Ol’ Bill: The Scottish-Canadian Writer Fighting For All

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Tessa Carolynn McGibbon graduated with an undergraduate degree in History from Simon Fraser University with a focus on Canadian History. Currently, she is in the post graduate program at Simon Fraser University to become an elementary school teacher. Tessa aims to teach children about Canadian history in an engaging, fun, and informative way.

William Bennett, most commonly known as “Ol’ Bill,” is little-known in the history of the labour movement in Canada, yet his contribution was a very important one. Born into a humble family in Greenock, Scotland on May 8, 1881, Ol’ Bill saw first-hand the struggles of working-class life in urban Scotland. A founding member of the Communist Party of Canada and the Labour-Progressive Party, Ol’ Bill’s passion for the rights of workers and their families began at a young age leading him to join the Kier Hardie-led Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Glasgow in 1897 when he was just sixteen years old. “Young Wullie” was quickly welcomed into the ILP fold not only because at the time he was working in a barbershop, where he had access to many potential labour movement recruits, but also by other young socialists who saw him as one of their own like the young engineer Adam Lieper, who liked that Ol’ Bill “[lives] in the same close (alley) as I do, and he’s been reading the Labour Leader for some time now.”[1] Reading the Labour Leader, a small weekly British socialist paper, was a perfect reason for Ol’ Bill to have gained membership into the ILP because this humble working-class boy’s future would see him become one of the most notable journalists in a revolutionary socialist movement thousands of kilometers away in Canada.

After working for many years in Scotland helping various workers, especially miners, to get concessions from their employers and the government through various writings and speeches, Ol’ Bill moved to Canada. Ol’ Bill, like many other labour supporters of his generation, were dissatisfied with the slow pace at which social reforms for workers and their families were taking place. The (now) Labour Party’s conflict with the government largely involved opposition to the Boer War (1899-1902), which revealed the ill-health of many of the army recruits, many of who came from Britain’s urban slums. Why, asked Ol’ Bill, should “money and labor…be squandered on fighting in a needless war in Africa, when it could be much better used at home cleaning up the Glasgow slums[?]”[2]

Ol’ Bill arrived at his new home in Vancouver in 1907. Like many new immigrants, Ol’ Bill struggled to find work, so he did what he knew best and opened a barber shop in the skid road district of Vancouver (today centred around Hastings and Main), spreading the ideas of socialism to whoever sat in his chair. By 1912, Ol’ Bill joined the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) and began to write for the party’s paper The Western Clarion (launched in 1903). That same year, Ol’ Bill tried running in the provincial election as the Vancouver City candidate for SPC, but sadly did not win.

During most SPC rallies and public meetings in these years, Ol’ Bill acted as the chairmen, which involved speaking publicly, revealing his canny ability to make succinct and straight forward speeches, inspiring all of those who listened to him. In other words, Ol’ Bill was not one to ramble. For example, during his speech to the coal miners during the Vancouver Island miners’ lockout during 1912-13 he said:

Comrade chairman and fellow-workers: You all know what coal is, so I don’t have to go too deeply into that. Most of you here have to buy coal, so I don’t need to tell you much about that either. But…miners who dig the coal…are locked out…some call it a strike. What are you going to do about that?[3]

However, the First World War and the violent labour unrest of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, led Ol’ Bill to move away from the SPC. With other more radical thinkers, Ol’ Bill formed a new organization, the Workers’ Party of Canada in 1922, which became the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in 1924. While working with the CPC, Ol’ Bill helped create the BC Workers’ News in 1935 (Pacific Tribune after 1946) which is where his well-known regular piece, “Short Jabs” began. Short Jabs was a concise column which he addressed various events, politics, and people through his humorous, blunt manner and was also found in other Party publications such as The People and The Advocate.

3

The I.W.W., Industrial Workers of the World, on strike against the Canadian Northern Railway, Yale District. http://search-bcarchives.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/i-w-w-industrial-workers-of-world-on-strike-against-canadian-northern-railway-yale-district

Ol’ Bill’s influential 1936 booklet on the history of labour in BC, Builders of British Columbia, exposed the reality, as he saw it, of the struggles that labourers in the province had had to undertake since its foundation. He argued that men were being forced to work for the rich for little pay and horrible conditions, when the “founding families” of British Columbia gained all the profit and recognition as builders of the province.[4] Through his writing about issues such as, British Columbia lumber workers not having the right to unions, gave people agency to fight for their rights. For example, Ol’ Bill wrote:

The life of the logger, particularly, might be made to look idyllic in a storybook, but fact it was worse than chattel slavery. From dark to dark, 10, 12 and 14 hours of slavish, backbreaking soul-destroying labor; the vilest of food, discarded remnants of the slaughterhouses and the canneries; overloaded bunkhouses with vermin-infested, muzzle-loading, double-deck bunks, three decks in some cases, and for which the logger had to pack his own blankets; no sanitary conditions or wash-houses; swindled and robbed by employment sharks, grafting foremen and the steamboat companies. Such was the lot of the timber-beasts in B.C.’s banner industry.[5]

4

“Christina” a 35 ton climax of Abbot Timber Co. at the end of the rails; Michael Eert collection. http://search-bcarchives.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/christina-35-ton-climax-of-abbot-timber-co-at-end-of-rails-michael-eert-collection

Through Ol’ Bill’s written word he inspired people to fight for the change in treatment toward workers and encouraged people to battle for their right to join unions. This meant workers of all backgrounds including Indigenous people. Bennett argued that despite being hindered by the Indian Agents whose “principle business is to keep the Indians [sic] out of the trade union movement…[Indigenous people] have played a great part in the struggles of the industries in which they work.”[6] This struggle led, for example, to the Lumber Workers’ Industrial Union of Canada expanding exponentially, becoming one of the most powerful unions in Canada. Because of this, lumber workers achieved higher wages, eight-hour work days, and better overall treatment in the camps. This is the legacy of Ol’ Bill’s efforts.

IMG_5157

Bennett, William. Builders of British Columbia. 1936. Frontispiece.

Ol’ Bill passed away on the 31st of December 1949. Discovering Ol’ Bill’s contribution to the development of left-wing politics and labour rights in British Columbia is an important part of Canadian history. William “Ol’ Bill” Bennett’s dedication to all workers of any background demonstrates that the Canadian hero could be anyone starting with only a pair of scissors, a comb, and a pen.

-Tessa McGibbon

 

 

 

 


Notes

[1] Quoted in: Tom McEwen. He Wrote For Us: The story of Bill Bennett, Pioneer Socialist Journalist. (Vancouver: Tribune Publishing Company, 1951), 11.

[2] McEwen, 14. The opposition to the Boer War by Ol’ Bill and his colleagues led to students at the University of Glasgow raiding the Labour Leader and smashing the printing equipment.

[3] McEwen, 23.

[4] McEwen, 24.

[5] Quoted in McEwen, 27.

[6] William Bennett, Builders of British Columbia (1936), 108.

Sources

City of Vancouver Archives

Royal BC Museums Archives

Bennett, William. Builders of British Columbia. 1936.

Isitt, Benjamin. Militant Minority: British Columbia Workers and the Rise of a New Left, 1948-1972. Toronto” University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Leier, Mark. Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolutionary, Mystic, Labour Spy (Revised Edition). Vancouver: New Star Books, 2013.

McEwen, Tom. He Wrote For Us: The story of Bill Bennett, Pioneer Socialist Journalist. Vancouver: Tribune Publishing Company, 1951, http://collections.mun.ca/PDFs/radical/HeWroteForUs.pdf

www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca
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Pleasure and Pain in the Okanagan Valley: the Adventures of Lord and Lady Aberdeen

We are thrilled that our inaugural post comes from Professor Marjory Harper, Chair in History at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Professor at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. Professor Harper has written many books and articles on the history of Scottish migration around the globe, including migration to Canada. Her most recent publication, Scotland No More? The Scots who Left Scotland in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh, 2012) was in 2013 awarded the Frank Watson Prize by the University of Guelph, and short-listed for the Saltire History Prize. This book includes interviews of Scottish settlers to the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Her new book Migration and Mental Health: Past and Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, will be out early 2016.

Tucked away behind the imposing mansion house of Haddo, stately home of the Aberdeen family for centuries until it came under the care of the National Trust for Scotland, is the Canadian Hall, a visible legacy of the family’s troubled love affair with British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Haddo Hall

Haddo House, Aberdeenshire [image courtesy of the author]

The connection was forged in 1890, when Ishbel and John Gordon, Earl and Countess of Aberdeen, made their first trip to Canada. It continued through the 1890s, when for five years Lord Aberdeen was Governor General of Canada, and ended in 1920, when they finally severed their links with the Okanagan. The story centres initially around Ishbel’s determination to purchase a property in British Columbia which could be managed by her wayward brother, Coutts Marjoribanks. An archetypal remittance man, Coutts was at that time failing spectacularly in the management of his father’s ranch in North Dakota.

Canadian Hall at Haddo [image courtesy of the author]

Canadian Hall at Haddo [image courtesy of the author]

Ishbel Gordon was a formidable personality. Born in London in 1857 and raised in a strongly political household, she is probably best remembered as a campaigner for women’s occupational, social and political rights at home and abroad. Not least among her achievements was the establishment of the Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada in 1897, and for 43 years she was President of the International Council of Women.

Ishbel Gordon on her wedding day

Ishbel Gordon on her wedding day [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Coutts Marjoribanks

Coutts Marjoribanks [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

The Aberdeen’s first trip to Canada was undertaken partly on doctor’s orders, to allow Ishbel, a Gladstonian Liberal, to recover from nervous exhaustion following the party’s split over the issue of Irish home rule. Towards the end of their three-month visit, they traveled west on the recently-opened CPR to its terminus at Vancouver, and thence by ferry to spend a day in Victoria. Ishbel’s impatience to reach the island was due to her long-anticipated rendezvous with the Scottish theologian Henry Drummond, a family friend who had probably been her lover since at least 1884.

Gusiachan, BC

Guisachan, Inverness-shire [image courtesy of the author]

Back on the mainland, the Aberdeens consulted with George Mackay, a Scottish engineer who had once built roads at Guisachan, Ishbel’s father’s Highland estate, before emigrating in 1887 and establishing real estate companies in Vancouver and the Okanagan. At Mackay’s urging, they bought a 480-acre ranch near Kelowna, which they renamed Guisachan. Coutts was duly installed as manager and – since Guisachan is Gaelic for ‘place of the firs’ – the driveway was lined with rows of Scottish fir seedlings (which rapidly died).

Guisiachan, BC

Guisachan, BC [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

It was another year before the family visited their new property. Their timing was impeccable. Having chartered a special train to take them on the branch line from Sicamous Junction to Vernon, they arrived in time to see Guisachan take twelve prizes in the district’s inaugural agricultural show, before Coutts escorted them down the lake to the Kelowna property. Ishbel was captivated to find ‘mountains looking more like the Inverness-shire mountains of my youth than any others we had seen in Canada’, and she and Johnnie duly instructed Mackay to make another, much bigger purchase at the northern end of the valley [1]. This was the 14,000-acre Coldstream Ranch, the running of which was given to Coutts.

During their five years at Rideau Hall, the Aberdeens relished any opportunity to exchange the pomp and ceremony of office for the freedom and tranquility of the Okanagan. But they were equally determined that the properties should become economically viable through subdivision of the existing cattle ranges into fruit ranches, a development which they believed would benefit the local community as well as themselves. To that end, irrigation systems were installed, and a jam factory was established in Vernon, while small-scale investors who were enticed out from Scotland commemorated their homeland by naming their properties after familiar Aberdeenshire landmarks.

Jam factory

Jam factory [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Coldstream, BC

Coldstream, BC [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Perhaps the rapid demise of the Guisachan fir trees was an omen, for sadly, the Aberdeens’ dreams were never fulfilled. For more than a decade they contended with Coutts Marjoribanks’ persistent incompetence, the jam factory’s fraudulent manager, a costly infrastructure, low prices for produce, and all the problems associated with pioneering a new enterprise in an unfamiliar, arid environment.

Eventually, after repeated warnings from accountants and agricultural experts that mismanagement and excessive expenditure were bringing the ranches to the brink of bankruptcy, they sold Guisachan in 1903 and incorporated the Coldstream property, in which Johnnie remained a shareholder until 1921.

In one sense, the Okanagan experiences are encapsulated in Ishbel’s gloomy epitaph when the family finally relinquished their interest in Coldstream. The years came and went, and the golden age predicted always receded. “The results of our investment in BC have been very sad,” she wrote in 1921 [2]. Yet the pain was not without gain, at least for the valley into which they poured their capital and energy. For it was Lord Aberdeen’s visionary pioneering that launched the transformation of the Okanagan into the fruit and wine basket of western Canada, a status it retains to this day.

Marjory Harper, University of Aberdeen

Sources:

[1] Through Canada with a Kodak, by the Countess of Aberdeen (Edinburgh, 1893), new edition, with introduction by Marjory Harper (Toronto: UTP, 1994), p. 166.

[2] John Campbell Gordon, 1st Marquess of Aberdeen, ‘We Twa’: Reminiscences of Lord and Lady Aberdeen (London: Collins, 1925), pp. 90-1.