The Left in BC: A History of Struggle – a book review

September 6, 2014

“The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle” by Gordon Hak. Vancouver: Ronsdale, 2013. $21.95.

Not every British Columbian, past or present, knows what a ‘placard’ is, let alone marched with one in public. To help navigate this colorful historical narrative encompassing sign-carrying protesters to NDP voters, is senior college historian, Gordon Hak’s book, “The Left in BC: a History of Struggle.” Under the left-wing political umbrella, the author examines groups ranging from communists to progressive liberals and offers a sweeping historical chronology of movements, ideologies and actions from the 1880s to the present day.

It’s a history waiting to be written, and not only a history of a ‘world’ gone by, but as the author asserts, “helps us understand current predicaments.” Emphasis is given to two key institutions on the left—trade unions and political parties. Influential historical markers include the BC fishers strike of 1900, the On-to-Ottawa trek of 1935, which began in BC, and the shaping of the federal welfare state after the Second World War. The bitterly destructive division between the communists and other leftists during the cold war across North American is depicted as played out in BC, its factions not to be reconciled until the 1980s. The rise in the sixties of previously marginalized groups, such as women, gays, aboriginals and other visible minorities, both challenges and empowers the left in BC and elsewhere. Other more contemporary activities involving leftists with BC origins include the “Occupy” and environmental movements.

Mak has good reason to take a detailed look at the trade union movement’s role. In fact the roots of the left in BC are found in unions, as the opening chapter, “Unions and Politics: 1880s to 1894” attests. Most of his research comes from well-scoured newspaper reports, with a nod to the one of the few books on BC labour history, “No Power Greater,” by Paul Phillips. These were the days when British Columbians sometimes looked south, rather than east, for ideas and expertise. Mrs. Mattie A Bridge, was one such American Mak discovers in his newspaper searches. She visited Vancouver Island minefields in 1892 and inspired coal miners with her oratory skills. Mrs. Bridge advised a line of prophetic action to her sympathetic audience: “The first step…is Labor Unions, the second the federation of these unions, the third the consolidation of the labor force at the ballot box, in the interests of women and children and freedom.”

The British leftist and trade union traditions also influence provincial trends, making sense given a population whose leadership is predominantly of this heritage. The second chapter on “rising radicalism” (1895 to 1920) shows these British influences coming to the fore—and again in the chapter covering the post-Second World War ‘welfare state.’
The left may have reached its zenith in the Operation Solidarity movement, as Hak describes the coming together of unions and community groups to protest Social Credit government policy in 1983. This was “the last gasp” of an era of trade union influence on social and economic policy. More than 60,000 people gathered at Empire Stadium, one of many momentous events, to protest the Socred government’s neo-liberal agenda. “The Solidarity critique was restricted to one government, Social Credit, and not the broader institutions of capitalism,” Hak observes. The result was “disappointment”—not victory. A coalition had coalesced, Hak states, “but the moment was short-lived.”

More recently, Hak connects the provincial left to national trends—the feminist work of Ontario-based Naomi Klein (to the neglect, I would suggest, of feminist-based groups and individuals in BC) and the national aboriginal ‘Idle No More’ movement. (Again, more on our province’s aboriginal leadership is still a history to be expanded on).

Mak also notes trade unions have weakened significantly in the private sector in a province where organized fishers, loggers and builders once held much leverage. Still he perceives a hopeful future for those who look at the world through a leftist prism. In the final chapter, ‘Looking Forward,” Mak notes class remains important, as long as there is a workplace division of employers and employees. On the future of unions, he concludes, “…increased stresses on the job, the enthusiasm of youthful and ethnically diverse organizers, attention to the needs of the unemployed and a focus on community issues and not only the interest of members, suggest the possibility of a reinvigorated labour movement.”

“The Left in British Columbia” is more than statistics and theories as Hak offers readers a litany of wins and losses within the context of British Columbians’ changing thinking, public dialogue and influences over more than a century. As the subtitle, “A History of Struggle” suggests, this book provides an engaging and enlightening understanding of BC labour and leftist history.

-Janet Nicol

Reprinted from Brtish Columbia History, Fall, 2014.

Will the Embargo Against Cuba Ever End?

July 1, 2014


by Janet Nicol

In October last year, 188 UN member states voted to oppose the continued US trade embargo on Cuba. While the Obama government has eased up on some of the embargo’s restrictions, many food and medicine products are still banned from export.

Full article available in Peace magazine, July to September, 2014

Ruptures in Arrival: Art in the Wake of the Komagata Maru

May 31, 2014


“Ruptures in Arrival” at Surrey Art Gallery, April 12 to June 15, 2014

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

This powerful group exhibition is one of several events this year to mark the 100th anniversary of Canada’s refusal to allow entry by 376 Indian migrants aboard a Japanese steamship, the Komagata Maru. Much has been written about the incident, part of Canada’s troubled history of thwarting immigration from Asia, but curator Jordan Strom believes this is the largest exhibition to engage the topic. The show includes 10 artists who use painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video and installation to reflect not only on the specific incident, but also on more recent histories of oceanic migration. It features work by Vancouver artists, including notable figures such as Ken Lum and Paul Wong, along with artists who live elsewhere in Canada, as well as India and the United States.

Full article in Galleries West magazine, Fall/Winter, 2014.
Link at

Artwork shown above is created by Raghavendra Rao

Working People: A B.C. Labour History Film

May 29, 2014


By Janet Nicol

“When I was a teacher, my students couldn’t see themselves in the history texts,” says Ken Novakowski, retired social studies teacher and past president of the BC Teachers’ Federation. “They didn’t relate to politicians and industrial barons. But, today, they can see their parents and grandparents in ‘Working People: A History of Labour in British Columbia.’”

Novakowski, is among those involved in the making of “Working People,” an ambitious series of 30 film vignettes and curriculum package. Watch for this article in the upcoming issue of Our Times magazine, spring, 2014.

A group of BC teachers, including this writer, will be presenting vignettes and lesson plans on Saturday, June 14 at a morning workshop of the annual Pacific Northwest Labour History conference in Cumberland, on Vancouver Island.

For more information about the BC Labour Heritage Centre, visit

The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff – a book review

May 24, 2014

LifeandArtUhthoff_LOThe Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff, by Christina Johnson-Dean, Mother Tongue Publishing Ltd., Salt Spring Island, 2012.

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Emily Carr had a visitor to her studio in Victoria sometime in the late 1920s. “She is an artist with two children and an invalid husband to support,” Carr wrote in her journal without naming her. “I esteemed her very much.” That artist was most likely Ina D.D. Uhthoff ( 1889-1971), a Scottish emigree and prominent artist and educator. Today, a collection of Uhthoff’s varied and stunning art work is safely housed in British Columbia and Alberta galleries, but her life and work has not received the greater recognition it deserves.

The fifth in a series of ‘unheralded artists of BC,’ written by Victoria-based Christina Johnson-Dean, this is a remarkable story of a determined and talented woman, born Jemima (“Ina”) Duncan Dewar Campbell, in a district close to Glasgow. “Ina” was the fifth child in a prosperous family. She first came to BC to visit friends in the Kootenays in 1913. Returning to Glasgow, she continued to study art and became certified as a teacher. Following the First World War, Ina married returning soldier Edward Joseph Uhthoff. The newlyweds immigrated to Crawford Bay in the Kootenays to farm and soon had two children, John and Muriel.

But early on the marriage was unravelling, as the author sensitively recounts, and Ina eventually re-located to Victoria with her two young children. Likely Edward’s war wounds had incapacitated him, the author believes. He did not re-marry (nor did Ina) and quietly lived out his life, to age 85, apart from his family.

By the fall of 1925, Ina and her children were settled in Victoria. Ina had “established herself as a busy and hardworking young teacher, artist and community member.” From this point forward, she built a remarkable career, making significant contributions as an art educator and artist. Former students recall Uhthoff was of tough Scots stock, giving praise only when due, but committed to her students and hardworking to the core.
Her own art was based on traditional and fundamental training from her Glasgow art school days. She gave Canadians a mirror of our own people in several skillful oil portraits, including “Dutch Canadian” and “Canadian in the North”. When the Second World War came,

Ina sketched her son with a mother’s pride, “John Uhthoff as Pilot” as well as acknowledging women’s war work in a compelling oil in shades of blue, “Girl Welder at Work.” Her subjects also included landscapes she loved in the Kootenays and on Vancouver Island. Uhthoff played with geometric shapes giving a modern feel to her works, though she challenged post-war trends in her art columns for the Victoria Daily Colonist newspaper. Uhthoff was accomplished in several other mediums as the book’s color-plated illustrations attest, including watercolors, etchings, linocuts, pastels and pottery.

Unlike some artists, Uhthoff didn’t seem to obsess on a certain theme or style, though her experiences as an artist accumulated over the years to great results. “Suburbia”, a mixed media art work, for example, is a beautifully layered image of a mass of residential rooftops, with a distant sea beyond and a few stark trees towering in the foreground. “Her work was considered an inspiration,” the author observes, “and an example of a top-flight artist in Victoria.” Perhaps the diverse nature of Uhthoff’s works is partly the result of the many pulls on her time, with paid work a necessity and two children to raise, esentially alone—both tasks done with her full attention and care.

As with previous books in the series, several artworks and biographic photographs enhance the text. Johnston-Dean left no stone unturned in tracing Uhthoff’s story, interviewing family members and others who knew her. The second in the series to feature a BC woman artist, readers not only gain a valuable regional history, but also another perspective on women’s lives—and their creative gifts for future generations to appreciate.

Re-printed from BC History magazine, Summer 2014

Sensational Victoria – a book review

May 24, 2014

Sensational-Victoria2Sensational Victoria: Bright Lights, Red Lights, Murders, Ghosts & Gardens, by Eve Lazarus, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2012. $24 160pp

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

BC’s capital city, in light and shadow, is the subject of a series of entertaining stories collected by Vancouver freelancer, Eve Lazarus. Engaging both as a city guide and glimpse of urban history, photographs grace almost every page, many taken by the author.

Lazarus has written previously about Vancouver’s heritage houses in “At Home with History” and continues to write a lively blog on the topic at She brings this interest to “Sensational Victoria,” highlighting the “geneology” of Victoria’s houses and its diverse inhabitants.

Emily Carr takes centre stage in the opening pages, despite the attention the artist has received in the past few decades. “She kept getting in my head,” Lazarus explains in her introduction, “and turning up in the most unlikely places.” As a result, the reader is given an introduction to Victoria “in the steps of Emily Carr.” She was born near the Parliament buildings in 1871 and now 12,000 people visit her heritage-designated home every year.

Carr is featured again as one of five “legendary women of Victoria,” in the second chapter, along with writers Nellie McClung, Gwen Cash, Muriel Wylie Banchet and architect Sylvia Holland. Too bad the author left out P.K. Page (1916-2010), an acclaimed Canadian poet and the subject of a recently published biography, “Journey with No Maps”. But then artists, architects and free spirits seem to dominate this port on the edge of Canada, and a few are bound to be missed. So do sea captains and lighthouse keepers, as the next theme, ‘Tales of the Sea’ depict men shaped by the Pacific. Among them is Captain Leonard Pye Locke, in charge of the Princess Sophia. He is on the doomed ship as it returned from Alaska and on October 23, 1918, slammed into a reef during a severe storm.

As gold prospectors and sailors came through the capital, so did prostitutes. Borrowing from writer Linda Eversole’s unique biography, “Stella: Unrepentant Madame”, written in 2005, Lazarus begins a chapter on Victoria’s red light district by following the Victorian-era madam’s trail of brothels.

Murders, both solved and unsolved, occurring in both in hotels and homes from 1892 to 1992, chill the reader. Some of these stories have become legendary, seeping in to ghost tours and city folklore, while others are lesser-known, culled by the author from newspaper headlines. These true crimes appropriately lead to the next topic, ghost stories, for which Victoria is well-known. Local historian John Adams tells the author the city is “exceptionally” haunted because of the number of “ley lines”– invisible lines of energy that run in straight lines under the earth and create heightened spiritual and paranormal activity.

The town’s warmer side returns as home owners’ pride is described in a chapter on heritage gardens. When Jim Munroe, owner of Munroe Books in downtown Victoria, bought his house in 1966, he inherited a garden framed by a stone wall and including a gazebo, pond and hundred-year old lilac. Munroe and his wife Carole went on to restore and extend this natural oasis, one of several beauty spots described in this section.

“Bright Lights,” looks at the childhood homes of well-known musicians, writers and actors, including David Foster. Despite international fame as a musician and producer, Foster occasionally returns to Ascot Drive where he grew up along with six sisters, and recalls fond memories of the neighborhood.

A final themed chapter called “The Limners” reflects the quirky temperament of the town. An artistic group of Victoria residents established a club of sorts in 1971, calling themselves the Limners, after itinerant sign-painters of long ago. Among them is Robin Skelton, (1925-1997) a druid-like poet and professor. He claimed his home in Oak Bay “is the very centre of my existence” and “blessed” fellow-poet Susan Musgrave’s tree house, also featured in this book, when she bought it in 1987.

The author closes with a ‘stroll around downtown’ highlighting some of the historic architecture, museums and stores. Chinatown (and Fan Tan Alley) are surprisingly omitted. Inclusion of a few lesser known sites would also have strengthened the closing chapter, of an otherwise richly detailed book. Victoria is indeed a ‘sensational’ city, as the author asserts, with fascinating layers of history to appreciate.

Re-printed from BC History magazine, Summer 2014

Check out Eve Lazarus’ latest book, “Sensational Vancouver,” published by Anvil Press, May 2014.

How did our community survive this?

May 23, 2014


Why did so many aboriginal children not return home safely from residential school? The Missing Children Project, part of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is looking for answers as researchers investigate the deaths, disappearances and burial places among the 150,000 children attending these government-funded schools over a 150 year period.

“It’s a huge project,” says Kimberly Murray, Executive Director of the TRC and a member of the Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation. “We are continuing to add (deceased or missing) children’s names. These figures will be the last thing we do before we turn off the lights on the report.”

The full interview with Kimberly Murray is in the June issue of New Internationalist magazine and is on line at –

-Janet Nicol

For more information about the work of the Missing Children Project go to

Daydreaming – Let your mind wander

May 23, 2014


by Janet Nicol

Mind wandering harkens back to the buzzwords of the ’60s, such as stream of consciousness–a technique inspiring poets, shamans and visionaries. More conservatively, we may refer to this state as task-unrelated thought, absentmindedness, or being preoccupied. Mind wandering can also happen when people are depressed or intoxicated.

I write about this fascinating topic, interviewing Kieran Fox, a psychology researcher at University of British Columbia who is doing intriguing work in this field.

“A lot of creative people, both artists and scientists, have credited their dreams and daydreams with inspirations and insights,” Fox says. “You need to let the ideas come in the first place–you need to keep that space open and not judge your daydreams too soon.”

The full article is in the June, 2014 issue of Alive magazine.
On line at

Gordon Smith Gallery

May 1, 2014


A “one of a kind” Art Experience for Kids

By Janet Nicol

Vancouver artists, both young and old, have been creating great works beneath North Shore’s twin lion-shaped peaks.   Among them is Gordon Smith, internationally renowned for his art–and as an art educator.  So it’s no surprise a unique artist program for youth, “Artists for Kids,” which Smith helped establish, has been thriving in North Vancouver for more than two decades.

A year ago, the organization moved to the newly-built Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art, housed in the North Vancouver School District building. In the lobby, students’ art work from the area’s public schools is displayed.  The exhibit changes each month—and since the building opened—has been in high demand.      

The lobby exhibit is only a small portion of this unique ‘teaching gallery’ for “kids,” supported by the Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation and conveniently located near retail shops at the top of Lonsdale Street. A visit, whether to register your child for art classes, or to take the family for a gallery walk, is a great weekend outing.  

The concrete and glass building is fronted by a small park, with a meandering path to the entrance foyer.  That’s where I met up with the Smith Foundation director, Astrid Heyerdahl and Artists for Kids director, Yolanda Martinello, to have a tour of the building and learn more about the programs offered.

“We have many public events,” Astrid says as we move through castle-size cedar doors, beautifully carved with storied images by Xwalacktun (Rick Harry), a Coast Salish artist.  Astrid says the Foundation is just getting started with its plans for outreach events for youth and families all over the Lower Mainland.   There is plenty of parking space nearby and transit access is only a sea bus and chain of bus stops away. “Our location really opens this up,” Astrid says.  

Below the gallery’s high ceilings is a maze of low partitioned walls.  The current exhibit, pulled from more than 500 art pieces from the program’s collection, has many recognizable works by Canadian artists, including Artists for Kids’ other co-founders, Jack Shadbolt and Bill Reid.

“We offer a one day program to grade five classes across the Lower Mainland,” Yolanda says.  “In the morning students view and critique the gallery exhibit and in the afternoon, they work on their own art.”

At the back of the gallery is a space for students to watch videos and examine artist tools, such as print makers’ carving tools and wooden blocks.

“We hire Canadian artists and critque Canadian art,” Yolanda emphasizes, although she says educators will discuss art influences from other parts of the world.    “Canadian art is very rich, she says, “British Columbia especially.”

Yolanda says the grade five program captures a keen age group, willing to take risks.  It’s a popular “school field trip,” and interested participants can then consider enrolling in Art for Kid’s after school program and the summer camp.  

The after school program targets youth from kindergarten to Grade 12 offering courses in everything from jewelry making to acrylics painting. Classes are once a week, for eight weeks, at an affordable cost.   Students’ works are exhibited in the gallery space when the course ends.

At the summer camp, youth of all ages have an exciting opportunity to create under the direction of a Canadian artist.  Last summer’s guest teacher was Vancouver-based artist, Attila Richard Lukas.

 “It’s an enriched art experience,” Yolanda says.  “Students work with highly qualified artists who collaborate with art educators.”

The visiting artist also donates an original work of art from which limited edition prints are made.    Every year Artists for Kids sells the prints to the public and the original piece is added to the program’s valuable collection.  

 “We have alumni from our program come back to teach at the summer camps,” Yolanda says. “Some of these students go on to be artists and art teachers.”  The artistic process allows for youth to work in a non-judgemental atmosphere, Yolanda believes.  “They become self-aware, confident and can voice their opinions,” she says.   She has also observed students who are at-risk in school environments may “fit well in an art room.”

“We nurture their creativity and this stretches in to other aspects of their lives.   It’s life changing.”

For more information go to:

Working People: A History of Labour in BC

March 2, 2014


“Working People: the History of Labour in British Columbia” is a powerful documentary made up of thirty ‘vignettes,’ each story containing photographs, archival film footage and songs.

Some of the stories have already made the history books, others have not. 

One vignette, which I helped research is called “By Women, For Women” and tells the story of the SORWUC bank workers’ union organizing drive in the 1970s. 

“Working People” previews March 20 on BC’s Knowledge Network TV.

The complete series will be posted on the Labour Heritage Centre website soon–and distributed to schools throughout BC.

(Photo: CIBC at Victory Square in Vancouver. Workers at this branch were the first to join the bank workers’ local of SORWUC.)


Now on magazine stands (March, 2014) is a featured article I have written in Women and Environments International Magazine based on research for the Working People vignette “By Women, For Women” and called “Women must do it for themselves: Organizing Working Women into SORWUC (1972-1986).” The article concludes, in part, “SORWUC shook up some of the toughest industries to organize–including banks and restaurants–and challenged the union movement’s complacency, holding up the ideal of independent unions, controlled by its membership.”

Also check out this wonderful graphic arts version of the SORWUC story – on line at


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