A Temple for Labour

Entrance to the newly renovated Labor Temple. Photo by me.

Entrance to the newly renovated Labor Temple. Photo by me.

With the destruction of old buildings getting so much attention in Vancouver these days, it’s good to stop once in a while and notice the survivors. The old Labor Temple at 411 Dunsmuir Street has recently undergone a major renovation, including seismic upgrades and an addition in the rear, though without the cornice, it still doesn’t look as good as architect Thomas Hooper’s original design. The anchor tenant is a White Spot on the ground floor, and while the building’s original function as a gathering place for organized labour has long moved on, Local 40 has offices there.

Labor Hall demo 1910

Demolition of the Labor Hall and former Homer Street Methodist Church to make way for the new Labor Temple, 1910. Photo by Philip T Timms, City of Vancouver Archives #677-724

The Labor Temple was built to replace the Labor Hall, an old Methodist church on the same site that the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC) acquired in 1899 after the Methodists decided to move to Burrard Street. The Labor Hall was a very busy place that hosted talks by the likes of Emma Goldman and Eugene V Debs, and soon became too small

The new building opened in the spring of 1913. It cost about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and included meeting halls, a large billiards room in the basement, a lounge for unemployed workers, a print shop, a cooperative store to provide low cost goods to workers, and offices for the VTLC, the Socialist Party, and individual unions.

Labor Temple architect drawing 11Mar1911

Architect Thomas Hooper’s original design for the Labor Temple. Vancouver Daily World, 11 March 1911

The Temple’s early days were pretty raucous times for organized labour in Vancouver. The same year construction began, the city was slammed by a recession and the related Free Speech Fights. Over on Vancouver Island, the most vicious labour battle in BC’s history raged in Nanaimo from 1912 until 1914.

The Labor Temple was a stop for many prominent and sometimes militant union leaders passing through town. Mother Jones is perhaps the most well known. Even though she was a five-foot-nothing octogenarian when she came in 1914, the BC government tried to bar her entry into Canada because they feared she would try and inspire striking coal miners on the Island, which she did. Other notorious speakers included IWW co-founder Big Bill Haywood and Lucy Parsons, the outspoken widow of Haymarket Riot martyr Albert Parsons, who lectured Vancouverites on lessons from the French Revolution.

Photo of the Labor Temple from the BC Federationist, 6 February 1914

Photo of the Labor Temple from the BC Federationist, 6 February 1914

The Labor Temple also hosted many events around the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the hall was often packed for US, British, and local suffragettes, likely due to the influence of Helena Gutteridge, a British suffragette and trade unionist who moved to Vancouver in 1911 and became deeply involved in both movements locally.

Helena Gutteridge was working at the Labor Temple during Canada’s first General Strike that was sparked by the police killing of union organizer Ginger Goodwin in 1918. As part of their strikebreaking effort, employers sent a mob of soldiers to the Temple to intimidate and harass union organizers. The soldiers trashed the place, threw documents out the window and attempted to do the same with two union leaders.

A mob of soldiers attacking the Labor Temple during the 1919 General Strike, called in sympathy with the Winnipeg General Strike. Vancouver Daily World, 3 August 1918

A mob of soldiers attacking the Labor Temple during the 1919 General Strike, called in sympathy with the Winnipeg General Strike. Vancouver Daily World, 3 August 1918

During another general strike in 1919, tensions were heightened by the placement of machine guns atop the Beatty Street Drill Hall a few blocks to the east, which strike supporters complained were aimed at the Labor Temple to intimidate strikers. (More realistically, the guns were well within range of the Cambie Street Grounds, a popular site for rallies across the street).

It wasn’t just militants who made use of the Labor Temple; the conservative Vancouver Police Union also got its start there in 1918 as one of Canada’s first police unions.

Emma Goldman gave two lectures on anarchism at the Labour Temple on Dunsmuir Street in December 1908.

411 Dunsmuir in 2010, before renovations. Photo by me.

Ultimately the Labor Temple became a casualty of this radical period in Vancouver’s history. The VTLC split into two factions, one supporting international unions and the other the homegrown One Big Union of Winnipeg General Strike fame. The split paralyzed the VTLC’s ability to meet the financial obligations of the Labor Temple. The provincial government purchased the building and repurposed it as the first home of Van Tech high school. The province retained ownership of the building until a few years ago when it sold it to Omicron and CRS Group of Companies, the current owners. Labour’s Vancouver temple is now the Maritime Labour Centre on Victoria Drive, an unsightly but functional meeting hall and headquarters for the Vancouver District Labour Council (the VTLC’s current name) that features a fabulous 1940s mural by Fraser Wilson.

100 Deathless Days

Front page cartoon promoting the launch of "100 Deathless Days." Vancouver Sun, 1 July 1939

Front page cartoon promoting the launch of "100 Deathless Days." Vancouver Sun, 1 July 1939

A 1939 editorial in the Vancouver Sun editorial blamed the large number of traffic accidents on the Big Bend Highway near Revelstoke on prairie drivers. “Travelling to Vancouver they have the outside of the road, theoretically,” wrote the Sun. “But in practice most of them take the middle or hug the inside. It’s the mental hazard that gets them after years of travel on the broad prairie.” The Winnipeg Tribune fired back that Manitoba drivers on BC highways “are being pushed into the ditch by erratic coast drivers.” Moreover, Winnipeg had recently gone 288 consecutive days without a single traffic fatality, despite being “over-run with goofy pedestrians who ignore all safety rules about crossing the street.”

Unwilling to play second fiddle to Winnipeg, the Sun took the Tribune’s comments as a challenge and, in conjunction with the Traffic Safety Council, launched “100 Deathless Days.” The idea was to cajole the city’s motorists to be extra cautious for 100 consecutive days beginning 1 July 1939.

On July 3, the men behind the campaign were congratulating themselves for making it through an entire holiday weekend with no fatalities and only minor traffic injuries. Mayor Telford was preparing to officially dedicate a sign that had been installed at Granville and Georgia that would countdown the number of deathless days until the conclusion of the campaign.

Carelessness shattering the 100 Deathless Days Campaign. At this early stage, one person was dead and another laying dying from traffic collisions in Vancouver. Vancouver Sun, 10 July 1939

Carelessness shattering the 100 Deathless Days Campaign. At this early stage, one person was already dead and another lay dying from traffic collisions in the city. Vancouver Sun, 10 July 1939

Later that same day, the campaign was sadly “interrupted” when 55 year-old Thomas Hatley was struck dead by a car at Main and Station streets. The Sun editorialized that only a small minority of motorists – roughly 2% – was responsible for an “orgy of lawbreaking” on the city’s streets and whose licences ought to be revoked. In other words, it was essentially a law enforcement problem.

The campaign restarted, but on 10 July, the Sun revealed that Mildred Graham was on her deathbed after another traffic mishap, causing the paper’s optimism to wane: “We might just as well have started out on a mass rocket flight to the moon,” mused the Sun, 30 years before rocket flights to the moon were possible. It wasn’t the police department’s fault, since “all the police between here and Bow Street couldn’t keep our drivers in line.” Nevertheless, Chief Constable Foster said that he would instruct the entire police force to enforce traffic laws instead of leaving it all to the Traffic Squad.

A man was thrown through the windshield of this car during 100 Deathless Days. He survived so it didn't affect the campaign. Vancouver Sun, 20 July 1939

A man was thrown through the windshield of this truck during the 100 Deathless Days campaign. He survived so it didn't affect the campaign. Vancouver Sun, 20 July 1939

Pedestrians weren’t to blame either in the Sun’s view. Sure, they do foolish things, but “so long as motorists go on assuming that the pedestrian has no rights, we might as well pack our Deathless Days Campaign away in mothballs with the New Year’s Resolutions and admit we don’t want to save lives.” Unless Vancouver drivers adjusted their attitudes, we might as well “admit that we haven’t got what it takes to stop killing people” and should just accept that Vancouverites are simply of “weaker moral fibre” than Winnipeggers.

Most of the Sun's brow beating was aimed at motorists, but their "magic eye" camera caught these pedestrians misbehaving at Granville & Georgia. Vancouver Sun, 5 August 1939

Most of the Sun's brow beating was aimed at motorists, but their "magic eye" camera caught these pedestrians behaving recklessly at Granville & Georgia. Vancouver Sun, 5 August 1939

100 Deathless Days began anew a third time after Mildred Graham succumbed to her injuries on 14 July. But when 65 year-old Edward Luff was mowed down the next day on Hastings, the Sun said it didn’t count because he was killed by a streetcar, not a private automobile. A nine year-old cyclist was also run over that day at Keefer and Hawks, but he survived. Another cyclist, 15 year-old Billy MacDonald, died a couple days earlier after being thrown from his bicycle on Gravely Street, but that one was classified as a “freak accident” rather than a traffic death, and so didn’t affect the campaign.

William Hanna forced the fourth restart of 100 Deathless Days when he crashed into a bus and died. Vancouver Sun, 19 July 1939

William Hanna forced the fourth restart of 100 Deathless Days when he crashed into a bus and died. Police tape evidently hadn't been invented yet. Vancouver Sun, 19 July 1939

The fourth restart of the campaign came on 19 July following the death of 50 year-old William Hanna when he crashed his car into a bus at Granville and 54th Avenue. The Sun’s editorial that day was less impassioned than earlier in the campaign, simply telling people to be careful and offering tips to avoid killing or being killed in the streets. If nothing else, the campaign was getting Vancouverites to think about traffic safety, the paper reassured itself and its readers.

Eagle Time bicycle messengers were among the cyclists who jumped on the traffic safety bandwagon during the 100 Deathless Days campaign by signing a pledge printed in the Vancouver Sun. On an unrelated note, Eagle Time became the Penthouse strip club in the 1940s. Vancouver Sun, 22 July 1939

Eagle Time bicycle messengers were among the cyclists who jumped on the traffic safety bandwagon during the 100 Deathless Days campaign by signing a pledge printed in the Vancouver Sun. On an unrelated note, Eagle Time converted into the notorious Penthouse strip club in the 1940s. Vancouver Sun, 22 July 1939

The police department was denied funding to beef up its traffic squad with a slew of special constables. Instead, Chief Foster put out a call for 500 citizen volunteers to monitor traffic infractions. Volunteers would submit their reports to the chief, who would then send a letter to lawbreakers informing them their behaviour behind the wheel was unacceptable. One hundred and seventy-five civic minded folks from all walks of life answered the call, and in the month of August alone, 530 violations were reported to the police, although there is no way of knowing if a letter from the police with no legal consequences to back it up influenced anyone’s driving behaviour.

Notice that we've made in 9 days without a traffic death in the city. This was the 5th try at 100 Deathless Days. Vancouver Sun, 5 August 1939

Notice that we managed nine full days without a traffic death in the city. This was the fifth try at 100 Deathless Days. Vancouver Sun, 5 August 1939

After 74 year-old J. McDevitt was run over by a motorcycle at Seymour and Smythe, the Deathless Days campaign restarted for the fifth and final time. The month of August was free of traffic fatalities, but the onset of the Second World War in September gave the Sun more important things with which to fill its pages and the campaign was “quietly dropped.” Another interpretation was that campaign organizers realized that they were asking too much of Vancouver motorists to not “occasionally hurtle another car off the highway or destroy a pedestrian wearing an offensively-hued shirt.” The Winnipeg Tribune felt its city was vindicated by Vancouver’s campaign: “It was not on account of deaths due to careless driving by the many prairie motorists then in Vancouver, but as a result of the inability of local talent to suppress their homicidal tendencies, that the campaign ended so ignomiously.”

Car wreck off the old Georgia Viaduct, 1929. Stuart Thompson, City of Vancouver Archives #99-1915

Car wreck off the old Georgia Viaduct, 1929. Stuart Thompson, City of Vancouver Archives #99-1915

Why were Vancouver’s streets so treacherous? In an article about how Providence, Rhode Island dealt with the same problem, the Sun reported that that city had virtually eliminated traffic deaths by lowering the speed limit to 25 miles an hour, which had little effect on traffic efficiency. The Sun, however, repeatedly returned to the theme of “traffic morality” in diagnosing the problem locally, using the traditional “moral panic” formula that had been successful in other campaigns such as cracking down on drugs or Chinese immigration. Victoria was demonstrating its superior morality, or “traffic conscience,” by embarking on an even more ambitious campaign of “Accident Free Weeks.” While Vancouver was “half-heartedly pretending not to KILL people,” wrote the Sun, “Victoria is determined not to HURT people.”

After the campaign was abandoned, the head of the Traffic Safety Council said he had come to the conclusion that the problem lay entirely with pedestrians. Motorists were perfectly cooperative during the campaign, but as for pedestrians, he said, “there was no evidence of any co-operation whatsoever.”

Notice from the 1956/7 80 Deathless Days Campaign. Portland & Seattle pulled it off, but not Vancouver. Vancouver Sun, 7 February 1956

Notice from the 1956/7 80 Deathless Days Campaign. Portland & Seattle pulled it off, but not Vancouver. Vancouver Sun, 7 February 1956

With no reference to the antebellum campaign, the Vancouver Police launched “80 Deathless Days” in 1955. This time it was in response to the annual “80 Dark Days of Danger” created by shorter winter days. There was also no question this time as to who was to blame: old people, out alone at night, wearing drab coloured clothing. If the city’s seniors refused to remain in the safety of their homes, the Sun suggested they should at least ask themselves “Is this journey necessary?” before venturing out onto the dark, treacherous streets.

The 1950s campaign was another big failure. By June 1956, Sun columnist Jack Wasserman mentioned seeing a sign promoting the campaign on an “ancient Dodge hearse” and wondered if that meant the 80 Deathless Days drive was dead. In 1960, a Sun reporter investigating why Trail, BC hadn’t had a single traffic death in five years reported that Vancouver had only managed 54 consecutive deathless days in the same period.

In hindsight, it seems 100 Deathless Days was an unattainable ideal in this burgh. Vancouver Sun, 14 August 1939

In hindsight, it turned out that

The 100 Deathless Days Campaign and similar initiatives weren’t unique to Vancouver, and looking back they seem to signify that moment in history when significant numbers of traffic fatalities became accepted as the cost of the (still fairly recent) transportation system centred on the private automobile. Engineering and technological innovations no doubt brought modest improvements to make automobiles and city streets safer, while other technologies, such as the V8 engine in the 30s and cell phones more recently, have posed new problems.

Traffic anarchy at Cambie & Hastings, 1896, before cars. Note the dog lying in the street, and the meandering oxen, cyclist, streetcar, and pedestrians. In the notations included with this photo, the city archivist notes "jaywalking permitted; word not known." Photo by John Tyson, City of Vancouver Archives #Str P317