MOTHER JONES COMES TO BC

(Mother Jones rallying Colorado miners)

Notwithstanding the dread my teacher mother felt every Labour Day, today is a day to celebrate the contribution of working people and their unions, not only to the building of BC, but to the many social benefits they fought for over the years, which we now tend to take for granted. You know, boring stuff like the eight-hour day, the five-day work week, paid holidays, workers’ compensation, safety standards, pensions, sick pay, the simple right to join a union and so many others. Sadly, some of these gains are being eroded in this scary new gig and everything-goes economy that seems to be driving workers down, rather than up. But that’s a topic for another day. Instead, to mark this country’s 123rd Labour Day, I offer a little-known tale from BC labour lore. At a time when the heroic fight of Vancouver Island coal miners against the robber baron mine owners was seriously flagging, done in by strikebreakers, militia soldiers and the courts, they received a legendary visitor.

Mention Mother Jones today, and thoughts immediately turn to the prominent muck-raking journal of the same name. But 100 years ago, the world knew a different Mother Jones. Mary Harris Jones was arguably the most famous woman in America. She was also regularly denounced by authorities as the most dangerous woman in America. A diminutive firebrand well into her senior years, Jones preached a fierce, anti-capitalism gospel of resistance and socialism wherever she travelled, and that was mostly wherever miners were on strike. Undeterred by jailings and frequent arrests, she took on mine owners, Pinkerton thugs, strikebreakers and governors alike, with her no holds barred support for miners and their families. She once wrote of miners in those grim days of low wages and terrible working conditions: “For a second more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the colour of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.”

In June of 1914, she came to British Columbia. Two thousand Vancouver Island coal miners were in the second year of a desperate struggle against the mines’ grasping owners. Their union had sent for Mother Jones to buoy the strikers’ spirits. She made the long journey to Seattle from the violent Colorado coalfields, where striking miners were being gunned down by the state militia. As she prepared to board the steamer for Victoria, however, Canadian officials barred her way, labeling the feisty 77-year old “a disturbing element…likely to stir up trouble.” Mother Jones, who had friends in high places, retorted: We’ll see about that. She contacted U.S. Labour Secretary William B. Wilson, a former official of the United Mineworkers Union, who pulled strings in Ottawa, demanding that she receive “every right she is entitled to as an American citizen”. The next day, Mother Jones was on her way to Canada. The country was not new to her. A daughter of Irish parents, driven from their homeland by the potato famine, she grew up in Toronto, educated at Toronto Normal School, before heading permanently to the United States at the age of 23.

In Nanaimo, Mother Jones received a rapturous reception from the hard-pressed miners. As she recounted in her autobiography: “A regiment of Canadian Kilties met the train, squeaking on their bagpipes. Down the street came a delegation of miners [who] wore the badge of the working class—the overalls. I held a tremendous meeting that night, and the poor boys who had come up from the subterranean holes of the earth to fight for a few hours of sunlight, took courage. I brought them the sympathy of the Colorado strikers, a sympathy and understanding that reaches across borders and frontiers.”

A photo of that first meeting shows crowds of miners and their families, decked out in the best clothes they could manage, gathered on a hillside as Mother Jones hammers home her message of miner solidarity and resistance. From there, she went to four other strike battlegrounds, including Ladysmith and Cumberland. Years later, one of the strikers remembered: “She was a fiery one. I think she was 4-foot-5 or something. A short woman but, by God, she was something.” Mother Jones finished her BC visit with a rousing speech at the Labour Temple in Vancouver. Before an overflow crowd, she called for unity and a general strike, if necessary, to win the battle of the coalfields.. “Capitalism,” she told cheering trade unionists, “has danced too long on the hearts of the aching miners.”

 

MJ Funeral Headline

When miners’ guardian angel died in 1930 at the age of 93, no less than a young Gene Autry, the famed, future Singing Cowboy, recorded The Death of Mother Jones. Sang Gene: This grand old champion of labor/Was known in every land/She fought for right and justice/She took a noble stand.” The song concluded: “May the miners all work together/To carry out her plan/And bring back better conditions/For every laboring man.”

Surprising, yes, but as someone pointed out, in his big hit 15 years later, Here Comes Santa Claus, Autry wrote the words: He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, he loves you just the same.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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