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

“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.

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