Fitzclarence St. John
(Photo: Fitzclarence St. John, image and information from Waterfront News, 1971)
Remembering Fitzclarence St. John, founding member of the “Bows and Arrows” Lumber Handlers local of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Fitz, more commonly known and referred to as John St. John, passed away in 1970 at the age of 90 years old. Born into a wealthy family of black plantation owners in Barbados in the West Indies, he “rebelled against the privileged life” and went to sea. At the turn of the new century, he found himself in British Columbia, where he found odd jobs at the docks of Victoria and Vancouver and hauled lumber by horse and wagon around the Chemainus sawmill, supervising the loading of lumber onto sailing ships.
Frank Rogers, organizer for both the fishermen and the dockers, was shot dead on the night of April 13th, 1903, while walking the CPR tracks with two picketers; the entire trade union movement was shocked and outraged, turning out in masses for his funeral. Fitz St. John was prominent among the mourners who marched through drenching rain to the cemetery and recalled the remarkable variety of vehicles that made up the procession in front of the hearse – wagons, buggies, early automobiles and trucks. He kept the old top-hat he wore at the damp, silent wake to his dying day.
At the age of 26, in 1906, Fitz and several others formed a new union among the lumber handlers – the majority of whom were Indigenous workers from the Capilano reserve. They decided to affiliate with the Industrial Workers of the World, more commonly known as the Wobblies, who had only had only been founded one year prior. This local became known as the North Vancouver Lumber Handler’s Union, IWW No. 502, with 60 founding members, and elected a man named George Walker as President. They were nicknamed the “Bows and Arrows Gang”, a name they wore proudly.
St. John became secretary and designed the local’s insignia, a crossed peavey and crowbar. For the first years of its existence, the union held meetings in the Native hall of the North Vancouver Indian Reserve. As for the rest of the Vancouver waterfront, it was “take things as they are or go hungry!”, until the International Longshoremen’s Association [ILA] organized in 1912.
- Prepared by Bailey Garden, Project Manager, BC Labour Heritage Centre