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A World Apart: The Crowsnest Communities of Alberta and British Columbia

By Wayne Norton, Tom Langford

Review By Duff Sutherland

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 138-139 Summer-Autumn 2003  | p. 192-4

A WORLD APART, edited by Wayne Norton and Tom Langford, is a solid collection of essays and memoirs about the experience of living and working in the Crowsnest Pass communities of Alberta and British Columbia in the twentieth century. The authors collectively reveal how the Canadian Pacific and Great Northern Railways spearheaded the European settler history of the region through the construction of lines to mine and haul the Pass’s vast coal deposits. Beginning in the 1890s, mines opened while towns, sawmills, farms, and ranches also emerged as part of a regional economy. This “history” also created class-conscious communities of workers and their families, who were drawn to the Pass primarily from the British Isles and Central and Eastern Europe. These were people whose backgrounds and experiences in the mines led them to embrace a democratic and often radical unionism, elect socialist and working-class politicians like Charlie O’Brien and Tom Uphill, support local volunteers to fight fascism in Spain in the 1930s, and, in towns such as Blairmore and Natal, to name a boulevard and a park after Tim Buck and Karl Marx, respectively. More broadly, these actions reflected, as Tom Langford describes, the culture of the coal camps, “an alternative vision of community in the Crowsnest, a vision that stressed equality rather than hierarchy, solidarity rather than self-interest and democracy rather than corporate oligarchy” (148). It was these shared values and experiences, the editors argue, that made the Crowsnest communities of Alberta and British Columbia “a world apart” until the late 1950s. By then, the majority of the Pass’s underground coal mines had closed as the CPR shifted from steam to diesel locomotives and the forces of “modernity” created more integrated provincial societies. 

The great strength of this collection of writing and photographs is the way its contributors – a combination of academic and local historians, current and former residents – vividly document the working lives and experiences of the people of the Pass in the first half of the twentieth century. In Part One, entitled “Society and Culture,” a dozen articles and memoirs document family and community life. An important theme that emerges is the particular impact that the mining economy had on women and children, and the important role that they played in their families’ survival. Mining accidents and disasters left behind widows and fatherless children, wives looked after households and farms while husbands mined, women took the few low-paying service jobs available to them in mining towns to help their families, and women and children walked sometimes violent picket lines. At the same time, families needed boys to leave school early to mine while “female students could [not] escape the family and social tensions of frequent strikes and disputes at the collieries” (34). Growing up in Fernie, Mary Giuliano remembers that she worked in the family vegetable garden and, as the eldest child, helped her father add an extension to their house. Other articles discuss the importance of music, dances, May Day, sports, and religious revivals to these communities. One has to admire the independence and autonomy of miners who played soccer at a very high level for Fernie United without coaches. A final important dimension of Part One is the immigrant experience. Most immigrants who stayed appeared to have fond memories of their experience in the Pass, but we also learn about a desperately unhappy mother who died young, parents who eventually lived apart, discrimination at work, and prejudice towards immigrant children. 

Part Two examines the political economy of the Pass. As Robert McDonald points out in his excellent chapter on the popular working class MLA, Tom Uphill, “it was coal mining that dominated the economic and social landscape” (101). This meant that mining accidents and disasters in the Pass were community and regional disasters, communities boomed and busted with coal industry, and miner union locals were among the most important political and social institutions in the region. Although there is surprisingly little here about working underground and class conflict, the experience of work clearly radicalized miners who supported the One Big Union, developed “deep historical links” to the Communist Party of Canada, and maintained a critical stance towards the leadership of the United Mine Workers of America. The writers in this part of the book also provide evidence that Pass miners never saw themselves as “a world apart” from the broader working-class movement: they joined campaigns against regressive labour laws across Canada, sent money to striking workers outside the region, and supported progressive causes around the world. In the end, however, what lingers in the mind from these articles and memoirs is a strong historical sense of the people and their lives: the miner David Murray, who survived the initial explosion at Hillcrest in 1914 but died trying rescue his three sons; the picketing miners’ wives and children in Corbin in 1932 whom the Mounties cleared with a bulldozer; the photograph of men and boys about to enter Number Two Mine at Coal Creek before the terrible 1902 explosion; the photographs of union parades in which the entire community appears to be in the parade; and the miner who, until his death in 1999, continued to demand that the company provide him, as a retiree, coal to heat his home as per “his collective agreement.”

A World Apart is a good book that deserves a wide readership in British Columbia. Aside from the work of Allan Seager and another collection edited by Wayne Norton with Naomi Miller,1 the Crowsnest Pass has not figured much in historical writing about British Columbia. This neglect may have reinforced the feeling of the writers that the Pass was “A World Apart.” My sense is that lives of the people of the Pass shared many similarities with those of other working people in the resource industries of British Columbia in the twentieth century. This suggests that we need a new synthesis of the labour and working-class history of this province. 

[1]Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller, eds., The Forgotten Side of the Border: British Columbia’s Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass (Kamloops: Plateau Press, 1998).