Labour History Month - British Columbia
Article by Steve Harvey
In 1997, the New Democratic Party - the social-democratic government of the province of British Columbia in Canada - proclaimed the month of May as "Labour History Month." This was largely brought about through the efforts of the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for the Comox Valley, Evelyn Gillespie. This was very appropriate as the Village of Cumberland is located in the Comox Valley. Cumberland is a former mining village that now honours its heritage with the annual celebration known as Miners' Memorial Day.
1997 was also the year that Cumberland held its first annual Bean Supper. The event was held on May 1st, the traditional Workers' Day. In North America, May Day has been supplanted by Labour Day - the first Monday in September - as the annual day of celebration for workers. However, there is a move afoot to bring May Day back into prominence as the September holiday is seen as more an invention on the part of the bosses - an attempt to undermine May Day, which is thought to be a little too "red."
The Bean Supper, brought back to life by the Cumberland & District Historical Society, marks an event that occured during the Big Strike of 1912 in Cumberland. This was a bitter and prolonged strike which saw miners' families turned out of the company houses in which they lived. The families set up tent communities that are remembered today in the names of places such as "Strikers Beach."
The Federal government of Canada, seeing the destitution of the miners, sent boxcar-loads of dried beans to Cumberland. Now, depending upon one's view of things, this was either an act of compassion or an attempt to stave off desperate acts of violence on the part of people whose backs were to the wall.
The Bean Supper held in 1997, and repeated this year, featured ...what else...baked beans, along with home-baked biscuits and salad. There were speeches by local dignitaries as well as by Susan Mayse, author of the book "Ginger: the life of Albert Goodwin"- the story of labour leader Ginger Goodwin, shot to death near Cumberland by a special constable of the Provincial Police in 1918. A local group, Cumberland Gap, played songs such as "Union Maid", "Dark as a Dungeon", and "World Turned Upside Down."
Other events held this year, to celebrate Labour History Month were: an evening entitled "Mac-Paps: the Workers' Brigade" - dedicated to the Canadians who formed the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion, part of the International Brigades who fought on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. This evening featured a man named Tom Kozar, a vice-president of the British Columbia Government and Service Workers Union (BCGEU), whose father and two uncles had fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Tom's mother had also worked with Dr. Norman Bethune when he went to China to aid Mao Tse Tung. This evening was "full of resonances", to use Mark Gregory's lovely phrase, in that the small crowd who attended the event included several people who either had relatives who had gone to Spain to fight for the Republic, or had been friends with veterans of the International Brigades. The money raised at this event was donated to a group who is attempting to have a monument raised to the veterans of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion - as the government of Canada is one of the few remaining countries who refuses to recognize the sacrifices of the Brigade volunteers.
Another event held during Labour History Month, was a very informal evening in which a small group of people gathered to share their favourite labour history books with each other. The participants decide they would like to repeat the event on an ad hoc basis throughout the year, with the aim being to compile a bibliography to be distributed to labour council members, libraries, schools etc.
Members of the Campbell River, Courtenay & District Labour Council are now thinking of events to mark Labour History Month next year, as well as ways to celebrate the achievements of the trade union movement throughout the year.
Many thanks to Steve Harvey for permission to use this article on the Union Song web site. Anyone interested in more information is welcome to contact Steve at the folowing email address:
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union songs..........a selection by mark gregory