Surrey: A City of Stories – a book review

March 19, 2018

Surrey:  A City of Stories, by K. Jane Watt.  Published by Surrey: City of Surrey Heritage Services (Fenton Street Publishing), 2017. $25.00

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

This visually rich book provides a satisfying history of the City of Surrey, the fastest growing area in Metro Vancouver, with B.C.’s second largest civic population of about half a million people. For a project to mark Canada’s 150th birthday, K. Jane Watt has devoted her passion for B.C.’s past to provide a concise text accompanied by more than 500 photographs, documents, maps and other fascinating illustrations. Obviously delivering an historical overview of sprawling Surrey is a daunting task, considering its vast mix of urban and rural landscape framed by the Fraser River to the north and the Strait of Georgia (Boundary Bay) to the south, including six town centres in between — Whalley, Guildford, Fleetwood, Newton, Cloverdale, and South Surrey.

So begins a book review of ‘Surrey: A City of Stories” written by the current President of the BC Historical Society and historian, K. Jane Watt. The full review is available on line at

Published by The Ormsby Review, March 20, 2018.


@cougar history – Facebook page on school history

March 15, 2018

by Janet Nicol

A facebook page created by Killarney students during my final teaching year in 2017 and based on their school and community history, is featured in the upcoming issue of BC History magazine, as a “Cabinet of Curiosity.” Check out the magazine, with lots of history articles about BC schools–and check out the Facebook page at Killarney Secondary and Community History@cougarhistory.”

BC History, Spring, 2018

Women’s march – 2018

March 8, 2018

Check out the latest issue of Our Times magazine for my report on this year’s women’s march in Vancouver. (Winter, 2017-18)

That Seventies Show

January 30, 2018

by Janet Nicol

The cleverly titled Rereading Room, an installation by Vancouver artist Alexandra Bischoff, is a centerpiece for Beginning with the Seventies: Glut, which celebrates art, archives and activism as they pertain to the women’s movement. On view at UBC’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until April 8, Bischoff’s work consists of some 100 books assembled on shelves lined along a wall, covers facing outward.

Viewers browsing the collection are transported back to the 1970s, when women awakened to the pervasive sexism around them aided by books such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Our Bodies, Ourselves, which takes a frank look at women’s health and sexuality. Bischoff based her archive on an early inventory list from the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore, a downtown fixture from 1973 to 1996.

Additionally, 13 female artists and activists are occupying the installation, here in its second iteration, giving the work a performative dimension. At various times, they sit at the installation’s table or on the couch, reading and writing reflections that will be archived later. Visitors are welcome to join in.
The Rereading Room underscores the importance of feminist texts and the once-pervasive network of independent women’s bookstores across Canada, both for the wider community and for artists. The Vancouver bookstore was the first, and like the others, created a space for women to gather, engage in dialogue and offer mutual support.

Curator Lorna Brown says social movements of the 1970s are of keen interest to young artists today. “They have observed the activism and cultural production of the 1970s, but there is a gap in their knowledge about many of the organizations in this period,” she says.

Feminist, environmental and anti-racist movements, to name a few, left a document trail in public and private archives throughout Vancouver’s Lower Mainland. The exhibition exposes, celebrates – and critiques – this abundance (or “glut”) of materials. “We are able to build a complex and rich understanding of our histories as a result,” says Brown.

Other artists in the show explore language as a medium and material. These pieces include a series of provocative posters by Winnipeg-born Divya Mehra and Vancouver artist Allyson Clay’s Double Self Portrait, an unsettling photograph of books being tossed from an apartment window. Also on view are works by two Vancouver-based artists – Kathy Slade’s text-embedded weavings and Gathie Falk’s glazed ceramic piece, 14 Rotten Apples. The gallery’s commissions include Lisa Robertson’s Proverbs of a She-Dandy, a limited-edition book. Also in the show are Jamelie Hassan, Germaine Koh, Laiwan, Kristina Lee Podesva, Elizabeth Zvonar and others.

Re-printed from Galleries West Digital magazine, January 30, 2018 – link at

Chinatown and Strathcona • BC Labour History Bronzed

December 14, 2017

Labour Notes

by Janet Nicol

Check out the latest issue of Our Times magazine for Labour Notes
on Marcy Toms’ Chinatown/Strathcona history walking tour, featuring many
remarkable women, and the BC Labour Heritage Centre’s ‘plaques around the province’ project, with the spotlight on previous generations of coal miners in Fernie, BC.

1921 New Westminster teacher strike

October 31, 2017

by Janet Nicol

Teachers in New Westminster delivered a special valentine to their school board when they announced an “illegal” strike February 14, 1921. Since the founding of the BC Teachers’ Federation in 1917, only one other local, Victoria, had defied their employer. The New Westminster walk out almost a century ago marked an important step toward full bargaining rights for BC teachers.

The full story of this lively and important part of teacher history is available at –

The plaque remembering this strike was unveiled today (October 30, 2017) at New Westminster Secondary School and will be permanently installed at another location soon.

“Like a Bolt from the Blue”

October 18, 2017

by Janet Mary Nicol

“Like a bolt from the blue, and to my profound astonishment, I was on Tuesday afternoon set upon by a number of special constables and arrested,” Israel Rubinowitz wrote from his prison cell in Nanaimo.

It was autumn 1913 when the budding defence lawyer made a plea for his release, penning a letter to Judge Frederick Howay in the midst of a coal miners’ strike on Vancouver Island. Though a Conservative in politics, Rubinowitz offered a passionate, occasionally radical, perspective in British Columbian courtrooms. He grew up in Vancouver, studied at McGill University in Montreal and attended Oxford University in England on a Rhodes scholarship in 1905. He returned to Vancouver and had only practised law for a short time when he found himself in Nanaimo – as both counsel and accused.

So begins a biographical account about the life and legal cases of early Vancouver lawyer Israel Rubinowitz. The writing of this history was inspired by the novel The Sacrifice by Adele Wiseman (1928-1992). In the words of its protagonist, the family patriarch, Abraham: “… and yet there was a time, I think, when I had everything … but now, when I look back, I had at least the beginning of everything.”

The article is available in “The Scribe,” a journal of the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC, available in late November, 2017. A shorter version of this essay was published in the Jewish Independent, July 31, 2015.

Schools out in Terrace

October 5, 2017

Teacher’s six day strike in 1981 helped paved the way to full bargaining rights

by Janet Nicol

British Columbia’s public school teachers didn’t achieve the right to strike until 1987—but that didn’t stop them from walking off the job. In fact teachers across the province have engaged in several disputes since the BC Teacher’s Federation was established in 1917, all playing an essential role toward gaining full collective bargaining rights. Among these actions was the teachers’ strike in Terrace in 1981. It was the fourth— but not final—time BC teachers would participate in an “illegal” walk out.

Tensions had been growing between the Terrace District Teachers’ Association (TDTA) and the nine-member school board in early 1981. About 337 teachers worked in schools enrolling 3,800 students within Terrace and other communities in northwestern BC. Local teacher associations (which included principals) only negotiated wages with their school boards and if they could not reach an agreement by a set deadline, the matter went to binding arbitration. School boards were not required to negotiate any working condition items with teachers.

That fateful spring a popular middle school principal, Tom Hamakawa, was transferred and demoted to classroom teacher by the district superintendent Frank Hamilton. This disciplinary action was “the catalyst that brought the whole thing to the surface,” Wayne Wyatt, President of the TDTA, told the Vancouver Sun. “We want a decent policy established on how this sort of thing should be handled in the future.” The staff supported the principal “very strongly,” Wyatt also said. Three hundred students were sympathetic too, walking out of class and marching to the school board office in protest.

Full article at BC Labour Heritage website –

When BC schools are named for people “close to home and heart”

September 27, 2017

by Janet Nicol

Make no mistake, naming new schools is political and at times controversial. There was great public outcry earlier this year, when residents petitioned to name a new elementary school in Vancouver’s Yaletown after Chinese-Canadian pioneer and advocate, Won Alexander Cumyow and the request was turned down in favour of the bland “Crosstown.”

A debate erupted two years ago when Sir William Macdonald Elementary on Vancouver’s east side was threatened with closure. Protesters succeeded in a temporary reprieve, and got a promise to rename the school to reflect its unique Aboriginal program.

When John Robson Elementary was torn down and replaced by a new middle school in New Westminster three years ago, trustees engaged in a renaming discussion because the late-nineteenth century BC Premier John Robson had a poor record on race relations. The result was Fraser River Middle School.

As more community members are invited to consult on the naming of new schools, a shift is occurring. Instead of reflecting colonial ties and a male-dominated elite, more schools are named for “ordinary” men and women of diverse backgrounds who have made valuable contributions. The local landscape is enriched when our public schools are named for people who displayed heroism, generosity, and talent. Students can be motivated and inspired by their school’s namesake too. Allowing more local input in the process of selecting names gives school communities a greater sense of pride and belonging.

Consider these stories behind the names…

Few argued against the renaming of Port Coquitlam Senior Secondary in 1986 to Terry Fox Secondary. Fox was a beloved alumni, and his personal battle against cancer and his selfless Marathon of Hope inspired the nation.

Japanese-Canadian pioneer and human rights advocate Tomekichi Homma had an elementary school named after him by Richmond trustees in 1990.

Jessie Wowk Elementary in Richmond was named for a humanitarian Ukrainian immigrant who helped people standing in bread lines during the 1930s depression.

Educators have been getting their dues too. In Surrey, Earl Marriott Secondary opened in 1972, named after its first principal, who went on to become the district superintendent.

It seems fitting to have more schools named for female educators, considering women have dominated the profession. In 1989 Martha Jane Norris Elementary was named for Surrey’s first school teacher, and a Yaletown elementary school was named after educator Elsie Roy in 2004. Norma Rose Point Elementary opened in 2017 on the UBC campus, honouring an Aboriginal educator and member of the nearby Musqueam Band.

A middle school in Kelowna was named for constable Neil Bruce in 1965. He was shot in the line of duty while attempting to rescue a young woman.

Mar Jok, a Chinese-Canadian resident who served as a court interpreter and operated the Star Cafe on Water Street, has his name on an elementary school in West Kelowna.

Dr. Kearney Middle School, built in 1985 in Fort St. John, is named for a pioneer doctor and early advocate of Medicare who successfully guided a life-saving operation on a man, via radio, in 1939.

Margaret “Ma” Murray Elementary in Fort St. John was named for the town’s colourful newspaper owner in 2016.

Charles Hays Secondary in Prince Rupert was established in 1992 and named after a local businessman who met his fate on the Titanic.

Myrtle Phillip Elementary in Whistler opened in 1976, named for a woman who built Rainbow Lodge with her husband Alex, in 1913. She was also a school trustee, and frequently visited her namesake school until her death in 1986.

In the Kootenays, Hume Elementary, over a century old, is named after an early hotel owner, J. Fred Hume. Now both the Nelson hotel and school have heritage value.

Reprinted from BC Teacher magazine, September-October issue, 2017.


After Pearl Harbor – authors talk at Kogawa House

August 26, 2017

“After Pearl Harbour” and The 1942 Hughes Gang Murder of Yoshi Uno

The January 1942 slaying of Yoshiyuki Uno was largely forgotten until writer and historian Stewart Muir brought this tragic story back to life with new findings, published in a Vancouver Sun series in 2013 titled Merciful Injustice. Janet Nicol subsequently provided another perspective in her article “After Pearl Harbor” (BC History, 2014). Join Stewart and Janet as they discuss their research with author Susan Aihoshi, as she embarks on a book-length treatment of the Uno story. This event is for people interested in the city’s hidden histories as well as those who may have additional perspectives that could aid Susan in developing her project.

Please join us!

Thursday, September 14, 7:30 to 9:00pm

About the Kogawa House, according to the website: Located in the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver, Historic Joy Kogawa House was once the childhood home of acclaimed author Joy Kogawa and her family. Today, the property is a unique live/work space for writers, a space for public events, and an ongoing symbol of the racial discrimination experienced by Japanese Canadians as a consequence of the Second World War.