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Gold Dust on His Shirt: The Story of an Immigrant Mining Family

By Irene Howard

Review By Eva St. Jean

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 163 Autumn 2009  | p. 142-3

British Columbia produces an astounding number of works on non-British immigrants on the west coast. Many recent books, such as Voices Raised in Protest (2008), The Triumph of Citizenship (2007), Nikkei Fishermen on the BC Coast (2007), and Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada, 1891-1941 (2007) focus on Asian immigration. However, while a significant minority of Scandinavians resided in British Columbia in the first half of the twentieth century, they are often considered to have assimilated too easily into the Canadian fabric to warrant scholarly attention.

Perhaps this is why Irene Howard presents her latest book in a form designed to attract a wider, popular audience. Howard firmly established herself as a talented biographer with her award-winning The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge, the Unknown Reformer (1992), and Gold Dust continues the theme of the immigrant working class. Where the Gutteridge biography follows a scholarly style of referencing with numbered notes, however, Gold Dust lacks in-text notation and instead lists sources at the end of the book, identified by chapter, page number, and a few identifying words from a relevant sentence. The advantage is an uncluttered text for those who are not interested in references; the disadvantage is that it erects hurdles for academic researchers.

Gold Dust is a thoughtful tribute to Howard’s Scandinavian family, taking the reader from Sweden and Norway to a search for either land-ownership or permanent work in British Columbia. We learn of “Old World” poverty, a powerful push-factor that convinced people to leave loved ones – even children – behind in the faint hope of later reuniting. We also learn how endless and relentless labour caused the premature death of Howard’s parents; any bitterness betrayed in the book is found in the depiction of the Workmen’s Compensation Board’s reluctant awards for work-related injuries and Alfred Nilsson’s subsequent death by silicosis. Here the text might have elaborated on why governments strangle funding to institutions helping ill and injured workers, which ultimately makes villains of the WCB clerks charged with doling out the funds. Such analysis, however, might have proved difficult to accomplish given the structure of this work.

The subtitle promises a True Story of an Immigrant Mining Family, and this is mostly upheld. There are trifling points, such as that Alfred’s sayings seem more Norwegian than Swedish (perhaps due to the linguistic influences of Howard’s Norwegian mother) and that the Prince Rupert “Norwegian” consul on page 214 is likely the Swede, Olaf Hanson, from page 76. In other cases, Howard’s reconstruction of events is wholly transparent as she “take[s] it upon [herself] to spin” the completion of a story (103). More serious fictionalizing involves her desire to recreate her father’s image in line with her labour movement heroes from Vancouver’s Svenskar (1970), but this tells more about Irene Howard than about her father and his contemporaries. She admits wishing she was “writing fiction” so that she could revise Alfred’s non-participation in the famous 1912 International Workers of the World strike (13), and she claims to “believe” her father was one in a group of workers whose wage demands led to a mining strike in 1935 (216). While such narrative impulses are wholly understandable, her story is already brimming with loyalty, affection, ingenuity, and persistence – all heroic qualities that need neither spinning nor embroidering.

Despite these minor reservations, the structure of Howard’s biography lends it a much greater usefulness than would be found in a simple family portrait. It is migration history, labour history, women’s history, and family history woven into one story. Through photographs and literary depictions, Gold Dust provides vivid imagery of working-class life and shows that the migratory pattern of BC workers was not restricted to single sojourners. Indeed, in search of work, the family criss-crossed British Columbia, even venturing into the mines of Idaho in the United States. This engaging tale is written with an ironic, low-keyed humour that demonstrates Howard’s deep affection for workers who often lost limbs and lives in building this province, and it will be useful to anyone who seeks a better understanding of British Columbia’s rich working-class history.