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  • Volume Eight, Number Seven: October 2003

    Cemetery Tour Remembers Early Labour Leaders

    Carole Pearson

    Victoria labour cemetery tourEvery Sunday, Victoria’s Old Cemeteries Society conducts walking tours through historic Ross Bay Cemetery. The tours focus on topics like Boer War history, the Gold Rush and some of Victoria’s famous and heroic women. This year, the society has included a tour revealing some of Victoria’s early trade union history and takes participants to visit the graves of prominent labour leaders buried in the cemetery.

    Leading this tour is Michael Halleran, a unionized BC government employee in his “day” job.  Halleran has devoted countless hours of his own time searching faded newspaper archives and examining minutes of long-ago union meetings for tidbits of information that he sprinkles liberally through his presentation. We are told about the men who started some of the first union locals in Victoria or established unions to represent the provinces’ workers. Some of these individuals went on to preside over provincial and national labour federations. Glimpses into their personal lives and achievements are presented in a context of events and social mores of the day.

    First stop is on the tour is the grave of James Hurst Hawthornthwaite. Born in 1863, he was the first socialist MLA elected to the BC Legislature. A former colliery clerk, Hawthornthwaite represented the ridings of Nanaimo from 1901 to 1912 and Newcastle from 1918 to 1920. With a sympathetic ear for workers, Hawthornthwaite introduced legislation setting up a Workers Compensation Board in BC and helped force mining companies to accept the eight-hour day. In 1908, he introduced a bill for women’s suffrage.

    We hear how Jack Lougie and the BCGEU set up a co-op grocery store to sell at cost to poorly paid government workers. Government employees at the time were paid one-third less than Vancouver civic workers and the premier of the day, Halleran says, “considered it was women’s work--single women’s work. If you got married, you had to get out.”

    There’s Samuel Nesbitt who formed the first trade union on Vancouver Island. Nesbitt, an immigrant from Ireland and a baker by trade, organized the journeymen bakers in Victoria. Over time, Nesbitt’s own bakery operations were very successful and he became wealthy but he always ran a strict union shop.

    Halleran stops at the unmarked graves of the Penkith brothers, Richard and George, who organized Local 2 of the Boiler Makers and Shipbuilders’ Union of Canada in 1898. Not only were they one of the first groups to gain the eight-hour day in the 1890s, but the union also represented workers at one of the largest ironworks north of San Francisco. Although the virulent anti-union Dunsmuirs invested in the company, not even they could keep out the unions because, “they had to have things made by people who knew what they were doing,” says Halleran.

    Halleran has come up empty-handed in finding out information about a long-ago telephone operators’ union, but did discover there used to be union for waitresses. “Victoria was very much a union town,” he says, referring to the early days of the city. “The Colonist used to have a column on labour news.” This has been a useful source of information for his research, along with obituaries and union files.

    Halleran retires in March, and with the extra time he will undoubtedly uncover yet more stories to tell about Victoria and British Columbia’s labour past next year.

    For more information on the Old Cemeteries Society and their upcoming tours, see www.oldcem.bc.ca

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