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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HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MOM (1920-2008)

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One of the happiest times of my late mother’s long life was her first year of marriage, before kids, before money pressures, before fortune’s ups and downs. It was 1945. After six years of war, the future lay open. Anything seemed possible. She had joined my father in Prince Rupert, where he was teaching, and about as far from where she grew up in the Fraser Valley as possible, while still remaining in B.C. She loved the stimulus of new discoveries, on her own, far from home for the first time. My mother also taught school, the newly-weds pleasantly ensconced in a few rooms on the lower floor of a two-story wooden boarding house. They were part of a lively, progressive community in Prince Rupert, earning decent salaries, and they were very happy. Forever after, when there was a soft rainfall in Newmarket, Ont., where she lived for more than 50 years, my mother would get that dreamy look in her eye and sigh: “This reminds me of Prince Rupert….”

After that blissful year in Rupert, however, my father snared a job in Vancouver, and off they went. Young and carfree, they decided to hitch-hike the nearly 1,000 miles to Prince George and down to the Coast.

My mother loved talking about that trip, how they stayed with people they met along the route, how they made a detour to pre-touristy Barkerville when they decided to look in on a miners’ strike in nearby Wells, and especially, their frightening trip with a truck driver through the Fraser Canyon. In those days, the Canyon “highway” was a dangerous, rutted, narrow road, full of precarious hairpin bends with few guardrails. The truck driver drove quickly, explaining that the faster he drove, the sooner he would get through the Canyon. Along the way, he would casually point to spots where drivers he knew had plunged over the edge. Luckily, my parents survived that terrifying section of their adventure, and here I am.

Years later, when we made a family trip across Canada, riding the new Fraser Canyon highway, tunneled, well-paved and safe, my mom would \shudder every time she glimpsed remnants of the old road down below.

All of which is an introduction to one of my favourite photos of my mother. That’s her hitch-hiking along Highway 16 on the old, historic Telkwa Bridge near Smithers, which still stands. She was 26.

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BC LIBERALS SING DIFFERENT TUNE ON TREASURED ALR, NOW THAT ELECTION IS OVER

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The Agricultural Land Reserve is one of those magical creations that materialized because of courageous, far-sighted, politicians, who thought beyond votes and the next election. The province’s first NDP government, under Dave Barrett, established the ALR 40 years ago, because they believed it was the right thing to do, at a time when prime farmland was being gobbled up by developers at a terrible rate.

There was virtually no precedent anywhere for banning such a vast expanse of agricultural land from being sold for non-farming purposes, and the Barrett government had to weather a storm of furious protests from farmers, developers, and political opponents.

But a funny thing happened on the way to wiping out the NDP’s radical proclamation, once the “socialists” were thrown out of office. The public liked the ALR, and, over time so, too, did farmers. When Social Credit leader Bill Bennett was campaigning to unseat the Barrett government in 1975, he found it politically prudent to promise not to dismantle the Agricultural Land Reserve, despite his party’s earlier, fierce opposition.

The ALR, which has done so much to preserve the liveability of the Fraser Valley and save the Lower Mainland from the ghastly fate of the huge swath of farmland that once surrounded Toronto, is still with us, basically intact despite a long string of so-called ‘free enterprise’ governments. (Of course, the ALR also stretches beyond the Fraser Valley to all corners of B.C.,  ensuring that the relatively small, land area suitable for agricultural in this mountainous province is kept for its noble purpose, everywhere.)

In a wonderful twist of fate, Richard Bullock, the current chairman of the Agricultural Land Commission that presides over the ALR, was one of those protesting outside the legislature against the NDP’s farmland freeze.

Today, few are more passionate about the Agricultural Land Reserve than the successful Okanagan orchardist. For an article I wrote last year celebrating the ALR, Bullock told me that he thought the days were over, when farmers and developers with dollar signs in their eyes would live in hope of getting their land out of the ALR. “We’ve been down that road too long,” he said. “People have got to get it through their head, that if they buy a piece of agricultural land, they are going to be selling it as agricultural land.”

Now, out of nowhere, with no hints by the Liberals during the recent provincial election, the ALR may be facing its gravest peril since it came into being in the 1970’s.

Energy and Mines (!) Minister Bill Bennett, who has rarely seen a government regulation he likes, is presiding over a “core review” of government services, which, for some reason, also includes the Agricultural Land Commission and the ALR.

Last August, Bennett demonstrated his grasp of the issue with his provocative observation that “people who are sitting on a piece of land that is covered by rocks and trees, land that should never have been in the ALR boundaries in the first place, are constantly being turned down when they want to use their own private land…for the purpose of maybe a small subdivision, or maybe they want to put a small campground on it, and they’ve been flummoxed by the land commission for years.” The minister provided no examples of ALR land “covered by rocks and trees”. Talk about the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Recent disclosures are even more worrisome. Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Mark Hume revealed the existence of frightening cabinet documents that propose a dismantling of the ALC as an independent body and changing its mandate to include the government’s “economic priorities”, as well.

Then, we learned, again courtesy of the redoubtable Hume, that none other than the Agriculture Minister himself, Patrick Pimm, had personally lobbied the ALC to have a chunk of farmland up by Fort St. John hived out of the ALR, so its owner could build some rodeo grounds. Pimm was properly rebuked by the ALC for his political interference in the affairs of an independent commission.

The Liberals seemed to understand that principle in those halcyon, pre-election days last March, when they were desperate to keep the guns blazing against the NDP and its leader, Adrian Dix, who, yes it’s true, lobbied the ALC on behalf of then-Premier Glen Clark to have the Six Mile Ranch taken out of the ALR back in the late 1990’s.

I have before me a document entitled B.C. Government Caucus Information Resource, dated March 7, 2013. It’s all about ALR talking points. Among the “key messages” Liberal caucus members are asked to hammer home is point three: “Unlike the NDP, we have never politically interfered with the independence of the Agricultural Land Commission.”

The Liberals further trumpet their budget commitments to bolster enforcement by the ALC and support its “increased oversight” of the ALR. Wait, there’s more. The same budget increase will also enable the ALC to “continue with East Kootenay boundary review”, the document noted.

Oh, well. That was so eight months ago. What have we today, now that the election is safely passed?

The core review that seems to go against everything in the Liberals’ March “information resource” is continuing full steam ahead, Mr. Pimm remains Agriculture Minister, the owner of the ALR land he lobbied for went ahead and built his rodeo grounds anyway, defiantly daring the ALC to do something about it, and the ALC’s East Kootenay boundary review has been halted in its tracks, pending the vaunted core review.

For those concerned about the fate of the precious Agricultural Land Reserve under the post-election Liberals, these are worrying times, indeed. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.