Since it is the time of year when many publications helpfully supply us with lists of books to read as we
laze in the hammock under the firs, Labour Beat decided to jump on the bookwagon and present our list
of books, with a twist of course. No cotton candy or bodice rippers; no nostalgic coming of age weepies
or smashing muscular adventure tales.
These are all great reads in our humble opinion, and almost all of them just happen to be planted in the
nonfiction reality of British Columbia.
‘Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World ‘ is an exceptional memoir by Kate Braid, one of
our finest poets (Turning Left to the Ladies, Inward to the Bone: Georgia O’Keefe’s Journey with Emily
Carr.) Told with a wicked sense of humour and an astonishing frankness, this book tells how Kate fell
into the trade of carpentry in the early Seventies and continued, despite the often hostile atmosphere of
male dominated construction sites, to help pioneer the way for other women in the trades, as
journeywoman, as union rep, and as a trade instructor. Other women are her pillars of support and she
stands up to the sexism but she also has an open heart for her male co-workers.
After one workplace conversation about unequal pay for women in some jobs Braid writes: “I’m careful
knowing how important it is that their questions and doubts be addressed – and how rare it is for them,
and how precious to me, when they say out loud what’s really on their minds. I never know how they
will take my answers but as these exchanges keep happening I’m humbled at the implications. These
guys are with me at the cutting edge of change. I’m touched by their grace.”
Some of the men are anything but allies but clearly there are some who encourage Braid in the trade for
almost 20 years before the writing bug becomes too much.
This is not a “told to”, ghost written affair but a first person, close to home narration and that is one of
the strengths of this book. As Tom Wayman, another fine BC poet, says: “Braid focuses as well on the
love, sex, relationship issues any young woman faces.”
She is also a wonderful chronicler of the times, from the Vancouver of the early seventies with
revolution and “free love” seemingly in the air, to the political battles of Operation Solidarity in 1983.
Anyone interested in BC politics has to read ‘The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in
Power 1972-1975’ by Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburg. I was amazed, reading the book, to be
reminded of all the accomplishments that Jolly Dave and his band of merry men carried out in just three
short years. That list fills a five page appendix. Some of that legislation was repealed or altered by
subsequent Socred/Liberal governments but much, like ICBC and the ALR, remains.
Meggs and Mickleburg do a good job of setting the stage by describing the 20 years of WAC Bennett ruleand the eagerness of a new generation of politicos who wanted to drag little old parochial BC, not only
into the 20th century but into a socialist century. Given the hostility of the conservative merchant class,
as well as the increasingly powerful multinational corporations and their control of most of the media, it
was no wonder the first “socialist” government in North America didn’t last more than one term.
This is no hagiograph of Dave Barrett and the authors point out a number of mistakes made not only in
his government’s haste to right injustices but in their misunderstanding of their own base. When I said
“merry men” I was only half jesting. The Barrett cabinet infamously reneged on their promise to create
a Ministry of Women’s Equality and went out of their way to antagonize Rosemary Brown, one of the
more dynamic BC politicians and feminists. While passing some very progressive labour legislation they,
like a few other NDP governments, took union support for granted and passed back to work legislation
against thousands of striking workers in 1975 shortly before calling a snap election.
This book should be read by the leadership of the NDP. Watering down policies in order to appeal to the
fence sitters may win an election but the legacy will be miniscule. As Premier Barrett exclaimed as he
slid across the Cabinet Room table, “We’re here for a good time, not a long time!”
Gordon Hak, a retired professor who has written about the forest industry in the past, has produced an
informative book called ‘The Left in British Columbia: a History of Struggle.’ It is a broad stroke history
lesson starting in the 1880’s and covering almost 130 years of history, but a very interesting one.
Once he defines what the Left is, Hak gets down to business. It is fascinating to consider how a
movement that puts so much faith in solidarity and unity can be so sectarian. Hak traces some of that
history as he describes craft unions disdaining industrial unions, white workers trying to keep out Asian
workers, Communists versus social democrats, and forestry workers and environmentalists at
loggerheads. The section on Operation Solidarity was quite detailed and refreshed my memory and
added some new facts.
The bibliography is quite extensive and the glossary is a nice touch. This should be part of the curriculum
of every school in BC.
There isn’t enough space to delve into all the books published about BC subjects but a few others worth
reading are: Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station 1872-1959 by Peter Johnson and
Those Island People by Lynne Bowen
All of the above books should be available through Evelyn Gillespie at Laughing Oyster Books in