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.
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.
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.
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.