Early Radical History of Vancouver

Coast Salish Peoples / Sto:lo and Squamish Land

The city of Vancouver is located on Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh (Burrard), and Musqueam (Sto:lo) land.

Prior to European invasion there were many Sto:lo, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh (Burrard) towns and villages in the lower mainland area. The Musqueam town in what is now South Vancouver had a population of around 1,200 people. A village in Stanley Park was home to about 400 people. Throughout Vancouver there were many other small hamlets. The Sto:lo name for the west end of downtown around Georgia and Denman is Chelxwaelch. The east side, around the Clark and Hastings area is called Leglequi.

The first small pox epidemic reached the Coast Salish peoples in 1790. It had traveled north from Mexico and killed about two thirds of the population. For the next hundred years the Coast Salish peoples would be subjected to many more epidemics, most of them purposely spread by European settlers, including numerous outbreaks of influenza and measles. The gold rush of 1858 saw the first great influx of European settlers into Coast Salish / Sto:lo territory, and also the first reserves. Indigenous title to the land was ignored and the land was exploited, but not without resistance. In 1862 the new chief commissioner of land and works, Joseph Trutch, reduced reservation size by 92 percent, which sparked many protests.

Between 1884 and 1951 the traditional Potlatch ceremony was banned by the colonial government. The potlatch was seen as a threat to attempts of assimilation. Potlatch ceremonies were large inter-community gatherings where wealth, hereditary rights, and property were redistributed through exchange of gifts. Sto:lo people continued to have potlatches in secret. In 1888 a law was passed that made it illegal for Sto:lo people to sell the fish they caught.

In 1907, Chief Capilano was charged with “inciting Indians to revolt” after he reported of his visit with King Edward VII of England.

In 1908 many Sto:lo children were forced to migrate to Catholic residential schools. They would stay for nine months of the year, spending half the time in class and the other half doing manual labour. Girls and boys were segregated and forced to do work according to European and patriarchal gender roles. Girls and boys were not allowed to speak to each other even if they were siblings. They were also prohibited from speaking their own languages or performing traditional dances. Many children defied these rules, associating with the opposite gender and running into the fields of tall grass in order to speak to each other in their native languages. There were also attempts by the children to burn down the dormitories and schools.

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The Streets of Vancouver

From 1873-1910 chained prisoners were a daily sight in downtown Vancouver, as they were put to work clearing and building roads under the watchful eye of a guard armed with a shotgun.

On December 31st of 1897 the chain gang went on strike, refusing to continue work, and were hauled back to jail and put on a water and bread diet. The prisoners held out for 3 days.

Most of the streets were named after wealthy property owners.

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The Great Fire of 1886

1886 was the year of the Great Fire in which almost all of Vancouver burned to the ground. Land clearing fires on the Canadian Pacific Railway property quickly spread out of control, killing many and leaving 2,500 people homeless. A new city hall was built on Powell Street, but when it was finished the city claimed that it had no money to pay the builder. He decided to refuse them entry until he was paid and the city was quick to concede and pay him in full.

Map of the fire based on eyewitness accounts collected by archivist Major Matthews. (From Past Tense blog)

Map of the fire based on eyewitness accounts collected by archivist Major Matthews. (From Past Tense blog)

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Early Class Warfare

The first Vancouver craft unions formed in 1887. Two years later, in 1889, class warfare erupted in Vancouver during a longshore strike as workers rebelled against uncertain employment on the docks and clashed with Canadian Pacific Railway special police. The strike forced Mayor David Oppenheimer into a compromise agreement with the workers.

The Fishermen’s Union formed in 1900. Indigenous men and women of the Fishermen’s Union were active in the 1900 strike and fought alongside white and Japanese workers.

In 1900 and 1901, Frank Rogers, a union organizer and socialist, led striking Vancouver fishermen on marches throughout the city. The workers faced-off against the militia and police, and Rogers was arrested during the strike of 1901.

In 1903, the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees (UBRE), a militant union that organized by industry, regardless of occupational and racial lines and in oppossition to the craft unions, kicked off a strike when ticket clerks were fired by the company for union organizing on February 27. Seamen, longshore men, transport workers, and Japanese labourers all walked off the job in sympathy strikes. The CPR recognized the threat posed by militant industrial unionism and class solidarity, and hired spies, undercover agents, strikebreakers and special police. 3 days after the strike began Frank Rogers was shot and killed by CPR special police. His funeral was attended by every union in the city and more than 800 workers marched in the procession. The CPR payed for the special police murderer’s lawyer, and he was not convicted.

“Frank Rogers death was not only proof of the existence of class struggle, but also a reminder of which side had initiated the conflict.”
– Jeremy Mouat

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Vancouver’s First Socialist Organizations

The Vancouver local of the American-based Socialist Labour Party (SLP) formed in 1898 alongside the Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance (STLA). The STLA grew as a radical union alternative and made propaganda against the “business unionism” of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) and the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC). The actions of the STLA led to a split in the Vancouver SLP and the formation of the United Socialist Labour Party (USLP). The USLP built a Socialist Hall on Main Street and was active in the fishermen strikes of 1900 and 1901.

In 1901 the USLP formed the Socialist Party of British Columbia and published the Western Clarion newspaper. In 1904 the Socialist Party of Canada was established, with a headquarters in Vancouver.

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Settlers / Workers

The Vancouver chapter of the Knights of Labour formed in 1886. The Knights Of Labour was a militant industrial union, but was also a white-supremacist organization that was active in the Asiatic Exclusion League, boycotts of Asian businesses, and the race riots of 1887 and 1907.

In 1889 the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC) was formed, as a more conservative and education-based organization that was also active in Asian exclusion and opression. The VTLC constructed the Vancouver Labour Temple.

The British Columbia Federation of Labour (BCFL) did not form until 1910.

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The Struggle of Asian Immigrants

The Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) formed in 1899 in order to assist destitute Chinese workers. The CBA lobbied for relief during the Depression of the 1930’s and opened soup kitchens. More than 175 unemployed Chinese residents would starve to death in the 1930’s. The Chinese Workers Protective Association (CWPA) was also created during the Depression. Asian workers were generally paid two thirds to half the wages of white workers.

White-supremacists in Vancouver oppressed and excluded the Asian working class, and during economic depressions in 1887 and 1907, led anti-Asian riots in Chinatown. During the riot of 1887 more than 90 Chinese resident’s homes were burned down. Residents in Japantown in 1907, upon hearing of the racist attacks, armed themselves with clubs and knives.

Japanese residents threw rocks from rooftops at the white mob and managed to drive them back.

Japanese residents then armed themselves with guns and patrolled Japantown the next day, forbidding entry to outsiders.

The following day all Japanese and Chinese workers went on strike. Rumors spread of armed insurrection and the white population panicked and bought up weapons. The strike lasted for 3 days. The city police cordoned off Chinatown and Japantown for a week in an effort to keep things under control.

In the months following the riot Chinese and Japanese workers continued to organize their own unions and defense organizations in the city.
In July of 1917 Chinese shingle workers went on strike for shorter work hours and better conditions. Since 70% of the workforce in the industry was Chinese most shingle factories in Vancouver were forced to close.

In 1919 the Chinese Shingle Workers Union (CSWU) was created and offices were set up in Chinatown. They engaged in a month-long strike against pay reductions and won.

The Japanese Camp and Mill Workers Union (JCMWU) was created in 1920 as a militant socialist organization, and also the first Japanese union to join the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada in 1927.
The Chinese Canadian Fisheries Worker’s Association (CCFWA) formed in 1978.

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Industrial Workers of The World

The Industrial Workers Of The World (IWW) is an anti-capitalist union that has fought for revolution using direct action, and has a particularly strong history in Vancouver. Two miners from British Columbia, John Riordan and James Baker, attended the founding convention of the IWW in Chicago on June 27, 1905. The IWW was formed by militant workers, anarcho-syndicalists, socialists, and communists who saw the need to organize “One Big Union”. The IWW set itself apart from the American Federation of Labour by organizing workers by industry rather than by craft or occupation. They refused to sign contracts with bosses, and rejected the dues check-off system, by which employers automatically subtracted union dues from paycheques. It was also one of the only unions of the time that organized all workers regardless of gender of ethnic background. One member declared that “all this anti-Japanese talk comes from the employing class.” The IWW strategy is based on direct action as oppossed to electoral politics.

Tsleil-Waututh (Burrard) workers from North Vancouver formed Vancouver Local 526 of the IWW in 1906. Soon nicknamed the “Bows and Arrows”, it was the first union on the Burrard docks. The Lumber Workers Industrial Union Local 45 (LWIU), the Lumber Handlers Local 526, and the Mixed Local 322 had been established by 1907, and had organized hundreds of workers. The Vancouver LWIU won the eight-hour workday for its members, removed tiered-bunks in logging camps, and forced companies to supply bedding. The IWW then went on to organize teamsters, miners, and railway workers. They had organized 9 locals in British Columbia by 1913 and led 6 strikes involving some 10,000 workers. The IWW also organized transient workers, the unemployed, and recent immigrants, many of whom lived in the squatter jungles in the city; people that other unions looked down upon. Many of the founders of the Vancouver IWW had been active militants in the Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance (STLA).

The IWW denounced political action at a 1908 congress, and excluded known Socialist Party members. Along the west coast, and in Vancouver in particular, there was a strong movement among the IWW for regional autonomy and against the General Executive Branch. IWW members in Vancouver were strongly opposed to politics and parties. When the Socialist Party of Canada urged workers to vote for them in the 1909 elections, the IWW pointed out that only 75 of their 5,000 members were even eligible. This was because women, Asians, and non-residents or property owners had no voting rights at the time. IWW members felt that all governments served the ruling class and capitalism, and said that “a wise tailor does not put stitches into rotten cloth.” The Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) denounced the union as “so anarchistic, and therefore reactionary, as to clearly stamp it as an enemy of the peaceful and orderly process of the labour movement towards the overthrow of capital and the ending of wage servitude.”

It was in Vancouver that the nick-name “Wobbly” originated. A local Chinese restaurant keeper supported the union and would extend credit to its members. He pronounced IWW as “I Wobble Wobble”, and it quickly caught on.

The Wobbly Hall was at 112 Abott Street. Other meeting places included 61 West Cordova and 232 East Pender.

By 1912, the IWW boasted 10,000 members in B.C.

The IWW fought a “free speech” fight in 1912, against a ban on public meetings, leading to the repression of many of its members, but also a lift on the ban. Vancouver police regularly attacked the Wobblies public meetings, and several riots broke out. Wobblies rented a boat and spoke to crowds off English Bay through a huge megaphone. In February the IWW called for a convergence in Vancouver and threatened a General Strike to oppose the ban on free speech. Wobblies warned that “the worker’s weapon – sabotage” would be put to use. J.S. Biscay declared in public meetings and to the press that “if they want to drown free speech in Vancouver they will have to bury us with it.” Towards the end of the struggle for free speech more than 10,000 people gathered to hear the Wobblies speak at the Powell Street grounds.

Listings for the IWW disappeared from Vancouver directories in 1912 after police and government harrassment began in response to the IWW attempts to organize transient, forestry, and railway workers and open advocation of sabotage and class struggle. The IWW was banned in Canada between 1918 and 1919 under a “war measures act” as a seditious group, but members kept the organization alive underground.

Vancouver Wobblies re-opened a general membership branch in January of 2000.

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Women’s Telephone Workers Union

The all-women workforce at the Burrard Inlet Telephone company (later called BC Tel and now Telus) went on strike in 1902, winning higher wages and paid sick leave. Previously, the workers had to pay the wages of their replacements when they called in sick. The company did not pay the women during the training period, which could last as long as six months.

The Telephone Workers Union joined the sympathy strike called by the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Of all the unions involved in the strike, the women telephone operators were the last group to return to work. They held out for two weeks after the general strike ended, but eventually returned to work on the company’s terms, which included the loss of their union.

In 1981, the union locked out management at several buildings in Vancouver. The workers ran an efficient and enhanced public service without the bosses. This “good work” strike pressured BC Tel into signing an improved contract with its workers.
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Sabotage of the Cambie and Granville Street Bridges

At 4:30 on the morning of April 29th, 1915 two fires broke out simultaneously on the Cambie and Granville Street bridges. The Granville bridge fire was put out but the one on the Cambie bridge raged out of control and caused the collapse of the center span, destroying it. Firefighters determined that the fires had been set intentionally and many people speculated about the possible motives of the arsonists. Newspapers claimed that it was the work of “enemy aliens”, German spys bringing the First World War to Canada. The arsonists were never caught.

A few days later on May 3rd, fires were set on the Granville Street bridge and a woman claimed to have seen three men fleeing from the scene.

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Albert “Ginger” Goodwin and the Vancouver 1918 General Strike

Albert Ginger Goodwin was a respected labour organizer and agitator who participated in several militant coal mine strikes on Vancouver Island. As a pacifist, he dodged the First World War draft but was hunted down on July 27, 1918 and murdered by a special police officer. The working people of British Columbia were outraged and workers in Vancouver marked Goodwin’s funeral on August 2, 1918 with Canada’s first General Strike.

Soldiers rioted and attacked the Labour Temple during the strike and injured several people. The next day the soldiers returned to the temple, but workers fought back and drove the mob away.

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Vancouver Solidarity with the Winnipeg General Strike

The great Winnipeg General Strike began at 11:00 a.m. on May 15, 1919 and lasted until June 28, 1919. On June 5,1919 Vancouver workers set off solidarity strikes. Street railway men, electrical workers, telephone workers, most civic employees, sugar refiners, metal workers, and coastal shipping workers walked off the job in sympathy with the struggle in Winnipeg. 1,200 street railway men held out until June 30, while other workers held out until July 3, and telephone workers striked up to July 16, far past the end of the Winnipeg General Strike on June 26, 1919. Large football matches became a popular pass-time with the strikers.

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