(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.”










It’s chilling, the thought that each workplace fatality starts with someone heading off to work on a normal day, having no idea their time on earth is about to end. Likely without a goodbye to the ones they love, or any  sort of meaningful conversation at all before leaving the house. It’s out the door, off to work, never to return. Bereft survivors are left to mourn not only their terrible loss, but also the lack of a proper farewell, haunted that something so utterly final could happen on an otherwise routine day at work.

It happened again this week with the shocking killings at the Western Forest Products sawmill in Nanaimo. Shot dead were mill workers Mike Lunn, 62, a father, grandfather and a lone brother among seven sisters, and 53-year old hockey coach and father Fred McEachern, described by a co-worker as having “tree sap in his veins”. A message written on one of Lunn’s red T-shirts put up at the mill site read: “Daddy, you really were the best father a daughter could ask for. Love, your princess.”

Of course, these two workplace fatalities were unusual. Besides the violent circumstances, they were not connected to on-the-job duties, and they were big news. Most worker deaths attract little public notice, chalked up as “just one of those things”. They die in virtual anonymity. Beyond family, friends and co-workers, their passing is little remarked on, far removed from the outpourings of support and processions whenever a police officer or firefighter dies in the line of duty. But the impact is just as profound.

Linda Dorsett knows all about it. On a fateful September day in 2004, the last thing she expected was never again seeing her husband come through the front door.  Sean Dorsett, an experienced commercial fisherman and certified diver in Campbell River, was making a routine dive to untangle his boat’s anchor. Something went wrong, and Dorsett drowned. Linda’s first reaction was denial. “I kept calling his cellphone,” she remembered . “I was in shock. I didn’t believe it. I wanted to talk to the fishing company, his buddies, anyone that could tell me this was a mistake.”

On Tuesday, Linda Dorsett was among the speakers during an emotional ceremony at the waterfront Jack Poole Plaza to mark this country’s National Day of Mourning for workplace deaths. Although Linda was eventually able to move on from her husband’s death, raise their two young sons and keep financially afloat, the thought of the devastating day she lost her husband renewed her sorrow.

“There was never a dull moment when Sean was around, but a perfect storm of events changed our life forever. The world of grief entered my life. If only he could have said ‘goodbye’, or passed on a few words of wisdom to our sons,” she said, wiping away tears.

Using her own experience, Linda Dorsett now counsels other survivors of workplace tragedies as part of WorkSafeBC’s Family Peer Support Program. “You think you’re the only one to ever feel such grief, but sadly, you are not,” she told the large, sombre crowd. Noting pledges by employer, union and government representatives to dedicate their organizations to do even more to combat on-the-job fatalities, she paid tribute to the annual Day of Mourning, which has grown significantly in size and prominence over the years. “Days like this honour those who died and gives those left behind a little hope, too.”

While much is made of the 158 casualties suffered by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, and rightly so, nearly as many B.C. workers were killed on the job over just the last two years. About  the same number  succumbed to the long, painful inroads of occupation-related disease, particularly asbestosis. In Canada, nearly 1,000 workers died from work-related causes last year, about three a day. Globally, a worker dies every 15 seconds. These are grim statistics that should shock us all. Each death is one too many, but the toll continues. Meanwhile, the number of unscrupulous employers jailed for wanton disregard of safety on the job is zero. B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair is onto something when he calls for all workplace fatalities to be investigated by the RCMP.

With government flags at half-staff, solemn statements and Vancouver’s Olympic flame lit at Jack Poole Plaza, the Day of Mourning has become a sort of Remembrance Day for workers, all of whom wanted to live, none of whom needed to die. “Every workplace injury is preventable,” WorkPlaceBC chair George Morfitt reminded those present.


The day also gives families of the dead a chance to pay their respects and once more mourn their loss. Numerous family members, including children, were present on Tuesday, their sad faces attesting to their bereavement.

Before a final procession led by a ceremonial piper and honour guard, the speeches ended with a heartfelt poem written and read out by Grade 5 student Silver Kuris. The youngster was honouring her father, who died in a workplace accident Jan. 22, 2011. She entitled her poem: “My Daddy”.

“I know my Dad is up in heaven./He’s been there since I was seven…It’s not fair to lose a Dad./It makes me sad, it makes me mad!/Dads shouldn’t die, just going to work./It just isn’t right, that dangers may lurk.”

In her rhythmical, sing-song, 10-year old voice, the youngster concluded: “I love you, Dad…Love, Silver.”