaque was unveiled for Moon Kennan. Several surviving relatives, one of whom was overcome with emotion, laid flowers. On the other side of Moon’s plaque was a simple marker for his brother, Archie, adorned by a single rose.

Attitudes to the Mac-Paps eventually softened as the old volunteers grew old and died, although they have never been recognized as veterans by the Canadian government. There are now monuments to their heroism in the legislative precincts of Victoria, Toronto and (gasp) Ottawa – thank you, Adrienne Clarkson! Jules Paivio, the last surviving veteran of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, died in 2013. May God bless them all.

The words of Dolores “La Pasionaria” Iburri to the International Brigadistas as they assembled for the last time in Barcelona live on: “You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are heroic examples of democracy, solidarity and universality. We shall not forget you, and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, come back, and all of you will find the love and gratitude of the whole Spanish people who, now and in the future, will cry out, with all their hearts, ‘long live the heroes of the International Brigade’.”

For a moving, emotional snapshot of the Mac-Paps, you can’t do better than this NFB documentary, Los Canadienses, produced in 1975, when survivors were still in their 60’s, hale and hearty and proud as punch of what they did. https://www.nfb.ca/film/los_canadienses

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MY B-LIST OF SONGS FOR CANADA DAY

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Well, hello there, Canada. Another birthday, eh? Dominion Day is my favourite holiday of the year, a time for us all to set aside those petty differences over just about everything the you-know-who gang does in Ottawa, and celebrate being Canadian. My Canada includes a Prime Minister who loves hockey and gets excited about finding Franklin’s ships up north. It doesn’t include an ugly monument to “victims of communism” beside the Supreme Court of Canada, nor a massive Mother Canada statue scarring Cape Breton’s beautiful Highlands National Park, nor…(fill in 50 blanks here)….but never mind. Happy Dominion Day! What’s that? It’s now called Canada Day, you say? Pity!

I usually celebrate Canada Day with a list of good old songs that best exemplify the spirit, history, beauty and character of this grand land of ours. The usual suspects are always at the top: The Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Northwest Passage, Four Strong Winds, Sudbury Saturday Night, Let’s Go Bowling, Ontario-ari-ari-o, and so on.

This year, I’m opting for something different. Being the kind of obscure guy I am, herewith my list of 10 fine songs about Canada that you may not know. They are compiled from my own collection of vinyl, CDs and cassettes (alas, no 8-tracks). So you will notice there are no relatively recent songs evoking where we live, such as Sam Roberts’ fierce Canadian Dream or Joel Plaskett’s bittersweet True Patriot Love. Folk, of course, looms large. Apologies for not being more tragically hip, and additions gratefully acknowledged. But it’s my list, and I’m sticking to it.

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  1. Stan Rogers: Free in the Harbour. A lovely, evocative song about the heartbreak of having to leave the fading outports of Newfoundland for the “riches” of Alberta. A way of life gone. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbjEmEifZp4
  1. The Band: Acadian Driftwood. The timing of the expulsion of the Acadians is a bit off (history is hard), but there are references by the boys from southwestern Ontario to the Plains of Abraham, cold fronts and the lure of winter. A terrific Canadian version of The Band’s big hit, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=te7KW4K-00E
  1. Spirit of the West: The Crawl. Could there be a more Canadian song than this rollicking combination of sea shanty and drinking song? Become an expert on the geography and pubs of West and North Vancouver. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2N37oQmdlrU
  1. James Keelaghan: Stonecutter. A powerful tale of the stonemasons called out of retirement to help rebuild the Parliament Buildings, after they burned down in 1916. The fledgling young apprentices had all been called to war. No video, but here are the lyrics. Well worth the iTune purchase. http://lyrics.wikia.com/James_Keelaghan:Stonecutter
  1. Barra MacNeils: The Island. Anthemic tribute to the history and enduring lure of Cape Breton. I guess it is pretty well known back east, but not out here in this parched part of the country. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apD1IuE5Lwo
  1. Stringband: Dief Will Be The Chief Again. Written by my good friend Bob Bossin, this is certainly the best song ever written about John Diefenbaker, and maybe about any Canadian politician. “Everyone’s happy back in ’57, and nobody’s happy since then.” Available right at the end of this Bossin jukebox compilation. http://www3.telus.net/oldfolk/jukebox.htm#dief
  1. The Byrds: Blue Canadian Rockies. Yes, by the Byrds, but from their best and one of my most-loved albums ever, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It doesn’t get any better than this. Sorry, Wilf Carter, but Gram Parsons kills on this country classic, written by the legendary Cindy Walker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJkXkvLNs6U
  1. Grievous Angels: Crossing the Causeway. There’s no sadder Canadian tradition than Maritimers leaving “the folks back home” for Toronto in search of work. Few have captured the poignancy better than this song by Charlie Angus (now an MP) and his band. “I wipe my tears on the kitchen wall.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSN_dZB55wg
  1. Sadly, besides suggesting anything from my numerous La Bottine Souriante casssettes, I have little to offer in this list category from Quebec. Robert Charlebois’ Québec Love talks about taking up guns. Yikes. And so on. So I include, instead, by far the best known song about La Belle Province, it’s unofficial anthem, Mon Pays C’est L’Hiver by Gilles Vigeneault. It’s wonderful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH_R6D7mU7M
  1. Finally, no Canada Day list would be complete without Stompin’ Tom Connors, even if The Hockey Song and Sudbury Saturday Night are too well known. Of course, he has a myriad other Canadian classics. I’ve opted, appropriately for his great Cross Canada. Sing it loud. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=012Bo_iihpI

Happy CA – NA -DA Day!

(As a bonus, here’s the Travellers’ maple syrup version of Woody Guthrie’s famous song, This Land is Your Land. We have our own identity, after all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwLyVl11iV4 )

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LET US REMEMBER, AND TEACH, LABOUR HISTORY

roadtoballantyne There were some grim remembrances last week for those dwindling few of us who consider the past travails of unions and workers worth preserving as part of our collective heritage. Their struggles and tragedies are as dramatic as history gets. Yet they claim very little place in what students are taught about the province’s history.

We are getting better at changing history from just what dead white guys did long ago, even if we de-emphasize these events a little too much in our schools. They did shape this country, after all, and we should know about them. While John A. Macdonald, for instance, did some bad things (Louis Riel, treatment of First Nations, etc.), without his vision, strength of character and political acumen, parts of Canada might long ago have been swallowed up by you-know-who south of us. But sadly, few students seem to know much about Canada’s first prime minister, warts and all.

Still, aboriginal history and the deadly travesties we inflicted upon our indigenous people, along with past racism against ethnic Chinese, Japanese and South Asians are now part of the school curriculum, and that’s a good thing. “Teaching students about past discrimination minority groups faced in this province…encourages (students) to value diversity, care for each other and stand up for the rights of others and themselves,” an education ministry official explained, as B.C. announced the history of residential schools would be taught, too. But why does that laudable sentiment not include the decades-long fight of ordinary workers for a decent working wage, a safe workplace and the basic right to join a union, plus the discrimination they faced every step along the way?

I was thinking about this, as I attended a ceremony last Thursday marking the 80th anniversary of what’s come to be known as The Battle of Ballantyne Pier, although much of it — not all – consisted more of workers getting their heads busted by police than any real “battle”. The event was held at a commemorative cairn on the shores of New Brighton Park in East Vancouver, where the city’s working port was in full hum. I couldn’t help but notice as well the imposing structure of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge looming behind the speakers. IMG_2967 The day before was the 57th anniversary of the god-awful collapse of that bridge, then known as Second Narrows, which had been under construction across Burrard Inlet. Nineteen workers perished. Both the Battle of Ballantyne Pier and the Second Narrows Bridge disaster are unprecedented, black days in the history of working people in this city. Yet, except by some individual teachers, they are ignored in our classrooms.

Here’s a bit about each. See if you don’t think they are worthy of learning about.

In early June, 1935, longshoremen on the Vancouver waterfront hit the bricks to support their brothers in Powell River, where a non-union crew had been used to load a cargo ship. They were inspired by the recent, historic strike in the United States. Dock workers up and down the Pacific Coast spent 83 days on the picket line, at the cost of six lives, for union recognition. Imagine, six workers died, gunned down by company thugs, just for wanting to belong to a union. You won’t find that in American schoolbooks, either. Led by the legendary Harry Bridges, the West Coast longshoremen won their strike. For the first time, there would be a union hiring hall, with dispatchers elected by the workers.

The walkout in Vancouver also became a fight for a real union and fair hiring. Fearful of what had happened in the States, however, local employers and authorities were determined not to give in.

On June 18, Victoria Cross winner Mickey O’Rourke led a march of 1,000 longshoremen and their supporters towards the docks. The intended to “talk” to strikebreakers brought in by the maritime companies. A mass of police waited for them, billy clubs at the ready. Many were on horseback. At the bottom of Heatley Avenue, the men refused police orders to disperse, and the carnage was on. For the first time, tear gas was unleashed in Vancouver. The strikers quickly scattered. But that wasn’t enough. The police pursued them with a vengeance, bashing heads as they advanced. There are amazing photos from the day, showing horses charging up the street after fleeing protestors. One famous shots shows two police officers on horseback going right up to the steps of a house, clubbing defenceless workers as they tried to take refuge on the porch. powell-st-riot-4a61344 Wherever they discovered a group of union men, even inside residences and buildings, police shot off more tear gas. It was as if they had a new toy. Some marchers fought back, hurling rocks, and one cop was beaten, after being dragged from his car. But the strikers bore the brunt of the violence. By the time the most pitched confrontation in Vancouver history ended four hours later, the streets of Strathcona were stained by blood. Sixteen police and 12 citizens, not all of them protestors, were treated in hospital, including an elderly woman shopper who was clubbed after refusing to get off the sidewalk. Up to a hundred marchers were injured and treated at hastily-organized, make-shift first aid centres. Scores were arrested, and many sent to jail.

The walkout continued late into the fall, but unlike the great union victory in the United States, this one ended in defeat. Hundreds of those who took part were blacklisted, never to work on the docks again. But I suppose this sort of discrimination and battle for basic rights is not yet ready for our province’s school curriculum. Local historian Janet Nicol has just written an absorbing account of what happened that day in and around Ballantyne Pier. Here’s the link: http://www.labourheritagecentre.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/BallantynePierJNicolBCLabourHeritageCentre.pdf

Meanwhile, a day earlier, a small group had gathered on the noisy Ironworkers Memorial Bridge to mark the anniversary of Vancouver’s worst ever industrial accident. Known for years as the Second Narrows Bridge, the Burrard Inlet crossing was renamed in 1994 to commemorate what happened midway through its construction. Just before quitting time on June 17, 1958, there was a loud, terrible crack. One span collapsed, taking another span with it. Seventy-nine men plunged from their lofty perches into the cold, swirling waters below, amid a deadly torrent of steel and concrete. Eighteen workers lost their lives, 14 of them union ironworkers. Several died standing up on the sandy bottom, anchored by their heavy tool belts. The 19th victim was a diver, who was killed in the underwater search for bodies. sddefault Tales from the disaster are as blood-curdling and heroic as anything you might read about the Plains of Abraham. Among the heroes was a fledgling, 16-year old diver named Phil Nuytten, who went on to international fame in the world of submersibles and diving suits.

This is what I wrote on the 50th anniversary of the collapse for the Globe and Mail. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/great-bridge-collapse-recalled/article720317/?page=all

Stompin’ Tom Connors wrote a song about it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjf0O94SJqo 1550174517

So did American country star, Jimmy Dean. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gipzQr0k9zA

Gary Geddes has written Falsework, an entire book of poems about the tragedy, and Eric Jamieson has authored The Tragedy at Second Narrows, a fine book about what happened and the mystery surrounding the fatal mathematical miscalculation that brought the spans crashing down. There is also a good short video on the collapse by the Labour Heritage Centre, which is doing an excellent job preparing material for those teachers who want to present some labour history to their students. http://cdnapi.kaltura.com/html5/html5lib/v2.31.2/mwEmbedFrame.php/p/1454421/uiconf_id/26824312/entry_id/0_w9aswn00?wid=_1454421&iframeembed=true&playerId=kaltura_player&entry_id=0_w9aswn00

But mostly, this tragic reminder of the price working people sometimes pay just for going to work isn’t taught in our schools. One wonders why. 508857429_640

MRS. REID AND THE TRC

IMG_0898 (Thanks to Maria Tippett’s book, Bill Reid, The Making of an Indian, for some of what follows.)

One of the early things I did after ending my daily journalism career of 119 years, besides endless Googling of past Montreal Expo games, was take in the Vancouver public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in September, 2013. The experience was overwhelming. It’s one thing to read about the unspeakable tragedy of what happened in Canada’s residential schools. It’s another matter Imageto hear former students testify first-hand, and in depth, about what happened to them and the ongoing, debilitating impact it has had on their lives and those of their families. No wonder organizers placed so many boxes of Kleenex among the seats at the PNE Agrodome.

At the same time, you know these stories represent only a handful of the thousands and thousands of grim experiences suffered by children who attended those terrible institutions. Everyone was scarred, even those who seemed to come through unscathed. I remember one dignified woman breaking down in tears, as she recounted how, with her parents far away, she was unable to celebrate something as simple and basic as her birthday. “I didn’t celebrate my first birthday until I was 28,” she wept. There was no love in those schools.

Now, at last, we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s comprehensive report and its 94 heartfelt recommendations. Sadly, they are almost certain to be ignored by a federal government that seems to care little for matters outside the orbit of its own base of support. Amid all the media hullabaloo last week, however, my own thoughts drifted back to someone I hadn’t thought of for a long time. She also attended a residential school. Here is her story.

Canada being essentially a small town, it happened that my parents were acquainted with the family of renowned Haida artist, Bill Reid. My dad and Bill were lifelong friends, the two first bonding in their teens, strutting the wild streets of Victoria. Image 9 Bill’s lovely sister Peggy Kennedy, who lived for many years in London, was always on our Christmas card list. The Reid I knew best was their mother. My parents usually referred to her as “Mater”, but us kids knew her only as “Mrs. Reid.” Only after she died did I learn her first name was Sophie.

She was a striking woman, with prominent cheekbones, beautifully-coiffed silver hair, stylishly dressed and a deliberate, dignified way of speaking. She seemed every inch the full-blooded Haida princess we were told she was. When Mrs. Reid came to visit, it was always an occasion.

Sophie Gladstone was one of the 150,000 native children who attended one of this country’s soul-destroying residential schools, with their stated goal of taking “the Indian” out of the child. The result, as we now know, was purposeful, cultural genocide. Innocent children were ripped from their families, forced into a hostile, alien environment. No effort was spared to eradicate every vestige of their native identify. The message drummed into those poor youngsters over and over again was an echo of the refrain from that Linda Rondstadt song: “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good…” When they emerged from those dreadful schools, many were incapable of normal affection and a nurturing relationship with their kids. The ensuing dysfunction of First Nation families remains with us still, long after the schools were finally shut. It is truly the blackest chapter in Canadian history.

Mrs. Reid went to Coqualeetza Industrial Institute on the banks of the Fraser near Chilliwack. By the time she left the three-story brick building at the age of 16, the “Indian” in her was gone. She no longer identified with her aboriginal status. She married a rambling rum-runner and sometime hotel owner named Billy Reid, and for the rest of her life, she scorned the native traditions of her childhood. Mrs. Reid believed the only way forward for her people was assimilation. Nor did she think much of her celebrated son’s embrace of his Haida roots to become one of Canada’s great artists. (Mind you, Bill Reid did tell me once, in that wry way he had: I notice she hasn’t returned any of the jewellery I made her over the years…) BIO_01b-B1-Sophie-Gladstone-1918- This was another legacy of residential schools. With such a rich cultural background, the daughter of esteemed carver Charles Gladstone and the great niece of the finest Haida carver of them all, Charles Edenshaw, Mrs. Reid turned her back on all of that to make her way in “the white man’s world”. One of Bill Reid’s school chums reflected that, despite many visits to their house in Victoria, he had no idea idea Mrs. Reid was Haida.

At the same time, Mrs. Reid was also touched by the same problem that was affected so many other residential school students. She had trouble being a warm, loving parent, although it’s important to add that had to cope, as well, with the added stress of being a single mother, abandoned by her husband. Peggy Kennedy told author Maria Tippett their mother would often scream at her kids all weekend, non-school days they came to dread. It was an unhappy household, Tippett wrote, with the children seeking what comfort they could from their nanny/housekeeper, Leah Brown.

None of this was known to me in the days when Mrs. Reid used to visit. She was very kind to us young ‘uns. Only later did my mother, who was particularly close to her, tell me how Mrs. Reid praised the education she received at her residential school and disparaged natives unwilling to adapt to modern, white society.

A strong, distinguished woman, she found her own way to persevere in a world that considered aboriginals second-rate – first as a young teacher, and then as one of the most fashionable dressmakers in Victoria. Bill Reid attributed much of his artistic success to his mother. “Whatever I learned about design, I learned from her,” he told a magazine writer in 1986. Yet, it could be said that Mrs. Reid, a successful woman on many levels, who raised three accomplished children, was a victim of residential schools, too.

(Meanwhile, here is some of what I wrote after attending the TRC hearings in Vancouver.) https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/reporters-and-the-trc/

https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/margaret-commodore-tells-her-story/

https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/tears-and-laughter-at-the-trc/ IMG_0887