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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(Dan Toulgoet photo, Vancouver Courier)

As Vancouverites voted on whether to follow leaders or watch the parkin’ meters, I was on the pavement of Bob Dylan’s birthplace thinking’ ‘bout the government. Although Gregor Robertson clinched early, I stayed up past 1 a.m. Duluth time to see whether a late wave of pro-NPA returns would knock incumbent Geoff Meggs from the 10th and final council position, and also end Vision’s school board majority. One no, one yes.

By the end of the night, even from bitterly cold, far-off Minnesota, it was clear that Vision had taken a hit, despite the mayor’s re-election to a third term and control of city council remaining in party hands. The anti-Vision sentiment that dominated all-candidate meetings, Facebook, Twitter and many media commentaries turned out be more than merely noise from a bunch of over-covered, angry cranks. The fact that none of the top four council vote-getters was from Vision speaks volumes. Yet this palpable hostility still fell short of “throw the bums out”. Vision’s strong brand and powerful electoral machine managed to pull the party through a very difficult campaign, which, at one point, according to Meggs, was headed for a shipwreck.

Voters also found the NPA wanting. With it’s thin party platform on major matters, the NPA ran out of gas as the campaign headed into the stretch, seeming to offer little more than the negative zingers and debating skill of Kirk LaPointe. By the end, LaPointe appeared more like the Wizard of Oz, more huff and puff than substance. Despite its shortcomings, Vision has provided some decent government for this strange outpost by the sea, tackling issues that win few votes but need to be tackled. On the other hand, whether calculated or genuine, Robertson’s late apology did indicate an awareness the party needs to do better. So, what now? I have some thoughts on, as Lenin liked to put it, what needs to be done. Herewith, the Mickle wish list for the next four years.

  1. Overhaul the city’s rightly-scorned communications department. Its growth in staff and budget has been well-documented. Yet it seems to do anything but communicate, alienating just about every reporter in the city, who grit their teeth whenever they have to make even the most routine request. Yes, everyone knows city hall bureaucrats are busy. But why does that mean reporters should be regularly stonewalled or treated as “the enemy”? What’s wrong with being helpful? Instead, the current policy is right out of the Harper handbook of messaging and control. Media friendly. What a concept for a communications department.
  1. Heritage. Yes, please. Except late in the day, Vision expressed little interest in heritage matters, unless it was the threatened 10734246_918731961500876_6122104781118335393_nloss of the Waldorf. The mayor reacted to that within minutes, as if he’d been shot out of a gun. Meanwhile, the demolition of hundreds of beautiful character homes on the west side continued apace. Sure, it’s a difficult issue, given property rights and all, but there was barely a whisper of concern from the mayor or anyone else in Vision. There has finally been some attempt to address what’s happening, in Shaughnessy at least. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Some passion for the heritage that has shaped Vancouver is long overdue. People care about these things.
  1. Political donations. Vision can say all they want that accepting large donations from developers is permitted, the NPA does it, too, and it’s up to Unknownthe provincial government to change the law. But no one can be comfortable with the amount of corporate money that pours into party coffers. Banning both corporate and union donations would remove any suggestion that favours are being bought. Although Vision supports a ban, it’s been more of a squeak than a roar. The NDP has just introduced a bill calling for an end to such donations. That’s your cue, Vision. Be loud!
  1. A ward system. Once again, the city’s ridiculous at-large system presented us with the absurdity of a ballot containing the names of more than 125 candidates, the vast majority of whom we knew nothing about. With no ward system, we have political parties, slates, obscene amounts of money raised by Vision and NPA, and the defeat of good candidates on neither of the two main slates. You can be a terrific advocate/activist, but if you run as an independent, you will lose. Under a ward system, in place for all other major cities in Canada, councillors are elected to represent specific areas of the city, eliminating the need for big party machines. So much healthier and more democratic. Even a mixture of at-large and ward councillors would be good. Of course, those who win under the at-large system are loathe to change it. Yet an exit poll on election day showed increasing support for wards in Vancouver. While not perfect, a ward system is light years ahead of what we have today.
  1. Consultation. It isn’t easy in a city where many residents’ associations, despite what they say, don’t want much change at all. Still, a way has to be found to balance the need for growth and greater density and the views of neighbourhoods. More openness and inclusiveness would be a good place to start, as already pledged by the mayor.
  1. Homelessness. This is an area where Vision can take a lot of credit for its aggressive approach, along with the critical assistance of the province and its housing guy, Rich Coleman. It’s one of the few issues that seems to stoke some fire in the mayor’s trim belly. However, individuals with nowhere to go remain a sad, ongoing presence on our streets. The mayor’s ambitious 2008 promise to end street homelessness by next year will not be met. But one expects no lessening of the drive to house.
  1. Absentee, off-shore owners. Another complicated issue that needs to be looked at, rather than throwing up one’s hands. Providing some hard data would be a start. Let’s have some facts.


  1. Chinatown. Is there no other way to preserve the marvellous character of these historic city blocks than allowing towers on the edges, advocated by many Chinatown merchants as a means of revitalizing their often deserted streets? Read this illuminating article by the Vancouver Sun’s John Mackie:

9. Tear down those viaducts!

  1. It’s not always enough to be right. Bring people with you. At the same time, criticism shouldn’t be shunned, just because you have a majority on council. Listen. Engage. Explain. Communicate. Don’t yield the public floor to all those negative Nellies out there.

Thus ends my sermon. Good luck.



Happy New Year, Premier Clark, wherever you are!

On such a bright, sunny, wintry morning, it’s hard to cast ill-will towards anyone. So, in the spirit of rare, Mickle positive thinking, here is my Top Ten list of good things done by the provincial government since May, when 44 per cent of the voters decided they should rule over us for the next four years. I’m sure I will recover soon and produce a more customary list of Top Ten baddies by the same Gang of Forty.

Anyway, here goes. Peace.

  1. After cynically accusing Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson of “playing politics” over the very real mental health crisis in the city, Health Minster Terry Lake came to his senses and announced some worthy, initial steps towards making a difference. These included a new psychiatric assessment and stabilization unit at St. Paul’s, plus funding for more, badly-needed outreach workers in the troubled Downtown Eastside. The Health Minister must know, however, that this “action plan” is hardly enough, so it’s also welcome news that a multi-pronged committee has been struck to map out more long-term solutions.

2. Kudos again to the ex-vet from Kamloops for standing up to Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose, after her ideologically-driven, mean-spirited decision to cut off access to heroin for fragile patients enrolled in a special, harm reduction study. “We have to think outside the box sometimes,” Lake observed. “I know the thought of using heroin as a treatment is scary for people, but I think we have to take the emotions out of it and let science inform the discussion.” Well said.

3.  The recent five-year, exceedingly-modest, tentative agreements covering about 25 per cent of the provincial government’s public sector work force are astounding, and the first of their kind in B.C., a province once renowned for labour militancy. Union leaders decided the tiny wage increases were a worthwhile trade-off for the security of no reductions in pension and benefits until at least 2019. Whatever one thinks of the contracts, no one forced the unions to sign them, so it’s a big win for a government obsessed with its bottom line. And they weren’t even mean about it.

4. Okay, obviously no one knows how long the Clark government will continue to oppose the Enbridge pipeline. But, as of this moment, a bitumen conduit through B.C. and thence by super tanker through B.C. coastal waters to Asia is a non-starter for a premier who opens and closes cabinet meetings with incense and soothing chants of the mystical word ‘El-En-Gee’. Quoth Environment Minister Mary Polak, after the National Energy Board’s non-surprising “green” light for the proposed pipeline: “We are not yet in in the position to consider support for any heavy oil pipeline in B.C.” You hear that, Mr. Harper? No amount of googly eyes at Christy Clark is going to change that.


5. Social housing remains a plus for the Liberals, with Mr. Mover and Shaker, Rich Coleman, seemingly still fired by determination to fund living space for “the poor”. As such, he has one of the strangest cabinet portfolios in the history of Canadian politics: Natural Gas Development and Housing. Thousands of new units of subsidized housing have been financed and built under Mr. Coleman’s caring watch, many in the Downtown Eastside and vicinity. Here’s a recap of what was done on the file in 2013. Of course, it’s never enough, but there is no sign of the pace slowing down in the year ahead.

6. Thank you, Christy Clark government, for finally agreeing to cough up the dough for a seismic upgrade of Vancouver’s historic Strathcona elementary school, more than 80 years after my mother dodged death by attending the earthquake-prone house of learning.


8. Er…..

9. Let me see….Anyone?

10. Oh well, there’s always next year….

(Suggestions welcomed to aid my trouble-ing mind.)


10. Vancouver has put bike lanes behind it. We are now facing “some serious forks in the road.”

9. If you want to get under the mayor’s skin, it’s not enough to say you’re Jeff Lee. Call him ‘your worship’. “That makes me cringe.” (George Affleck, take note.)

8. They mayor was once a do-it-yourself dentist. “Small business is where I cut my teeth.”

7. Staff have been told to erase all those press releases extolling Vancouver as “the world’s most liveable city”.  According to the mayor: “We’ve never been a ‘swagger’ kind of city.”

6. Vancouver’s reputation as No Fun City is now firmly in that every-two-weeks trash can. “We are building a record amount of new office space”. Take that, Rob Ford!



4. The mayor and Obama are, like, you know, soul mates. “HootSuite…is used by everyone from the White House to my house.” Cue the hot line, er, hoot line.

3. The people of Vancouver “make the most of our astonishing, unique setting and make our city one of the world’s most liveable.” Er, scratch No. 7, above. Apparently, swagger’s back.

2. The mayor loves trivia, beyond those arcane homeless numbers. Did you know the Massey Tunnel handles 80,000 trips a day, while the Broadway Corridor’s daily burden is double that, at 160,000?  Gregor knows. “Just saying,” he quipped, smiling seraphically, as is his wont. (Transportation poker: ‘I’ll see your 80,000 trips, Christy Clark, and raise you another 80,000.’)

1. And the number one thing I learned from the mayor’s speech: The city will be announcing a series of “TED spinoff events”! Be still my beating heart.

Just in case emotions boil over, stringent anti-riot measures will be in effect. No big screen gatherings downtown, transit police will be out in force to control crowds on SkyTrain, and liquor sales will be cut off early. “We rock at this,” enthused Councillor Deal.

Alas, that’s also the number one thing I didn’t learn. Details of the earth-shattering TED spinoff events are “still top secret”, the mayor confided.  I’ve put in a call to Edward Snowden.

And for those of you who just can’t wait,  ROD Talks will be spinning off next month in my basement.