We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.
Vancouver has always had a volatile streak; it’s a key ingredient of the city’s identity, a theme in the story Vancouverites tell themselves about their place in the world. Perhaps political polarization, western alienation, protests, strikes, and riots are the necessary grit that counterbalances Lotusland’s lovely vistas and moderate climate. Whether or not such social tensions have been more pronounced here than other Canadian cities (ahem, Montreal), it’s almost a point of pride in Vancouver.
Kate Bird explores this theme in her latest illustrated book, City on the Edge: A Rebellious Century of Vancouver Protests, Riots, and Strikes, drawing mainly from the photograph collections of the Vancouver Province and Sun newspapers where she formerly served as librarian. Taking the reader through the decades are some now classic photos and well known events, such as the heart-shaped Mothers’ Day protest in support of relief camp strikers on Mothers’ Day 1935 (p. 25).
But the majority of images are ones that were never published or that depict mostly forgotten events and campaigns. One example is a 1967 photo of a young Native Alliance for Red Power activist holding a sign reading “Stop Cultural Genocide” outside a meeting of residential school administrators on Fraser Street that is sure to resonate today as Canada continues to grapple with reconciliation and the devastating aftermath of the schools (p. 59).
The book is organized chronologically, with chapters covering a single decade except for the first two, which compress 1900 to 1939 and 1940 to 1959 respectively. As Bird tells us in her introduction, this isn’t because the early years were less dramatic, but because photojournalism was slow to emerge as a standard component of newspapers in the first decades of the 20th century, so few events were captured in the early years.
City on Edge will certainly evoke nostalgia for long-time Vancouverites, but it also presents a narrative of Vancouver’s history that words alone could never accomplish. It should also stimulate curiosity about the city’s past, as most of the photo captions only describe the image rather than elaborate on the context. For example, what’s the story behind the hooded Ku Klux Klansmen protesting communism on East Hastings Street in 1982 (p. 110)?
Another image shows a very young Dan McLeod and others protesting the Georgia Straight newspaper having its business license suspended for indecency (p. 69). In this case, we can find out how the story unfolded in subsequent decades in Georgia Straight: A 50th Anniversary Celebration by Dan McLeod and Doug Sarti.
While City on Edge covers more than a century and the images range from international events like the Komagata Maru incident to a protest over the price of a chocolate bar, Sarti and McLeod take on the half century history of their weekly newspaper. The Straight was born into the ‘60s youth counterculture, so its early editions in particular were circumstantially and deliberately provocative. Dope, pornography, anti-police brutality, and the paper’s own conflicts with the “establishment” seem to have been the main themes in the early years.
As the ‘60s faded into the 1970s, baby boomers became more established, the paper’s radicals moved on to other ventures (such as the spinoff Georgia Grape), and the Straight began to settle into its niche as an arts and culture weekly. Nevertheless, it clung to its activist origins as a champion of a free press and free speech. The latter had a somewhat awkward manifestation in the mid-1970s when it gave Nazi sympathizer Doug Collins a platform.
The book shows the evolution through an admirably curated selection of Straight covers, accompanied by a brief roundup of the edition’s contents. Aside from conveying the evolution of the paper (and Vancouver), this approach showcases some of the fantastic artists who have graced its pages over the years, including Gilbert Shelton, R. Crumb, Bob Masse, Rand Holmes, and more recently, Mark “Atomos” Pilon, Stanley Q. Woodvine, and Rod Filbrandt.
Others who laboured at the Straight went on to find greater fame elsewhere, including Doug Bennett (Doug and the Slugs) and Sir Bob Geldoff, who penned an apparently beatnik inspired introduction to the book (“In the beginning was the Word, and the word was go. And the go was the Georgia Straight.” [p. 9] Whatever that means). Environmentalist and one-time Straight writer Paul Watson also contributed an essay, as did former mayor and BC premier, Mike Harcourt and rocker Bif Naked.
Both City on Edge and Georgia Straight succeed as visually fascinating and entertaining coffee table books, while also being informative reflections of the often tumultuous history that helped shape Vancouver’s identity.
Georgia Straight: A 50th Anniversary Celebration
Doug Sarti and Dan McLeod
Vancouver: Rocky Mountain Books, 2017. 303pp. $40.00 cloth.
City on the Edge: A Rebellious Century of Vancouver Protests, Riots, and Strikes
Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2017. 176 pp. $32.95 cloth.