Richard McBride was firmly on the side of management during a coal miners strike in Ladysmith in 1912. (submitted)

The forestry strike and remembering when martial law came to Ladysmith

If, as they say, history occasionally repeats itself, it also does 180-degree turnarounds.

By T.W. Paterson

If, as they say, history occasionally repeats itself, it also does 180-degree turnarounds.

The times just keep on a-changing, don’t they? Nothing, it seems, is solid, secure or sacred in this digital age.

Yet another victim of online shopping is the ancient art of auctioning. To name one, Kilshaw’s, for more than a century an institution in Victoria, closed its doors last year, another victim of the internet.

But where, pray tell, is the joy, the intrigue, the drama, the excitement in bidding online?

When I moved to Cherry Point “from away” in 1974, I became a regular attendee of the auctions held weekly at Whippletree Junction. Saturday was general merchandise day, Sunday livestock.

Both were well attended year-round, many obviously treating the auctions as social events, as a chance to hear and to exchange the latest gossip and to b-s over coffee with friends. So it was with me; a newcomer to the Cowichan Valley, I was in the market for tools, hobby farm implements, very occasionally, livestock, and to meet my neighbours.

But even when I wasn’t shopping the auctions were worth my time just for the show. Standing well at the back as I did, I learned to watch for the subtle bids — bids so subtle that only the auctioneer recognized them as such — from the old regulars, the pros. Some of them, including the late Doug Fleetwood who lived just across the highway, were real characters.

Certainly the auctioneer himself was a standout, usually eloquent and charming and a real schmoozer, but also abrasive and rude to the point of being brutal when things weren’t going his way, as when he was selling one of his own consignments. But he always got away with it and, obviously, made a living doing so.

There were the regular bidders, some of whom operated secondhand businesses or sold at the Victoria flea market. It was always fun to see how much an article’s value jumped overnight from its Saturday sales price at the auction to its price at the Sunday flea mart. I and most buyers limited ourselves to buying for our own needs although I, too, occasionally flipped a thing or two. (It helped to pay for my gas.)

So much for real auctions. Another news item to catch my eye was a year-end appeal, via a display ad in the Times-Colonist, by the Royal BC Museum. Headlined, “You can help history,” it was an appeal for donations to “help support research and learning programs for people young and old, protect the archival collections, and develop unique exhibitions”.

With all due respect to the good folks who manage and operate the RBC — how bloody pathetic! How sad!

Think about it: Our provincial museum and archives having to beg for funding! Shades of the days of the mercenary BC Socreds and the BC Liberals who saw no dollar value in our heritage and acted accordingly. Is this deja vu? Is the RBC being underfunded by the current NDP government? If so, for shame!

(That said, readers who may wish to respond to the RBC’s appeal can learn more at rbcm.ca/donate, or call 250-387-7222, or mail a cheque to Royal BC Museum, 675 Belleville St., Victoria V8W 9W2.)

If, in fact, history occasionally repeats itself, it also does 180-degree turnarounds. Two weeks ago, in an “analysis” in the Vancouver Sun, columnist Rob Shaw suggested that the NDP government had its own agenda in the longest-running forestry strike in provincial history. That it was refusing to intervene because of its affiliation with the striking Steelworkers’ union, a major donor, and because it really wanted to break Western Forest Products which “holds a near monopoly on lucrative tenures to Crown land on the mid-to-north Island”.

Well, days ago, the government did intervene by appointing two mediators with special powers and, lo and behold, the company and strikers have reached a tentative settlement since accepted by vote by the Steelworkers.

Where’s the historical parallel? Way back in 1912, the Island’s largest industry was paralyzed by a strike that went into its second year and was only ended by the outbreak of the First World War. Richard McBride’s Conservative government, which had no sympathy for striking coal miners, initially professed to be neutral and did nothing.

But McBride had his own agenda — one that coincided morally and philosophically with that of management. Nothing else counted; alleged safety issues in the mines were just a smokescreen for unionism, and unionists were just disguised socialists — enemies of the state in McBride’s mind. His mask slipped when, with a little provocation by strikers, he ordered troops armed with a field piece mounted on a rail car and militiamen armed with heavy machine guns and rifles with mounted bayonets to occupy Ladysmith.

It’s hard to imagine, today, that this charming community was ever under a state of martial law, that the military and ‘special police’ (private police, aka company goons hired by the mine owners) had the right to stop and search all and sundry and to make summary arrests.

My point being that, today, the provincial government has been accused in the Sun of wanting to break management in the forestry strike — the direct opposite of McBride’s undeclared program to break the United Mine Workers of America, just over a century ago.

And, speaking of coal miners and museums, the Cumberland Museum & Archives has received the 2019 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Community Programming. Specifically, the award recognizes the museum’s programs and events honouring the 100th anniversary of the death of union activist Ginger Goodwin, who was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances by a special constable.

“We are so proud of this award and its recognition of very hard work by many, many people,” Robin Folvik, a museum staff member and one of the program organizers, told the T-C. Activities had included tours, workshops, music, lectures, visual art and historical re-enactments.

Finally, for today, a distant tragedy with a local connection. Back in November it was reported that Roger Warren, convicted “in one of the deadliest bombings in Canadian history,” had died of natural causes while free on parole. Aged 74, he’d been convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of nine miners at Yellowknife’s Giant Mascot Mine, Northwest Territories, in September 1992. Warren had set a bomb that was detonated by their underground carriage as they were going to work in the strike-bound gold mine. Convicted after a 15-week trial, he served 14 years.

The local connection with this sad story is in St. Peter’s Quamichan cemetery near Duncan. There, a black granite headstone honours the memory of one of Warren’s victims.

www.twpaterson.com

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