Fernie at War 1914-1919
February 5, 2019
Review By R. Scott Sheffield
Wayne Norton provides a fascinating story of a British Columbia resource town navigating its way through the tribulations of the Great War. In so doing, he adds to the small but growing body of works that examine the home front experiences of Canadians during the world wars. Most such studies have focused on medium to large urban centres, so Norton’s choice to explore the small coal-mining town of Fernie and the surrounding Elk Valley is a refreshing and novel contribution. Norton draws on a diverse and thorough research foundation in provincial, regional, organisational and municipal archival collections, while acknowledging the eclectic unevenness of small town records. Of necessity therefore, he leans heavily on local newspapers, which is a mixed blessing of rich details and partisan perspectives that Norton navigates cautiously. The book is organised chronologically, with each year a separate chapter, though within each chapter, sub-headings provide conceptual continuity and clarity. Indeed, Norton explicitly sets up this study around three key themes of labour, loyalty and ethnicity that ebb and flow throughout and lend meaning and coherence to the whole. For Norton, Fernie residents entered the war with optimism and staggered out divided, embittered and ruing the costs in blood.
This is a book with many strengths. The three themes Norton develops work quite well to shape and sustain the narrative. Ethnicity was central given the surprisingly diverse population of immigrants working in Fernie’s coal mines and lumber camps. The fact that many of these were enemy aliens or suspiciously ‘foreign’ led to the internment of hundreds of local men, initially in the town’s hockey rink. Unsurprisingly in a coal mining region with one major employer (the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company), labour relations loomed large. Norton’s background in labour history shines through as he deftly guides the reader through the complicated, fractious politics between union locals and their relations with the United Mine Workers of America, the company, and the federal and provincial governments. The final theme of loyalty is effectively employed to frame many of these discussions within the constrained social structures of small town life in wartime. To his credit, Norton also carries the story beyond the Armistice, weaving the wartime themes into the disjunction and division of the post war recession and labour radicalism of 1919. More important than all the above however, and what raises this work above the trap of parochialism that can undermine local histories, is how attuned Norton is to the broader contextual currents of Canadian society – regionally, provincially, and nationally. He consistently and seamlessly interweaves the events in Fernie and its environs with the broader political, economic and social events that helped shape to them, ensuring that despite its geographical isolation at the time, it feels very much caught up in a great, if distant, crisis.
Only two critiques are worth noting. The first is a production issue as the print on every other set of pages, from 130 to 159 was slightly blurry. The second is the assumption that there was a “sense of disillusionment with the war that affected the whole country by 1918.” (143) No evidence was provided to support this assumption, either primary or secondary. The existing literature suggests that disillusionment might be more in the eye of historians looking back than it was in the minds of Canadians in 1917-18. Norton’s own evidence, such as the still successful fund raising efforts, would seem to run counter to this claim; indeed he admits that the purported disillusionment was “nowhere indicated in the pages of the Fernie Free Press.” (143) While there may well have been disillusionment in certain pockets of the population, such as French Canada or radical organised labour, more broadly it would be accurate to speak instead of war weariness. Overall however, these are relatively minor quibbles with what is in fact a well written and important piece of scholarship.
Fernie At War 1914-1919
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2017. 264 pp. $24.95 paper.