“The Most Exciting Thing We Could Have Done”
Union flag fashioned from a bed sheet became a symbol of solidarity and determination during the 1983 Tranquille Institution occupation.On July 19, 1983 an inspirational episode in BC labour history began. BCGEU members at the Tranquille Institution in Kamloops learned the Socred government planned to shut it down and fire them all. And there were no plans to care for its 325 residents, who were living with physical and developmental disabilities.
The workers responded by taking over the institution for 22 days, kicking out the managers and running it themselves. For more than three weeks, they occupied the institution, caring for the residents and successfully administering it themselves.
Kamloops BCGEU Staff Representative Dave McPherson was the organizational genius behind the occupation. “Dave McPherson was just the creme de la creme of an organizer,” recalled Gary Steeves.When told of the government’s plan, McPherson immediately responded ‘Let’s call it an occupation. We’re going to occupy the place. Here’s what we’re going to do. You designate some buildings. I’ll lay it out and then we’ll ask the membership.’
Shortly after the occupation began, Steeves found McPherson sitting on the floor in the corner of a room at Tranquille.
“I could not believe my eyes! He was on his hands and knees and he had a pale blue bedsheet, a Styrofoam coffee cup and a black felt marker in his hand. He was just finishing production of a BCGEU flag.”
“The large dogwood logo, perfectly shaped, was in the centre of the sheet and was amazingly good. He stood up holding the flag. ‘We should put this up in place of the province’s flag at the fire hall,’ he said.”
“Everyone began talking at once. Excitement broke out. We all trooped outside and as we walked across the yard from the East Pavilion to the fire hall, the media contingent fell in behind. They recorded members gathering around as we lowered the provincial flag and raised the BCGEU flag to loud cheers. It was the most exciting thing we could have done.”