Author: BC Labour Heritage Centre

Emmitt Holmes: BC Trade Unionist, Black Activist and Baseball Player

Emmitt Holmes: BC Trade Unionist, Black Activist and Baseball Player

UBC Rare Books and Special Collections, BC1845_62.

Emmitt Andrew Holmes came to British Columbia in the 1940s from Saskatchewan and was the only black member of the Vancouver Local of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA Local 1-217) when he joined in 1944. 

Holmes incorporated his trade unionism with black activism in Vancouver for a period spanning many decades.

Emmitt Holmes was a heralded amateur softball player on several teams in Vancouver, including the IWA in the Major Men’s League.

During the 1950s, Holmes represented IWA Local 1-217 at provincial and international union conventions.

As an IWA delegate to the Vancouver Labor Council, Holmes became a member and chair of the Joint Labor Committee to Combat Racial Discrimination, a role he held for 14 years. He composed a letter to the daily newspaper encouraging “co-operation and universalism in the value of man” as opposed to “belief in competition, class [and] race”. (Vancouver Sun, 13 Dec 1951)

He joined other activists, including members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, fighting prejudice against black people in BC.  The Committee lobbied the province and city government for housing and employment equality.

Holmes conducted research to show discrimination faced by blacks; he would answer advertisements from landlords and employers first by phone and then in person, recording instances where a vacancy disappeared when a black man arrived on the doorstep.

When black longshoreman Clarence Clemons died in 1952 following a beating at the hands of police, Holmes attended the inquest, and said the policeman involved (whom he knew from his baseball days) was “lying through his teeth”. (Rudder, 105) The uproar following the Clemons case led to Holmes becoming a founding member of the BC Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1956.

Emmitt Holmes gave credit to the labour movement for their early support of his efforts on behalf of blacks; but was also willing to be critical when he felt it necessary. 

In 1966 he lamented that “labor is only giving lip service to human rights. I am not convinced that labor’s own constitutions are not discriminatory”. (The Province, 21 Mar 1966)

But, “it was largely due to the efforts of labor pressuring the provincial government in the 1950s that fair employment and fair accommodation practices legislation became a reality.” (Vancouver Sun, 22 Mar 1971)

By the 1970s, Emmitt Holmes was employed by the federal Manpower agency as an employment counsellor, rising to Branch Manager, where he continued to speak about race issues and the role that labour had in promoting human rights. He died in 2005.


Rudder, Adam Julian (2004). A black community in Vancouver?: a history of invisibility (unpublished master’s thesis). University of Victoria.

The Vancouver Sun (various dates)

The Province (various dates)

UBC Rare Books and Special Collections, Harold Pritchett fonds.

Lloyd Edwards Leads Surrey Teachers to take Action on Class Sizes in 1974

Lloyd Edwards Leads Surrey Teachers to take Action on Class Sizes in 1974

Lloyd Edwards immigrated to Canada in 1953 from his birthplace in Trinidad and Tobago. After obtaining a degree from the University of British Columbia he became a teacher and eventually became active in both his local union and the BC Teachers’ Federation. Edwards’ father had been a teacher and a union activist in Trinidad/Tobago so Edwards’ inspiration for taking a leadership role in his union had early roots.
Surrey teachers protest class size and under-funding at the legislature, February 15, 1974.

Forty-five years ago on February 15, 1974 over 1,000 Surrey teachers left their classrooms, boarded buses and traveled to Victoria to protest education under-funding and increasingly large class sizes in their fast growing district. They were led by their local president, Lloyd Edwards who, along with his executive, had mobilized Surrey teachers to take this unprecedented action in a matter of days.

A significant result of this action was to trigger an agreement on that very day, February 15, 1974, between the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Dave Barrett NDP provincial government that would see the staged reduction of class sizes in BC over the next three years. One result of this was the hiring of between three and four thousand additional teachers over the next five years.
It is very timely to acknowledge the role of Lloyd Edwards in our province’s labour history and to celebrate his contributions during Black History Month.

The Day Led Zeppelin Became Part of the Union

The Day Led Zeppelin Became Part of the Union

BC Federation of Labour Officials (on right) George Johnston and Len Guy. UBC Rare Books and Special Collections, BC1844/58.

On February 1, 1975 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), at CKLG AM Radio (known as “LG73”) in Vancouver went on strike for a first contract. The disc jockeys and news staff walked out, locked the doors and left a pro-union song playing on continuous loop all day. Management scrambled for hours to obtain an injunction, unlock the studio and turn off the music. They also arranged strikebreakers to keep the station on the air.

The union’s strategy as the strike dragged on was to target businesses who continued to advertise on CKLG. English rock band, Led Zeppelin, was scheduled to perform in Vancouver (at the PNE grounds) on March 19 and 20, 1975 and were advertising their concerts on CKLG. The Union threatened to picket the concert and CUPE Local 1004 — who still represent PNE workers — promised to honour the picket lines. Led Zeppelin pulled their ads from CKLG.

The concerts went ahead with co-sponsorship by CUPE. Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones serenaded Vancouver fans with a set list that included Stairway to Heaven, Whole Lotta Love, Dazed and Confused and Rock and Roll.
An even greater victory was that the PNE agreed to vet future clients with the union to ensure they were not advertising on CKLG.

The song the union members played on February 1, 1975? The Strawbs “Part of the Union”.

Top photo: UBC Rare Books and Special Collections, BC1844/58.



Helena Gutteridge & The Toy-Making Co-operative

Helena Gutteridge & The Toy-Making Co-operative

Did you know that October is Women’s History Month in Canada? This year’s theme is #MakeAnImpact – we would like to highlight a woman in BC’s labour history who certainly did just that.

Helena Gutteridge, ca. 1911 – City of Vancouver Archives [371-2693]

The 1912 recession was difficult for all BC workers, but it was especially hard on women. They were often the first workers laid off and qualified for less of the already limited government relief. Suffragist and tailor Helena Gutteridge, head of the Women’s Employment League and Executive member of the Vancouver Trades & Labour Council, organized a toy making co-operative here to help women make some money.

At the same time, she pushed the government for more assistance. The toy-making co-operative opened at 1027 Robson St. in Vancouver in October 1914 – just in time for the Christmas shopping season. By December, more than 150 women were working at this site. Part of the space was used as housing for unemployed women as well. It was a 33-room building, and by Nov. 9, 60 girls and women were working for $3.50 per day, 3 days per week to spread the work around, making dolls and toys. Very quickly, they added cooking and dressmaking services so that by Christmas, 150 women were employed, occupying six more rooms in the building.

1027 Robson Street, ca. 1896 – City of Vancouver Archives (SGN #1078)

By the time the co-op closed in February 1915, it had found jobs for almost five hundred women, and helped another 700 obtain meal tickets. It had expanded to include a retail outlet at the 700 Block of Granville Street, “White Sewing Machines”.

View of the west side of the 700 Block of Granville Street – City of Vancouver Archives (371-820)

Despite its short life, it was an impressive example of early organizing for working women. Helena went on to ensure that equal pay for women and men was included in the VTLC constitution and organized the Minimum Wage League in 1917 – leading to the Minimum Wage Bill for Women, which achieved Royal Assent on April 23, 1918. In 1937, she became the first woman elected to Vancouver City Council.

Gutteridge’s advice to women: “Take an interest in public affairs. Keep yourself informed and express your opinions. Above all, be active. No matter how busy they may be with their families and homes, women are part of the larger community. They owe it to themselves to develop their abilities and to work for a better, peaceful world. There is still a lot to be done!”


Watch our vignette on Helena Gutteridge – part of the “Working People” video series:

 Produced by the BC Labour Heritage Centre, Knowledge Network & Landrock Entertainment.

Archival Find Confirms 1935 Golden Tale from ‘On-to-Ottawa’ Trek

Archival Find Confirms 1935 Golden Tale from ‘On-to-Ottawa’ Trek

Photo courtesy Golden Museum and Archives.

The On-to-Ottawa Trek in 1935 is a fabled part of Canada’s social history.  Thousands of unemployed men, frustrated with the lack of compassion from government to their plight, boarded CPR freight trains in Vancouver with a plan to confront Prime Minister RB Bennett in Ottawa.

After receiving a cool reception in Kamloops and clinging to the outside of boxcars through the mountain tunnels, the men arrived exhausted in Golden BC on June 6, 1935.

The story of the trekkers’ arrival in Golden has become legendary.  Writing in “On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement” [2018], Rod Mickleburgh relates that the “men staggered down from their perches and marched toward a local auto park”. 

“As dawn broke, there waiting for them was a bathtub suspended over a fire and a grey-haired woman stirring its contents—a vast beef stew—with a three-foot-long ladle.”

In “Work and Wages” [Swankey and Sheils, 1977] trek veteran George Tellier Winters describes that morning. “We got out of the freight trains at Golden…and marched…to this place the people had arranged for us.  It was stew and Arthur [Slim] Evans gave a speech and said it was the finest stew that was ever made…we were hungry.”

For decades the story of the Golden stew has been shared among historians, but there was never more than oral accounts of the day.  Until now.

Recently we received a tip from a videographer in Ontario who told us that the event had been captured in a photograph.  We could not have been more delighted to locate the above image of the Town of Golden’s contribution to the story of the On to Ottawa Trek.  Our thanks to the Golden Museum and Archives for permitting us to share the photo, and to the Workers’ History Museum in Ottawa for the lead.

The man stirring the stew is Slim Evans, whose organizing of the On to Ottawa Trek is central to the history of working people in British Columbia. To his left is Aleta Sorley, a resident of Golden and organizer with the Workers’ Unity League.

Trekkers lined up for stew on June 6, 1935 in Golden BC. Photo courtesy Golden Museum and Archives