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Labour rebels shaped BC history – A book review

April 21, 2016

NSB Rebel Life cover sketchesMark Leier, Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, revised edition (Vancouver: New Star, 2013), 183 pages, soft cover, $21; Laura Ellyn, Ginger Goodwin: A Worker’s Friend (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016), 114 pages, soft cover, $23.95

It’s a minor miracle that labour historian Mark Leier’s revision of his original 1999 book on labour rebel Robert Gosden even made it into print. A fire bombing at Vancouver’s New Star Books a few years ago delayed publication but we can be grateful that it did not deprive readers of this lively biography cum provincial labour history.

As Leier notes in the introduction to the first edition, BC history tends to dwell on the rich, famous, and powerful, the coal barons and robber barons that fill volumes. But hidden stories like Gosden’s “deserve to be told if we are to understand the history of the province.” (1)

Gosden, like many of BC’s early labor movement personalities fits several labels. Leier painstakingly probes him first as a Wobbly revolutionary, then a mystic, and finally, and perhaps most mysteriously, a labour spy. Gosden was a man of many secrets and Leier provides the keys to open them as he guides us through the exploits of this “shadowing figure” in the first few decades of the twentieth century. (back cover)

As a revolutionary, Gosden called for violent action to counter the deprivations caused by capitalism. A member of the Industrial Workers of the World, he assisted in the formation of the Prince Rupert Industrial Association (PRIA) to demand better working conditions. Controversy followed Gosden as he forcefully argued in articles for the IWW’s Industrial Worker that the most effective tools for a revolutionary were “direct action and sabotage.” (24) Those views landed him in jail more than once.

Disillusioned with BC socialists and observing so-called socialist and labour supporter Parker Williams’s shift to the Liberal party, he was soon siding with the Liberals himself and was embroiled in the “plugging scandal,” involving fraud, political payoffs, and illegal voting. The deeper the scandal, the deeper Gosden was implicated.

As a mystic, Gosden embraced the tenets of theosophy, a blend of spiritual beliefs promoted by Russian émigré Madame Helena Blavatsky. He also followed the teachings of British mystic Annie Besant. His relationship with Ethel Cuthbertson, a poet and temperance advocate, also may have led him down this path.

As a spy, he contradicted all that he had previously represented as an impassioned voice of workers. At Gosden’s funeral, labour leaders knew that “he had been a fiery radical,” writes Leier. What they did not know was that “he had been a labour spy for the RCMP” and that he was “advocating measures ranging from political reforms to the ‘disappearing’ of trade unionists and socialists.” (7)

All labour historians have to dredge through various archives, old labor press reports, and obituaries to find evidence of a life that has made a difference for working people. Leier has done us a service by describing his own experiences in those trenches. Through a combination of luck, digging, and help from friends, as he puts it, Leier has given us more than a biography and students of labour history will benefit from it.

Rebel Life also provides moments for political reflection on the value of labour history today. At the risk of diverting readers from the main story, Leier offers numerous sidebars on the political parties of the day, radical unions like the Wobblies and the One Big Union, famous strikes, and personages such as labour martyr Albert “Ginger” Goodwin to name but a few. It is these sidebars and Leier’s efforts to weave Gosden’s story into a modern-day context that both frustrate the reader interested in a straight biography and speak to the one wanting to make connections with the broader geopolitical concerns of today.

Following the eighty-year old tracks and trails of Robert Gosden was clearly fun and exciting for Leier and he has shared the details of that life with the imagination of a mystery writer and the knowledge of one of our most seasoned labour historians. Let us be grateful for failed fire bombings.


ginger graphic novel coverLeier has long been a supporter of history through graphic novels and he highly recommends Laura Ellen’s Ginger Goodwin: A Worker’s Friend as an “accessible, deeply moving, and inspiring book.” (back cover) Like Leier with Gosden, Ellen blends the story of Goodwin’s shooting death on Vancouver Island in 1918 with contemporary concerns about the Alberta tar sands, for example, or Canada’s military role in Afghanistan. She relies on “the emotional truth of oral histories,” while acknowledging the work of historians in sorting out the Goodwin story through documentary research. (106) This boldly illustrated volume makes a welcome visual companion to Goodwin biographies by Roger Stonebanks and Susan Mayse.


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