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Vancouver Is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886

By Lisa Anne Smith

Hobohemia and the Crucifixion Machine: Rival Images of a New World in 1930s Vancouver

By Todd McCallum

May 7, 2016

Review By John Douglas Belshaw

Here we have two books about crises in the history of Vancouver. They nevertheless cry out to be called chalk and cheese because they strike such a different balance between narrative form and theoretical density. Both could stand to learn a little from the other.

Smith by now may be called an accomplished historian of early Vancouver. She has — and shares — an almost tactile understanding of nineteenth century Gastown. She is alert to the sounds and smells as well as the chilly water in the harbour and the mud that clogs the streets after a rain. There are many accounts extant of the Great Fire, the cleansing moment that prepared Granville for its emergence as a Canadian city linked to the eastern provinces via the CPR. None provide so excellent and unsettling a blow-by-blow narrative as this one. Writers of historical non-fiction pay attention: the first 120 pages are exciting and terrifying and a model of how to describe a brief historic event in an utterly compelling fashion. Smith does first-rate work threading together scraps of singed evidence into individual tales and then binding them into a singular civic experience. Midway through the book, however, she changes gears. Uninterpreted primary materials are presented and for twenty pages the thrill is pretty much gone. Then, mercifully, many of the actors who were last observed fleeing for their lives are brought back onstage and Smith reminds us that many of the folks who survived 1886 (spoiler alert: some did not) went on to play other roles in the city’s history. What they had in common was this one afternoon of hell (I know that sounds clichéd, but that’s the word for it).

The book concludes with an afterword on cities and fires. It is here that the project could have been hit a couple of times with the theory stick. The history of fire is, yes, a hot topic and much of the best literature provides a variety of challenging perspectives. Smith is content to reference a litany of urban fires, pointing to the multitude of causes involved; she might have done more. Notions of “property damage” are, for example, tied directly to ideologies of individualism and capitalism; the scorching of Vancouver occurred in an historic context of industrialization, the building of a commercial town, and ideals of democratic legitimacy. It is no accident that the most holy relics of the Great Fire are Hastings Mill, which survived the fire; a staged photograph of a tree stump that housed a real estate agent; and another photograph, also by Harry Devine, of the canvas tent that became “City Hall.” Industrial forces tied to the business of clearcutting the downtown peninsula for profit and to make way for the CPR are directly implicated in the fire and yet there’s little here that offers any explanatory historical vision.

 Finding explanatory models is not, however, a problem in McCallum’s Hobohemia. There are probably too many or, at the very least, some are ladled on too thick. McCallum is, in fact, so versed with theory as to be playful. For theoreticians, this can be exciting; for those of us who regard Foucault and Adorno as distractions if they don’t actually do some heavy lifting, it can be frustrating. So, too, is McCallum’s prose style, which can run to overlong sentences and fanciful word creations like “capitalogic” and, of course, “Hobohemia.”

The outlines of the story are familiar. The Crash of 1929 was followed by convulsions in Vancouver as seasonal unemployment collided with crisis joblessness. Thousands of men hopped on board boxcars heading west to the mild Terminal City winters. Civic officials were the first level of government to be tasked with dealing with demands and protests. These are charted with remarkable precision and attention to detail. Like the Great Fire, the Great Depression in Vancouver has been described many times but never with such a masterful mustering of sources. Also, the respectful way in which McCallum approaches the literature is entirely laudable. Too many scholarly works begin from the premise that everything that has gone before needs to be exposed as fundamentally wrong, a task that is crowned by a new, revised interpretation that finally sets the record straight. McCallum presents an alternative viewpoint rather than a cagematch.

He does, however, have his combatants. Fordism is the straw man he seeks to knock down; Hobohemia is the positive vision held by the unemployed, the left, and some of their allies of a civil society in which the surplus labour produced by capitalism would be kept fed and housed in bad times. Notions of a deserving poor managed closely by Fordist (i.e.: systematic and bureaucratic — explicitly soulless) machinery are countered by a nascent social movement (Hobohemia) that demands the recognition of individual circumstances, basic equalities, and a sense of equity as well.

Setting aside the position taken by the unemployed for the moment, there’s an opportune comparison to be made with Lisa Pasolli’s 2015 book, Working Mothers and the Child Care Dilemma. Pasolli explores the arguments for and against daycare strategies in British Columbia (mostly Vancouver) in the twentieth century. What she finds is an incredibly pliable sense on the part of elites (and subordinate groups as well) as regards entitlement. In other words, this wasn’t an issue isolated to the Relief Office; it was — and it remains — a fundamental element of any conversation about the redistribution of wealth. But does it have anything to do with Fordism? One comes away with a sense that McCallum himself is quietly undecided. Even though his loyalties to the unemployed are never in doubt, McCallum has to concede the narrow radius in which the actors could turn. “Mass need in Vancouver meant mass administration, the reliance on the management methods of modern businesses. This new managerial style was designed to assuage the financial concerns of governments while also providing a sound basis for the investigatory and disciplinary aspects of relief provision” (246). Why, then, should we buy into the critique of Fordism? Being more efficient in handling a massified problem seems, well, responsible. Surely it is better than being overwhelmed and useless? The Communists in Vancouver advocated for a union wage paid in cash to everyone who was unemployed: as much as they (rightly) despised the corrupt and sometimes brutal civic regime, they presumably envisioned a lean civic administration that efficiently delivered these more generous cash sums to thousands of recipients.

This book contains challenging ideas built on superb archival research; it offers up fresh perspectives and it does contain a historical tale worth reading. Too much theory and no small measure of romanticism about the hobo ethos, however, subtract rather than add to the whole.


Pasolli, Lisa. 2015. Working Mothers and the Child Care Dilemma: A History of British Columbia’s Social Policy. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Vancouver Is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886
Lisa Anne Smith
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2014. 227pp. $21.95 paper

Todd McCallum
Hobohemia and the Crucifixion Machine: Rival Images of a New World in 1930s Vancouver
Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2014. xi, 319pp. $29.95 paper