Archive for the ‘BC History Articles’ Category

The Hidden Histories of Schools

May 18, 2021

by Janet Nicol

Connecting history to our school and community deepens students’ understanding of the past. Consider Vancouver Technical Secondary: students typeset, printed, and bound their own yearbooks from 1922 to 1947, the covers illustrated with linocut art. This unique yearbook collection has attracted the interest of local media, a printers’ union, and scholars. Van Tech’s rich “hidden” history, as briefly set out here, proves yearbooks are a powerful primary source, especially for social studies and social justice teachers.

Van Tech was founded in 1916 on unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish First Nations and the City of Vancouver. The first Van Tech yearbook was produced by students on traditional presses in the school’s print shop. A pungent odour filled the air from printer’s ink mixed with the oil used to clean the presses. Students hand-set the type and used plates for illustrations. When the presses were rolling, they sounded “like a car backing up,” one student wrote in a yearbook. 

Lewis Elliott, the print shop teacher, oversaw production and established a Linocut Club from 1921 to 1942. A relatively new medium, linocuts were considered a “democratic” art form following World War l; the linoleum plates were cheap, accessible, and more pliable than woodblocks. An image is carved out, then the plate inked with a brayer. Next, a sheet of paper is placed over the plate and pressed. When the paper is peeled back, a transposed image is revealed. Van Tech students created multiple prints from a single carving, using up to four colours. Students’ artwork appeared on the covers and pages of yearbooks, and on the walls of the print shop.

A steelworker linocut image illustrated the school’s 1932 yearbook cover, designed by student Milton Parsons, and reflecting the school’s pride in manual trades. “The object of a technical education is to make a good industrial workman,” the principal noted in the introduction to the 1926 yearbook. When girls were admitted to Van Tech in 1940, they were segregated from the boys, enrolling in typing, nursing, tailoring, retail selling, foods, and hairdressing. Girls also studied academic subjects separately and participated in their own clubs. Marion Barber and Dot Baker joined the Linocut Club in 1943, leading the way toward increased co-education at Van Tech. By the end of the decade, the Linocut Club was gone, yearbooks had a more conventional format, and more courses and activities were a mix of girls and boys. 

Teachers could develop a lesson using their own school yearbooks, directing students to document the type of curriculum and extracurricular activities existing in earlier years. A guiding question for students could be, “How has the school re-enforced gender and social class roles—then and now?”

Yearbooks also provide a dynamic entry point for teachers to make connections with social studies curriculum content, such as the history of World Wars l and ll. Van Tech provides a rich example. The school had a rifle corps and cadet program for boys, and many students enlisted in both wars. The yearbooks published several photographs, articles, and linocut images related to the war. James Sinclair, the son of school principal, James G. Sinclair, was a student alumni who fought overseas in World War ll; his experiences are described in a yearbook article. The yearbook of 1946 had an article stating 1,409 students served in the war. Though still incomplete, a list reported 145 students killed, 31 missing, 74 wounded, 9 prisoners of war, and 34 decorated.  

Students also learn by observing omissions in the historical record. For example, Van Tech yearbooks did not mention the internment of Japanese Canadians during the World War ll, despite its impact on students. George Obokata, a Van Tech student, created linocuts and wrote about his Japanese heritage for the yearbooks during the 1930s. Reliable online sources indicate Obokata volunteered to serve as a linguist in South East Asia during the war. Afterward, he resided in Ontario and was active in Redress for Japanese Canadians.   

Teachers could ask students to brain-storm about a “silence” observed in their yearbooks and then investigate whether this historical gap was subsequently addressed.

This leads to another teaching opportunity on the topic of racial justice. Articles and artworks about First Nations culture in the Van Tech yearbooks illustrated students’ interest—but also prejudices. Derogatory “jokes” about racial groups, specifically Chinese and Black Canadians, found their way into Van Tech yearbooks too, the school culture reflecting a society that normalized racism.   

Students not of British heritage some-times offered alternative perspectives. In the 1930 yearbook, Benito Gadarini wrote an article titled “A League of Nations: A Cross Section of Young Canada” for readers to “…know something about our melting pot of a school.” While reference to a “melting pot” is a problematic term, Gadarini does make visible a multicultural, not racially homogeneous student population, countering histories that are not inclusive.

Teachers are advised to thoroughly preview yearbooks for racist content and only proceed with the lesson if feeling equipped to do so. Additionally, it is essential teachers ensure proper supports are in place for BIPOC students during every aspect of classroom research and discussions.

Many of the students enrolled in Van Tech’s print shop classes and Linocut Club used their skills after graduation in a variety of ways, from apprenticing in a newspaper pressroom to setting up their own print shop. Tracing students’ school-to-work paths provides another dynamic lesson. Bill Wong was another Van Tech student involved in the print shop and Linocut Club. He went on to study civil engineering at the University of BC. No firm would hire him because of institutionalized racism, so he entered the family business called Modernize Tailors. He and his brother Jack were the subjects of a documentary, Tailor Made:Chinatowns Last Tailors, and on November 3, 2013, the City of Vancouver declared Modernize Tailors Day in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the shop. 

In groups, students could research an alumni, focusing on their subject’s challenges, and accomplishments.

Learning in the social studies and social justice classroom is enriched when students investigate “hidden” school histories and make connections to a wider curriculum. As well, students personal and social awareness is enhanced as they consider how past generations of youth navigated social justice issues. 

“What has changed?” and “What needs to change?” are a couple of the follow-up questions teachers can ask students after the yearbook project is over. Positive societal change is more likely to occur if the histories we teach are inclusive, truthful, and give value to a diverse range of Canadians, including young people who have walked through our very own school hallways in years past.

Re-posted from BC Teacher magazine, May/June, 2021

Gertrude’s House of Stone

January 29, 2021

by Janet Nicol

Schoolteacher Gertrude Lawson was mid-career when she designed and oversaw construction of her West Vancouver manor in 1939, among the few single women in British Columbia to ever hold a mortgage at that time.

Within the Scottish-style stone walls subsequently erected at 680 17th Street, Miss Lawson (as she was known to her many students) would harbour aging family members, rent rooms to an assortment of tenants, and host decades of social and artistic gatherings.

So begins a local history article about Gertrude Lawson’s house of stone in West Vancouver, published online in Montecristo magazine. (Link to full article below photo.)

A Vancouver steam laundry girl’s story about the Spanish Flu

March 18, 2020

by Janet Mary Nicol

Ellen Goode was among 300 employees in Vancouver – most female – on strike against steam laundry employers.  The dispute started in September, 1918 and lasted four months, with unions achieved in two of the seven workplaces.   Ellen talked about her experiences in a taped interview years later.  She  recalled laundry owners blamed striking employees when the Spanish flu began spreading in Vancouver in October 1918, finally dissipating in the New Year and leaving nine hundred residents dead, four strikers at IXL Laundry among them.

Ellen recounted:

“A full-page advertisement came out in the papers that the flu epidemic was not easing up owing to the laundry workers being on strike with dirty linen. So the union ran an ad stating that we would man any laundry, free of wages, twenty-four hours a day for people with the flu in their home – which we received no response for. We wanted to man the general hospital which was working ten hours a day. But there was no response to it.”

Ellen also said: “You’d get on the streetcar and people, they’d say – they’d know you were a picketer because they’d see you get on the corner and they’d say, ‘No wonder so many people are dying when the laundry girls are out and refuse to work, you know.’ But that’s what they [the employer] did with us. But it didn’t work.”  She continued: “I did have that paper for years until it began to crumble and I had to throw it away. I kept it as a souvenir.”


Note: The BC Federationist, the labour newspaper of the day, published the names of the four members of the Laundry Workers Union who died. Mountain View cemetery records indicate date of death and age. The four workers were: Miss Josephine Tielens, aged 19, died 2 November; Miss Margaret Roxburgh, aged 19, died 25 October; George Baker, aged 34, died 31 October. Nick Pervie is not listed in the cemetery records.

This abridged excerpt is from “Girl Strikers and the 1918 Vancouver Steam Laundries Dispute” in BC Studies, Fall 2019

Free access to the full article (as of March, 2020) is available on line at

‘Girl Strikers’ and the 1918 Vancouver Laundries Dispute

November 19, 2019

by Janet Mary Nicol


Canadian soldiers were still fighting overseas alongside the British, when more than 300 laundry workers in Vancouver—most of them female—went on strike in September of 1918. During the ensuing four months of the dispute, trade union men protested conscription, the Spanish flu pandemic swept through the city and on November 11, an armistice in Europe was celebrated in the streets. Trade unions had gained leverage by 1916 in Vancouver and across Canada, strike activity proliferated between 1917 and 1920. During the tumultuous final months of the war, the ‘laundry girls’ found an opportunity to take a stand. This narration examines a labour dispute at seven Vancouver steam laundries in 1918 through the lens of four female participants: Helena Gutteridge, union organizer and executive member of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council; Ellen Goode, a 20 year old striker who gave a oral account of the strike decades later; Josephine Nelson, a 31 year old Irish immigrant and 43 year old Matilda Cruickshank. The intent of this research note is to better understand the lives of working women a century ago. Issues raised as they intersect with class, gender and race will be considered. The strike was a transformative experience for many women involved, their lives changed—‘as the world was changed.’

Full article can be purchased on-line for $5 at the BC Studies website, and journal at $20.   Direct link at –


Also see a secondary school lesson I designed (September 2020) in collaboration with the BC Labour Heritage Centre and based on this article, available at no cost to educators and other members of the public to download at the Centre’s site.  Link at –


Also available to the public at no charge, at the BC Teachers’ Federation on line lesson aid site, TeachBC.

Seeing BC’s Past Through the Eyes of an Artist

June 8, 2019

By Janet Nicol

A male driver in a flatbed truck loaded with oversized logs threatens all in his path, a sensation British-Canadian artist Sybil Andrews actually experienced on the Vancouver Island highway in 1952. “We met the great load coming up toward us, up the steep hill into Campbell River,” Sybil later wrote. “We got out of the way in our little Mini until it was safely past before we went down the hill.”  Her linocut print, Hauling, inspired by the highway scene, evokes the heyday of BC’s logging industry. Many of Sybil’s eighty-seven linocuts have exhibited internationally beginning in the 1930s, their value  escalating dramatically over time. When Sybil died in 1992, aged ninety-four, she also left behind charcoal sketches, woodcuts, watercolours, oils, and a tapestry. This talented artist, offers a unique perspective on our province’s history.

The full article is available in BC History, Summer 2019.

Hauling (1952), Linocut print by Sybil Andrews


In the same issue of BC History, I review Lily Chow’s Blossoms in the Gold Mountains: Chinese Settlements in the Fraser Canyon and the Okanagan  (Caitlin Press, Halfmoom Bay, 2018.)   Chow offers a valuable study of early Chinese settlements in the Fraser Canyon and Okanagan.  Drawing on a wealth of sources, she provides important descriptions about early Chinese communities in and around six towns in the province’s interior. The author is well acquainted with the systemic discrimination Chinese people faced, having explored her own family history. Besides depictions of early settlers’ hardships, Chow’s narrative also includes instances where indigenous people were allies, white people expressed sympathetic feelings and advocates within the Chinatowns gave support.



‘Girl Strikers’ and the 1918 Vancouver Laundry Workers’ Dispute

April 12, 2019

by Janet Mary Nicol

Campaigns to raise the minimum wage across North American impact women, comprising the majority of these employees. A century ago women performing low-paid work fought a similar battle for a living wage. They were limited to gendered work, navigating inferior working conditions, sexual harassment and health and safety concerns.

In Vancouver, 300 workers at seven steam laundries–most female–joined a union over the summer of 1918. In early September, they went on strike for four months to improve wages and conditions within an occupation that was hidden, hard and dangerous. Characterized in newspapers as “girl strikers,” most were over 18 years old, working of necessity.

The strike is narrated through the lens of four female participants, taking into account intersectional issues of race, class and gender.

This research paper was presented at the Pacific Northwest Labour History conference in Seattle in 2018 and again at Teaching Labour History: Making Connection in Vancouver, sponsored in part by the BC Labour Heritage Centre in 2019.

Full article in BC Studies, Autumn, 2019 – now available for purchase on line at for $20 (full journal) or $5.00 for article only.

Cascade Dominion- Laundry Employees Annual Picnic
at Seaside Park, on the Sunshine Coast – June 29, 1918

Photo by Stuart Thomson
Vancouver Archives – AM1535-CVA 99-5201


“Steam Laundry Girls”, Linocut 3/4, Janet Nicol

TeachBC: Lessons on Labour and Justice

April 12, 2019

Seven Lessons developed by Janet Nicol

The following seven lessons are available on the BC Teachers’ Federation website at “TeachBC”  (Direct link at   Search by lesson title or author.

*TRC Call to Action Lesson (on Truth and Reconciliation report (2016) Grades 11, 12 and Adult

*Paige’s story – a lesson about a BC teen in the DTES (2016)
Grade 12 and Adult

*Fishermen’s Strike of 1900 (Working People: A History of Labour in BC) (2015) Grades 10-12

*First Economies – on Aboriginal labour history (Working People: A History of Labour in BC” (2015)

*The Professionals – on BC nursing history (Working People A History of Labour in BC) (2018)

Won Alexander Cumyow – on BC’s first Chinese-born Canadian (Working People: A History of Labour in BC) (2015)

By Women, For Women – on the SORWUC bank drive (Working People: A History of Labour in BC) (2015)


Five of the lessons are also available at the
BC Labour Heritage Centre website, along with video clips.  These lessons were part of the Centre’s Labour History Curriculum Project.    The project was featured in Canada’s History magazine (link at –  and the work of the project, short-listed for the Governor Genera’s History Award (2019).

Link to lessons and videos at –

This life-sized wood likeness of an early logger, is perched atop a 15 m (50 ft) pole in downtown Campbell River.  Hand carved by Dean Lemke in 1984 using local yellow cedar,  ‘Logger Mike’ pays tribute to the labour roots of this city on northern Vancouver Island.

Photo by Janet Nicol (2018).

Vancouver Foundation – history research project

April 8, 2019

In 2017, I was contracted by the Vancouver Foundation, Canada’s largest community foundation, to research its 75 year history,  spanning the war era to present times. The foundation has mentored dozens of other community foundations and continues to make a difference with programs such as Neighbourhood Small Grants (encouraging interaction among urban residents) and Fostering Change (supporting  youth in foster care).

Here’s a Vancouver Foundation history timeline, highlighting some of their key contributions.   (This PDF version can be enlarged by clicking on the downloaded image.)

‘My brother gave me a peddler’s kit’

October 5, 2018

The Sabas in early BC

by Janet Nicol

Alex Saba, a 17 year old Christian Lebanese immigrant, began walking the back roads of Vancouver Island in 1900. He peddled wares from a suitcase, given to him by his brother Michael, who had arrived to BC from Beirut ten years earlier.    Residents in Nanaimo and the Comox Valley came to know Alex well as he walked door to door, selling merchandise.

“My brother gave me a peddler’s kit with $40 or $50 worth of goods and told me I was in business,” Alex recalled to a Vancouver Sun journalist years later. “When people saw I couldn’t speak English they seemed eager to help me,” he also remembered. “Maybe the language barrier wasn’t a hindrance after all. I sold about $6 worth of goods, underwear, handkerchiefs and notions the first day.”

In 1903, Alex and Michael established a women’s clothing shop in downtown Vancouver, “the Saba Brothers,” serving three generations of customers to 1983.   The full story is available in BC History, Vol. 42, Issue 4, 2009.

I imagine Alex Saba carrying a ‘suitcase’ style backpack and walking along his peddling route on the eastern coastline of Vancouver Island, in this etching below, entitled ‘Island Pedlar.’  The print is on display until January 20, 2019 at the Winter Show, Dundarave Print Workshop, Vancouver and for sale, unframed at $80.



@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