THE GINGER GOODWIN GENERAL STRIKE

At 12 o’clock sharp on Aug. 2, 1918 – one hundred years ago today –Vancouver transit operators stopped their streetcars in mid-route, drove them to the barns and walked home. The city’s normally bustling waterfront fell silent, as 2,000 burly stevedores and shipyard workers streamed from the docks. Construction workers refused to pound another nail or lift another brick. They joined textile and other union workers across Vancouver who were also leaving their jobs. It was the start of Canada’s first general strike and the beginning of one of the most memorable 24 hours in the city’s history.

 

The mass walkout was timed to coincide with the funeral of miner, labour leader, union organizer and socialist Ginger Goodwin, shot dead less than a week earlier in the woods above the coal-mining community of Cumberland. Goodwin, a former vice-president of the BC Federation of Labour, had been hiding out to avoid conscription to the killing fields of World War One, a war he and almost all segments of the BC labour movement vigorously opposed. With justification, they argued it was a pointless conflict that sent ordinary workers to kill each other, while politicians and leading citizens far from the fray thundered about patriotism, and the rich got richer on the profits of war. Goodwin had had his status suspiciously changed from “unfit to serve” to “fit”, after leading a strike for an eight-hour day at the large smelter in Trail. He was felled by a single shot from Dan Campbell, a special constable with a dubious background, who claimed he fired in self-defense. But the coal miners of Cumberland and the BC labour movement believed it was cold-blooded murder, and their rage was palpable. Campbell, later charged and acquitted of manslaughter, beat a hasty exit out of town to save his skin. Goodwin’s funeral procession was as large an event as the gritty, working-class community ever had.

Headed by a brass band, the line of mourners accompanying Goodwin’s white casket to the cemetery stretched as far as the eye could see. Years ago, I interviewed a sprightly, life-long resident of Cumberland who remembered witnessing the poignant procession as a little girl. She recalled how much Ginger Goodwin, who spent several years in the mines of Cumberland, was admired by locals, for his fierceness in standing up for the miners’ cause during their epic two year strike from 1912-1914 and his prowess on the village soccer squad. “My father would never hear a bad word about Ginger,” she told me.

When news of Goodwin’s shooting reached Vancouver, leaders of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council responded with a call for a 24-hour general strike on the day of his funeral. “The time for talking was past,” said council secretary Victor Midgley, as the directives went out. “Workers should use the only means of protest they had, namely to quit work for the entire time stated.” Added labour firebrand Jack Kavanagh: “Whether shot in self-defence or without a chance, it does not alter the fact that he was of ourselves and the least we can do is stop work for twenty-four hours to punish the employers.”

The strike set off a firestorm among the city’s elite and a large group of returned war veterans who were whipped into a frenzy, some suggest by the Board of Trade and Canadian Manufacturers’ Association.. Accused of being both “Bolshevki” and pro-German, the strikers were hysterically denounced for shutting down the city in support of someone dodging the draft, while Canadians were dying at the front. Fulminated MP Herbert Sylvester Clemens: “If organized labour is to ally itself with draft evaders and lawbreakers, all right-thinking elements in the community will have to take steps to fight their danger.”

It didn’t take long. That afternoon, a mob of several hundred ex-soldiers gathered outside the Labor Temple, which still stands at the northeast corner of Dunsmuir and Homer, its old lettering clearly visible over the entrance. After a few inflammatory “calls to arms”, they stormed through the doors and began ransacking Council premises. Books, documents, correspondence and other files were tossed out the window. Tables and chairs were trashed. On the second floor, they crashed through an office door to rush towards Council secretary Victor Midgley, who crawled out on the window ledge to escape their fury. As they jostled to get at him, their way was blocked by courageous Frances Foxcroft of the Telephone Workers Union, who would not be moved.

Eventually, the shaken labour leader was allowed back in and roughly bustled downstairs to face the raucous crowd outside. By this time the crowd with mayhem on its mind numbered more than a thousand. “That is the man that is at the bottom of all the troubles,” yelled a soldier. “Make the skunk kiss the good old flag,” jeered the throng. Midgley’s glasses were knocked off, his collar torn, until his lips finally touched the sacred Union Jack, his offer to address the vetereans ignored, and police were able to bundle him back inside the Labor Temple. Several other labour representatives escaped by clambering down the fire escape and dashing down the back alley. Longshore union delegate J. Thomas was not so lucky. He found himself caught in the middle of the crowd, where he was severely set upon until he, too, reluctantly agreed to kiss the flag. When police attempted to haul him away to the station, soldiers surrounded their car in an unsuccessful effort to grab Thomas back, with shouts of “Let’s take him ourselves!”

Then, it was off to the car barns to intimidate trolley drivers into resuming service, which actually happened shortly before midnight, and finally to a packed, rowdy public meeting of self-proclaimed patriots, where speaker after speaker were cheered for lashing out at Goodwin and local strike leaders. “They are just as bad as the man who got shot in the front or the back – I hope both” shouted one inflamed citizen, to a thunderous ovation. was a common sentiment. The lone attendee to vote against a resolution calling for them to be forced into military service overseas was physically ejected..

The next morning, with the waterfront still silent, the fired-up war veterans, still exulting over their “triumphs” of the previous day, decided to take on the longshoremen and force them back to work. It was not to be. This time, when they tried to assail the union hall ramparts at Pender and Hornby, they got a surprise. “Charging up a long set of stairs, they were met by longshoremen who beat them back using chair legs as staves,” wrote historian Irene Howard. A tense standoff ensued, until Mayor Robert Henry Otley Gale arrived. He convinced the agitated veterans to appoint a committee to talk to a longshoremen committee, ignoring their demand that the Labour Council’s Jack Kavanagh be ordered out of the city.

The upshot was that the rioters marched off to the Cambie Street grounds, the dockyard workers returned to their jobs at a time of their choosing, and leaders of the Trades and Labour Council agreed to test the persistent accusation that the rank-and-file did not support the general strike by resigning and calling new elections. All but one or two were handily re-elected. By Monday morning, everyone was back at work, except for 50 shoe factory workers whose employer demanded they apologize for their Friday walkout before he would allow them back in.

In the face of fierce intimidation, pro-war hysteria and mob violence, the remarkable success of the first general strike of its kind signified the increasing radicalism of the BC trade union movement, particularly in Vancouver. Less than a year later, the city’s unions walked out again, this time for an entire month, in a sympathy strike to back the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The horrors of World War One and the failure of rampant capitalism to deliver any kind of economic justice to those who did the work led more and more unions to embrace socialism as the only alternative to a broken system.

Ginger Goodwin would have understood.

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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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