Don Garcia: Indigenous & Hawaiian Roots in BC’s Longshore Unions
Written & researched by Bailey Garden
Born October 29, 1926, in New Westminster, British Columbia, Donald (“Don”) Peter Garcia served multiple terms as the President for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Canadian Area and his union local, a career which spanned 45 years. He also served on the executive of the BC Federation of Labour, the Vancouver Port Corporation (National Harbours Board) and was a founding member of WESTAC.
“From a very young age, Don was an early riser. He and his grandfather were constant companions, walking the trails and fishing on the river. Don listened, and remembered the stories from both of his grandparents, legends and first-hand reports of the area. This rapport with the older generation served him well throughout his many years in office. Don learned to listen and speak for those less likely to say their piece.”
– Doug Sigurdson, former ILWU Local 514 President. “ILWU Canada Remembers Don Garcia”
Susan Garcia began researching her father’s Squamish heritage in 1995 after speaking with Simon Baker, an Indigenous former longshoreman from North Vancouver. The Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation was involved in longshoring from the start of the industry in British Columbia; Indigenous longshoremen even briefly formed their own union, Local 526 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), in 1906.
Susan learned that both of Don’s parents, Sadie & Peter Garcia, have Hawaiian heritage, historically linked with longshoring and Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Hawaiian labourers were among those hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company during the fur trade; many later settled near Stanley Park in Vancouver, finding work as longshoremen or in the sawmills. They often married local Squamish women and started families. This was the case with Joe Nahanee, a Hawaiian man, and Mary See-em-ia, the granddaughter of Chief Capilano, who settled at the foot of what is now Denman Street in the late 1800’s. This location was referred to as Kanaka Ranch, with “Kanaka” being the term for Pacific Islanders working in British colonies at that time. Hawaiians referred to their people as Kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli in the Hawaiʻian language. William Nahanee, son of Joe and Mary, became President of the newly formed Local 38-57 of the International Longshoremen’s Union in 1913.
Indigenous Longshore Veterans
Don’s father, Peter Nahanee Garcia, was a longshoreman who had his own Registered Gang in ILWU Local 501. Peter was also a World War II Canadian Army veteran, alongside many other Indigenous longshoremen who served. Under the provisions of the Military Voters Act of 1917, this would have granted him the right to vote in federal elections until he was demobilized. Following the Second World War, many veterans sought to extend the franchise to all Indigenous people, regardless of active service or status. In 1946, Parliament established a Special Joint Committee on the Indian Act, which recommended the right be granted. The full franchise was not received until 1960, when Indigenous people could finally vote in federal elections without losing their Indian Status.
In Their Footsteps
British Columbia’s first capital city, New Westminster, was once a hub of industry and international shipping on the banks of the Fraser River. It was here that Don Garcia found his start in the BC labour movement, representing ILWU Local 502. Don was one of ten Local Presidents jailed in 1966 in a struggle against injunctions.
Much of Don’s work was “behind the scenes”, fighting to see worker representation in various waterfront organizations like the Harbour Commission. He was thrust into the limelight as he led the fight against containers on the docks and spoke out against mechanization and automation in the industry through the 1970s and ‘80s. Though the union’s “Container Clause” was ultimately lost, Don ensured “a guarantee they [members] will lose no income, if their workload decreases because of the loss of the container clause”. In between terms as a union officer, he went back to work longshoring on the New Westminster waterfront.
He also traveled internationally in his leadership roles, building relationships and solidarity with longshore workers around the world. Many point to his part in expanding and solidifying the union’s pension plan as a defining legacy. He finished his career in 1992 by negotiating one last local agreement, which came down close to midnight before his 65th birthday – the last possible day he could work, by law.
Following his death, a memorial bench was installed along the banks of the Fraser River in New Westminster, where Don spent so many of his days. The plaque reads:
Don Garcia, Dearest husband and friend, beloved dad, grandpa and brother. Longshoreman, union president, traveller, fisherman and poet. You were the greatest!
Goodman, John. “Nahanee family takes The Road Forward”. North Shore News, July 16, 2017, Glacier Community Media. https://www.nsnews.com/news/nahanee-family-takes-the-road-forward-1.21158116 Retrieved online 15 June 2020 here.
“Historical Chronology of Aboriginal Presence”. Storyweaving, May 2012, Vancouver Moving Theatre. http://vancouvermovingtheatre.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Storyweaving_Program.pdf Retrieved online 15 June 2020 here.
ILWU Local 500. “Squamish Nation Veterans and Relatives.” Oct. 29, 2010. https://ilwu500.org/2010/10/squamish-nation-veterans-and-relatives/ Retrieved online 17 June 2020 here.
Leslie, John F.. “Indigenous Suffrage”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 31 March 2016, Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indigenous-suffrage. Retrieved online 17 June 2020 here.
Watch: “ILWU Canada Remembers Don Garcia“ – ILWU Canada Video Archive. Run time: 27:21.
Barman, Jean. Stanley Park’s Secret: The Forgotten Families of Whoi Whoi, Kanaka Ranch, and Brockton Point. Oct. 2005, Harbour Publishing.