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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PETER COMPARELLI, R.I.P.

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It has been a terrible year. Bowie and Prince taken far too early. Leonard Cohen leaving us to mourn and light candles against the dark. Long-time friends battling serious health issues. Fake news, the decline of newspapers and the mainstream media, more necessary than ever to hold governments and politicians to account. An antiquated electoral system, an FBI “announcement coup” against Hillary Clinton and Russian hackers delivering a sniveling, bullying, thin-skinned, shallow-thinking prima-donna with the attention span of a child to the White House, while the most adult of U.S. presidents takes his dignified leave. Terrorism in Europe. Aleppo. And now, to cap off this annus horribilis came news of the passing of Peter Comparelli, as lovely a person as there ever was in the tough, crazy world of journalism.

Beyond being a wonderful fellow and someone to enjoy a beer or five with, Peter had a special place in my heart, as the guy who took over my beloved spot on the labour beat at the Vancouver Sun. He thrived on it. A few years later, when I joined the rival Province as that paper’s labour reporter, thirsting to kick the slats out of the Sun’s coverage, I had a hard time harbouring any ill-will towards my good friend, Comparelli.

In fact, one of the best times either of us ever had on the beat was getting to cover the international convention of the Brotherhood of Teamsters in, where else, Las Vegas. We were both sent because it was a good local story. A band of feisty Vancouver dissidents had managed to get elected as delegates, and they were determined to raise the banner of reform against the organized thuggery of the big, bad, beefy Teamsters. If that embarrassed Vancouver’s own Senator Ed Lawson, the smooth, highly-paid presider over the Canadian section of the union and an international vice-president, all the better.

And they did cause a ruckus, most notably when feisty B.C. truck driver Diana Kilmury stood on the convention floor, braving the intimidating howls of several thousand male, mostly large, delegates, and denounced the Teamsters for all the criminal indictments amassed against their leaders. “I didn’t indict you,” Kilmury shouted into the mike. “But if the FBI has issued that many indictments, you must be up to something!” (In fact, then president Roy Williams was eventually sent to prison for his connections to organized crime. His prominent partner at the head table and successor, Jackie Presser, avoided going to jail only by dying of cancer.) But beyond all the great copy, and the fascination of seeing the Teamsters operate up close, with the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa hovering over them, it was a delight just to hang out in Vegas with Peter. We coughed up small amounts of money in the casinos (more by Peter, of course… ), bathed in the neon sun that banished night along the strip and spent our expense money. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Comparelli eventually moved on to cover the legislature. Then, to everyone’s surprise, off he went to sample the delights of life and journalism in Hong Kong, never to return. But, as the spontaneous outpouring of love and affection for Peter on the Pacific Press Facebook page attests, he was not forgotten in Vancouver, even after 30 years away.

Apart from his cracker-jack reporting, he was a union shop steward when those positions mattered, an exceptionally able catcher on the Sun’s competitive softball squad, teaming up with ace pitcher Kelly Evans to win so many games, and an embracer of the good times life had to offer, someone you were always glad to see. Former Sun reporter Debbie Wilson, who had decamped to Mexico, noted how grateful she was when Peter suddenly turned up, amid the ruins of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “He was dispatched by the Sun to cover the disaster and also to find me, as I was (unknown to me) MIA.” With an innate ability to love and attract women, he broke some hearts, it must be owned, until finally meeting his match and marrying Idy. At his wedding reception in Vancouver, I had never seen him happier and more assured that he was doing the right thing.

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He worked for Asiaweek in Hong Kong, was their correspondent in Kuala Lampur, became a skilled editor, then bounced around with other publications and jobs, till it became hard to keep track. But it was in Hong Kong where he was most remembered, a regular at the city’s legendary Foreign Correspondents Club, along with other refugees from the Vancouver Sun who washed up in Hong Kong. Der Hoi-Yin, Jake van der Kamp and the irrepressible Wyng Chow were particularly close. Peter’s last trip back to Hong Kong, from his permanent home in Penang, had been in May. But Wyng Chow had been in touch with him only a few weeks ago. Though a bit less chipper than usual, with his experimental anti-cancer drugs proving difficult to manage, Wyng said Peter talked of returning for yet another reunion. News of his death was a shock. He died, at 63, from lung cancer, surrounded by Idy and his three brothers.

Farewell, Peter. We loved you, man.

His Vancouver Sun obituary is here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/vancouversun/obituary.aspx?n=peter-comparelli&pid=183190212

And this affecting tribute from Tim Noonan of the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/sport/other-sport/article/2057942/editors-office-baseball-field-peter-comparelli-was-man-all-seasons

(photos courtesy of Wyng Chow and Der Hoi-Yin)

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SOLIDARITY FOREVER?

Thirty-three years ago, the newly-relected Social Credit government of Bill Bennett brought down the most dramatic, yay outlandish, budget and “restraint” package in B.C. history. What happened next is detailed here in an essay I wrote a year or so ago.

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On July 7, 1983, Bill Bennett and his Social Credit government, freshly elected to a third successive term in office, unleashed a revolution in British Columbia. This was a revolution from the right. Fueled by the radical conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman’s economic neo-liberalism, the Socreds took aim at all those elements in society they had never liked. With no advance notice, a total of 26 repressive bills came down the chute in a single day, along with a harsh government restraint budget that dramatically slashed social spending. Rent controls were abolished. Landlords were given the right to evict tenants without cause. The Human Rights Commission was shut down, its workers fired on the spot. The Employment Standards Branch was killed off. Scrutiny of Crown corporations was wound up, while the government tightened its grip over local school board budgets and community colleges, including course content. And on and on.

The worst of the onslaught focused on workers and unions in the public sector. Under Bill 2, they lost the right to negotiate almost anything except wages and benefits, even as wage controls were extended indefinitely. Bill 3, designed to pave the way for a wave of firings, wiped out job security and, incredibly, gave all public sector authorities the power to terminate workers without cause, regardless of seniority. (The first list of government employees to be fired included the names of B.C. Government Employees Union executive members John Shields and Diane Woods.) This was, indeed, “Black Thursday”.

The legislative barrage came at a dire time for the labour movement, already weakened by yet another NDP defeat at the polls and the sudden death earlier that year of Jim Kinnaird, the tough, able Scot who had headed the B.C. Federation of Labour since 1976. Kinnaird’s stopgap successor was Art Kube, a portly, relatively unknown, Canadian Labour Congress staffer with little real union experience.

Yet the fightback was immediate and intense. In fact, there has never been anything quite like the concerted Operation Solidarity protest that swept the province through four turbulent months during the summer and fall of 1983. The popular, union-led uprising against Premier Bennett’s Restraint Program brought B.C. to the verge of a general strike, involving hundreds of thousands public sector workers, with B.C.’s powerful private sector unions waiting to join in the moment anyone was punished for walking off the job. Resistance was further powered by an unprecedented coalition between the labour movement and community advocacy groups that had seen so many of their own rights trampled. Kube, his belief system forged in the social democracy of his native Austria, was to prove an adept leader and strategist, who steered this unlikely coalition until the wheels fell off at the very end.

George Hewison of the Fishermen’s Union was first off the mark. He called a meeting. Instead of the usual suspects, more than a hundred people showed up. They decided to hold a demonstration. Two weeks later, 20,000 people marched across the Georgia Viaduct. The rally featured IWA leader Jack Munro’s enduring observation on whether the numerous protest signs referring to “fascism” went too far. “If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, then it’s probably a goddamned duck!” he thundered. The crowd roared back.

Kube soon coordinated union action, bringing Fed affiliates and their bitter, independent Canadian union rivals together for the first time, under the banner of the astutely-named Operation Solidarity.

Social activists also threw themselves into the struggle. A myriad opposition groups sprang up. One left-wing lawyer complained his practice was going to seed. “All I do is go to meetings.” Kube harnessed this activism into a separate Solidarity Coalition, hired several organizers, funded the rambunctious Solidarity Times newspaper, and convinced the Coalition they were equal partners with the protest’s potent trade union arm.

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Demonstrations and wildcat strikes, including a lengthy occupation of the Tranquille mental health facility in Kamloops, soon spread throughout the province. Twenty-five thousand swarmed the lawn of the legislature. Elsewhere, even in Social Credit strongholds, protestors rallied in the hundreds and thousands. But nothing topped the day tens of thousands public sector workers booked off and crammed every nook and cranny of Vancouver’s Empire Stadium. Just when it seemed the old stadium was completely jammed, in marched hundreds of uniformed firefighters, led by their famed marching band. It was a chilling, emotional moment that no one who was there would ever forget. Hope and optimism were in the air.

But Bill Bennett refused to buckle, deriding protestors as losers re-fighting the last election. Despite heroic, marathon efforts by NDP MLAs to stall the legislation, one by one the bills were pushed through.

Solidarity leaders gambled on one more demonstration, this one in mid-October, organized by the Coalition. The turnout stunned those on both sides of the battle. An estimated 80,000 demonstrators thronged the downtown streets of Vancouver. It remains the biggest protest in the city’s long, stormy history. It was time to move to the picket line. Solidarity hatched a war plan, calling for a series of escalating public sector walkouts, culminating in an all-out general strike.

Two weeks after the huge October protest, 40,000 members of the BCGEU walked off the job – legally – while their negotiators demanded the turfing of Bill 2 and an exemption from Bill 3. A week later, thousands of public school teachers and other education workers defied the law and hit the bricks on an illegal strike, seeking similar job protection. Municipal employees and the province’s critical ferry workers were next in line, set to strike on Monday, Nov. 14.

Finally, the government got nervous. They began to talk seriously about issues that had inflamed B.C. for months. Norman Spector, Bennett’s right hand man, parachuted into round-the-clock bargaining with the BCGEU at the B.C. Labour Relations Board. Spector also met secretly with B.C. Federation of Labour heavyweights Jack Munro and Mike Kramer.

The end came in a series of dramatic events that concluded less than 12 hours before the threatened ferry workers’ strike. The BCGEU won a deal containing wage increases, the death of Bill 2 and a Bill 3 exemption that recognized layoffs by seniority. It was a victory of sorts, and BCGEU negotiators brought out the champagne at their union headquarters in Burnaby. It was now a union show. The Solidarity Coalition and its causes, which had been such a part of the four-month protest, were shunted to the sidelines. “How can they celebrate when they’re selling out human rights?” lamented one Coalition leader, bitterly.

But before the picket lines came down, Operation Solidarity still wanted a pact with Bill Bennett to confirm their limited gains. With Kube home sick, Jack Munro flew to Kelowna to “negotiate” with the Premier. Sensing Solidarity’s desperation, however, Bennett refused to make any public statement committing the government to anything. Over the phone, Kube told Munro to “get the hell out of there”. Munro stayed. With the unanimous support of Federation executive members back in Vancouver, he soon stepped onto Bennett’s darkened porch and announced an end to Solidarity’s magnificent movement. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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(Vancouver Sun photo)

Privately, the government agreed to Bill 3 exemptions throughout the public sector, keeping money saved by the teachers’ walkout in the education system, and consultation on a few social matters. Yet this seemed a pittance to those who had had such high hopes for so many months. Instead of a victory celebration, there was bitterness and confusion. People felt betrayed. Operation Sellout buttons became popular. Jack Munro was vilified, both inside and outside the trade union movement. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect union members to strike and sacrifice their own pay cheques for non-monetary, non-union social issues. But this was never articulated to the Solidarity Coalition, which was left out in the rain by the final agreement.

In the cold light of dawn, however, there were still significant achievements to be noted. Nowhere in Canada outside Quebec had a strong, militant labour movement been able to stop a government’s anti-union agenda in its tracks. In the end, after all its bluster, Social Credit completely capitulated on Bills 2 and 3. That clear triumph is often forgotten amid all the unhappiness over the so-called Kelowna Accord. Bennett, himself, was heavily damaged politically. He chose not to run again. The extent of the historic fightback also dampened public enthusiasm for his right-wing, neo-con Restraint Program, few elements of which survive today. It also ensured Bennet would never be hailed a conservative folk hero, except perhaps by the Fraser Institute, as were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For all of that, we can thank Operation Solidarity. And the Solidarity Coalition.

(and here’s what I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the 25th anniversary of the Kelowna Accord http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/back-from-the-brink-25-years-later/article20389444/)

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AN ODDBALL LOOK BACK AT BILL BENNETT

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For some reason, Bill Bennett seemed to like me. In the few times we encountered each other, we got along. Goodness knows why, since, as a labour reporter, I had little time for the wealth of anti-labour legislation that came down the legislative pipe during Bennett’s 11 years as premier, topped by his outlandish, 26-bill “restraint” package in 1983. It went far beyond “austerity”. One of the bills gave his government the right to fire public sector workers without cause and lay them off without regard to seniority. Among the first to be shown the door was BCGEU vice-president Diane Woods. Nor was that all.

On that single unforgettable day, the government also wiped out the Human Rights Commission (employees fired on the spot), gave landlords the right to evict tenants without cause, abolished rent controls, severely curtailed employment standards, tightened government control over school boards, community colleges and course content, weakened public scrutiny of Crown corporations, slashed social spending, and announced the layoffs of hundreds of government employees. It was a neo-con revolution of the right, hailed by the Fraser Institute and the Milton Friedman folks in Chicago. “Black Thursday” led to the most concerted protest fightback in the history of B.C., bringing the province to the verge of an all-out general strike. Er…where was I…? Oh yes, Bill Bennett and me.

As I said, all my dealings with Bennett the Younger were cordial, even friendly. I particularly remember one strange Friday night in the good old days when there were labour reporters. I was working the night labour beat at the Vancouver Sun, looking forward to a drink later on at the Press Club across the street. Out of nowhere, the “labour desk” got a call from one of Bennett’s aides, saying the Premier would like to have dinner with me. But of course. Why wouldn’t he? So out I headed on that dark and stormy night to a Japanese restaurant in deepest Richmond.

And there he was, leader of all the people, dining out with a few of his cronies. It was such a simpler time. Turned out the Premier wanted to talk to me about what he intended to do to ensure there would be no repeat of a bitter ferries strike that had just convulsed the province. His plan involved curbing the powers of the quite wonderful Labour Relations Board established under the NDP, and broadening the definition of essential services.

We had a pleasant conversation. I drank green tea and took notes. Bennett didn’t seem to mind my defense of the LRB and its brilliant chairman, Paul Weiler. Nor did he seem perturbed when I pointed to a strike-ending document authored by Mr. Weiler that, among other things, ruled out another aspect of Bennett’s agenda: potential prosecution of ferry workers for defying a back-to-work order.

It was actually kind of odd, as I realized little old labour reporter me knew more about the ins and outs of the ferry dispute than the premier of the province. But never mind. When I got back to the office, I had a big scoop that was splashed all over the front page of the Saturday Sun.

Nor was that the end of this gripping, personal saga. A few days later, Bill Bennett had to stand up in the legislature and acknowledge that he may have misled the House, after an article by that same little old labour reporter me contradicted something he had said. It’s all a bit complicated and picayune, but here is my shiny Bill Bennett moment.

First, Hansard from Oct 19, 1977:

MRS. E.E. DAILLY (Burnaby North): To the Premier. Was the Premier aware of the Weiler document the evening before he went on public television?

HON. MR. BENNETT: No.

COCKE: Rod Mickleburgh says he showed it to you the night before and you talked to him about it the night before.

 DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order, please.

And then, on Oct. 20:

HON. W.R. BENNETT (Premier): Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of clarification…to clarify an answer made in question period yesterday.

DEPUTY SPEAKER: Please proceed.

HON. MR. BENNETT: Mr. Speaker, I must say that in answer to a question from the member for Burnaby North (Mrs. Dailly) yesterday, in the shortness of my answer I may have inadvertently misled the House. The question was: was I aware of the LRB document? The answer would have to be yes, but I had not read the contents. That was the way I had understood the question. But I would point out that I did attend in dinner with Mr. Mickleburgh, who was there to receive a statement in advance of my press conference the following morning, and he has suggested that he mentioned the document during the dinner. While I cannot recall the contents of what he said, it must be said that I was aware that the Labour Relations Board did have a document. For that the answer would be “yes.” Had I read it and did I know the contents? The answer would be “no” at that time.

For the only time in my mediocre career, the score stood: Mickleburgh 1 Premier of British Columbia 0.

We encountered each other a few times after that, all private, all rather enjoyable. He never mentioned my calling him to account. Unlike many other politicians, Bill Bennett, frequently a target of intense media criticism, never held a grudge against reporters. Former Province legislative columnist Allen Garr, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Bennett called Tough Guy and was never easy on him in his columns, said he ran into the former premier a few years ago and was greeted with a genial ‘hello”, warm handshake and heartfelt pleasantries. Mind you, Bill Bennett shook hands with anybody….Image 11

As some have mentioned, Bennett was also known for his wit, though it was almost always at the expense of others and often somewhat mean. He once referred to NDP transportation critic James Lorimer, who favoured light rail over Skytrain, as “a streetcar named retire”. During a controversy that had erupted over vacant space in government office buildings under the Barrett government, he ended a corridor confrontation with Public Works Minister Bill Hartley, by saying the minister should have a sign on his forehead proclaiming “This Space for Rent”. I have other examples in the same vein, including a particularly good zinger on Bill Vander Zalm, whom he loathed, but you get the picture. Given that the NDP used to taunt him as “Daddy’s Boy”, perhaps he can be forgiven if they seem a bit harsh. (Bob Williams was the most persistent of the “Daddy’s Boy” taunters, until Bennett shot back, unfortunately: “At least I have a father…”)

Bennett really was a “tough guy” of the back alley variety. He gave no quarter. He played to win. Not an instinctive politician, he had an unerring sense for weakness. When union leader Jack Munro came to his house in Kelowna that infamous Sunday night in November, 1983, with an escalation of labour’s general strike on the table, Bennett quickly realized the unions wanted out of it more than he did. He could get a deal by offering almost nothing. Essentially, Bennett called their bluff, and the unions folded like a sack of potatoes. (Often forgotten is that Bennett did budge on the trade union issues that launched the whole Solidarity movement, but that happened before the ill-fated, so-called “Kelowna Accord”. One of the anti-union bills was dropped and the other never seriously applied. The layoffs proceeded, but they did so according to seniority, under employees’ union contracts. Diane Woods got her job back.)

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Even his family’s paid obituary in the newspaper referred to Bill Bennett’s competitive fire, which hardly diminished as he grew older. At 68, nearly 14 years after he resigned and slipped back to a secluded, private life in Kelowna, Bennett was summoned to testify at the inquiry into the legendary Bingogate scandal. The inquiry was called to look into the illegal redirection of charity bingo funds by NDP stalwart and former cabinet minister, Dave Stupich.

Asked about a mysterious memo that suggested Bennett somehow called off an investigation into Stupich’s charity bingos, the former premier denied even knowing about the matter. “Quite frankly, rest assured I never went out of my way to save Dave Stupich from himself,” he asserted, much to the merriment of those attending.

Later in his testimony, the great “Scotch and cornflakes” saga came up. Stupich had intimated in a letter to his constituents that Bennett was a heavy drinker, known to pour a bit of Scotch on his morning cornflakes. When Stupich refused to retract, Bennett sued. Stupich, along with his cohort, former Attorney-General Alex Macdonald, thought there was great political sport to be made, and fought the matter in court. Bennett, of course, didn’t fool around. He hired the best libel lawyer in the province, and was awarded $10,000, a hefty sum in those days. “Mr. Stupich didn’t plead truth. He tried to play political. I can only suggest he either got poor legal advice, or no legal advice,” the 68-year old Bennett told the inquiry.

He paused, then added, evoking more loud laughter: “For the record, his lawyer was Alex Macdonald.”

Old habits died hard.

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(The Godfather passes the torch in the vineyards of Kelowna.)

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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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

JUSTICE DONALD’S DISSENT

“[If] the government could declare all further compromise in any context to be untenable, pass whatever it wants, and spend all ‘consultation periods’ repeatedly saying ‘sorry, this is as far as we can go,’ [that] would make a mockery of the concept of collective bargaining.” Justice Ian Donald, dissenting from the B.C. Court of Appeal decision overturning a lower court ruling that found the government’s imposed 2012 contract on B.C. teachers unconstitutional.

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AppleMark

I’ve known Appeal Court Justice Ian Donald for a long time, not recently or as a friend, but during his time as a lawyer representing non-mainstream unions who made a lot of news in those long lost days when I was a labour reporter.

His clients included independent Canadian unions such as the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada (PPWC) and the Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical and Allied Workers Union (CAIMAW). He also acted for the unorthodox, perpetually-feisty United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU). Further, he was the lawyer who  convinced the Canada Labour Relations Board, on behalf of the independent feminist union SORWUC, to make its landmark decision that individual branches of the country’s powerful chartered banks were appropriate bargaining units. The ruling spurred the way for the most intense organizing drive the banks have ever faced.

Back then, CAIMAW and the PPWC were thorns in the sides of the well-heeled, establishment unions. But they came to Donald early in his career, and he stuck by them. They got good value for their money. Ian Donald was one of the best of the union lawyers that flourished in those grand times before the B.C. Labour Relations Board was whittled down by labour code changes and humdrum appointments. He was also among the most dignified, respected and principled individuals I encountered during my many years on the beat.

Ian Donald was not a table-pounder. He questioned witnesses respectfully, and his meticulously reasoned arguments were not heavy on rhetoric, no matter how uphill the case. Despite representing unions with a reputation for militancy, I’m not sure I heard him whisper even a word of partisanship or express support for the often-radical posturing of his clients. He was there to defend their rights, under the law. Much to my dismay as a reporter looking for good quotes, he was as circumspect as, well, a judge.

I well remember him withdrawing once from a case involving the UFAWU, because he felt his client’s actions had compromised his integrity. The number of times he was chosen as a private arbitrator attested to the respect in which he was held by both sides. Employers knew he would give them a fair hearing and decide the issue on its merits, without tilting towards labour.

This impartiality was recognized in 1989, when he was plucked from the ranks of union lawyers and appointed to the B.C Supreme Court. Five years later, he was promoted to the B.C. Court of Appeal, where he is now the most senior of the 23 appellate court judges.

Reading Justice Donald’s strong dissent in the recent 4-1 decision by the B.C. Court of Appeal in the teachers’ case took me back to that far off age when labour was still a big deal, and reporters such as myself were lucky enough to cover people like Ian Donald and other skilled practitioners of labour law.

Over 38 pages, almost certainly aimed at providing reasons for the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the matter, Justice Donald provided a ringing defense of free collective bargaining and the way it should work.

His assessment of the case could not have been more different from his four judicial colleagues, who overturned the decision by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin early last year that the province’s Bill 22, imposing yet another contract on the teachers, was unconstitutional. Indeed, they took her to the judicial equivalent of the woodshed for a legal whacking, citing error after error in her finding that the government failed to bargain in good faith during five months of “consultations” with the BCTF in 2012, before passing Bill 22. The government’s legislated contract did not include a whiff of the negotiated classroom working conditions – class size and class composition – which Justice Griffin had ordered restored in an earlier court judgment.

That order arose from her judgement in 2011 that the Liberals’ ham-fisted, unilateral stripping of those working conditions in 2002 contravened the teachers’ Charter Rights to free collective bargaining. Judge Griffin was so disturbed by the government’s failure to take her order with sufficient seriousness, she assessed the province $2 million in damages. (Follow the bouncing judgements…)

The four appellate judges skewered just about every aspect of Judge Griffin’s bold ruling. The government won big time. As veteran Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer put it: “The B.C. Liberals could not have asked for a more satisfying verdict.”

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Inevitably, given the headline news that the province won and the teachers lost, Justice Donald’s dissenting opinion got rather lost in the shuffle. I thought it so impressive, however, I’ve resurrected some of it for my humble blog. And believe me, my whittling down of his reasons is a pale shadow of his well-reasoned opinion. But here are a few highlights from Justice Donald’s lonely finding that Justice Griffin was mostly right in her assessment of the long-running dispute. (The full Appeal Court ruling is here. Justice Donald’s dissent begins on page 81. http://www.courts.gov.bc.ca/jdb-txt/CA/15/01/2015BCCA0185.htm

  1. His judicial colleagues erred, Judge Donald wrote, by disregarding her “key findings of fact” about the government’s lack of good faith in trying to reach a deal with the teachers. He pointed out she reached her conclusion after 29 days of evidence and more than three years of submissions grappling with the devilish issue of class size and class composition. Her findings should not be trumped by the appeal court’s own version of the facts, he said, unless she had made “such palpable and overriding errors of fact that [her] conclusion cannot stand.” She did not make such errors, Justice Donald concluded. “An appeal is not an opportunity for a de novo hearing or an attempt to roll the dice again with potentially more sympathetic judges.”
  1. The crux of the case is whether the government made enough of an effort to reach a deal with the teachers, before throwing up their hands and imposing a settlement. Passing legislation to resolve an impasse is permitted by the Charter, Justice Donald noted, provided a government “negotiates or consults with an association in good faith.” Justice Griffin determined the province had no intention of restoring any form of classroom limits, despite her 2011 order. She had given the parties a year to work something out. Instead, said Justice Donald, the province saw the problem as merely procedural: it could renew the legislation, so long as it engaged in a “consultation” period. “The BCTF, after years of having their right to collectively bargain over Working Conditions rendered futile by the Province’s actions, was confronted with an intention to maintain the status quo. He continued: ”In essence, the Province was informing the union that it intended to keep the door shut on the subject of Working Conditions, but it would allow the union to have input on exactly what kind of door would be used.”
  1. Good faith negotiations should include meaningful dialogue, said Justice Donald. “Parties must honestly strive to find a middle ground.” Repeatedly saying ‘this is as far as we can go’ makes a mockery of the concept of collective bargaining, he added.Introduced as a substitute for the lost classroom working conditions, the province’s three-year, $165 million Learning Improvement Fund seemed to impress the other appeal court justices. It didn’t cut much ice with Justice Donald. Why? It was the government’s refusal to even consider restoring those conditions to the teachers’ contract that forced the BCTF to give them up and accept the LIF, he said.
  2. Justice Donald re-affirmed Justice Griffin’s conclusion that the province entered consultations with its mind made up and a strategy in place, up to provoking a strike that might turn the public against the teachers. “Any disagreement or negotiation on the part of the union was futile; the die was cast,” he said. “Good faith negotiation requires parties to explain their position and read and consider the positions of opposing parties. The Province failed to meet this minimum standard.”

5. Justice Donald didn’t agree with Justice Griffin on everything. He thought her $2 million fine was unwarranted. But he was in her corner on the basic remedy. The current situation leaves “teachers at an unfair disadvantage due to egregious and unconstitutional government conduct,” Justice Donald found. “This case is the culmination of at least 13 years of systemic and institutionalized negation of the BCTF’s [Charter] right to associate collectively to achieve important workplace goals….[I would] direct the reinstatement of the working conditions into the collective agreement immediately.”

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Goodness knows, outside of its supportive membership, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation is hard to love. Warm and cuddly the union is not. Given the way they are depicted in much of the media and among segments of the public as a militant pain in the neck, it’s difficult to think of the BCTF and the province’s 40,000 teachers as hard done by.

But consider. For 13 years, they have been without legally-negotiated classroom working conditions unilaterally and untimely ripped from the womb of their contract in direct violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom. Not even the current Liberal government disputes the court ruling that found Gordon Campbell’s crew acted illegally by running roughshod over the teachers’ right to meaningful collective bargaining when they did that in 2002.

Whatever one thinks of those clauses, the teachers had a legal right to them. Yet, here it is 2015, and, except for a $105 million grievance fund from the government, they remain with nothing to show for the government’s illegal legislation. It’s not the clauses, themselves, it’s the principle. Here’s hoping the Supreme Court of Canada settles this thing once and for all.

In the meantime, thank you, Mr. Justice Ian T. Donald, for writing such a persuasive defence of free collective bargaining, however it is received by the SCC.