A Sporting Life

Mugshot of Elijah "Lige" Scurry, 1904. City of Vancouver Archives, series #202, loc. 37-C-9

Long before Vancouver became a hockey-crazed town, local sports fans went wild over Canada’s national sport, lacrosse. Although indigenous to Canada, the game was an import to the west coast from the east. The first match in BC took place in Victoria on 28 August 1886. Vancouver won that one against Victoria, and by 1890, a fierce rivalry had developed between Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster lacrosse clubs.

In the early days, Vancouver’s biggest lacrosse booster was Al Larwill. His cabin at the northeast corner of the Cambie Street Grounds (renamed Larwill Park in the 1940s) was a focal point for lacrosse and other sports. One of Larwill’s star lacrosse players was a young black man named Elijah “Lige” Scurry. By all accounts Scurry was extremely fast and played very aggressively in what was then a very violent sport. In one game in 1891 for example, the Victoria Daily Colonist reported that

Allen of Westminster, was badly shaken up by a body check from Scurry, of the Vancouvers. He was carried off the field on a door, and two ladies in the grand stand fainted at the sight, and also had to be removed. He will be laid up for some weeks … Swifter deliberately fouled Ryal, and was ruled off for that; the game coming on again, Caldwell checked Draper rather too sharply, and had his ear split from top to bottom. Draper had his lip split so badly that he had to be removed to a surgeon’s office to have it stitched and dressed.

A Sun reporter wrote in the 1952 about another incident in the early days of field lacrosse that involved the Vancouver coach firing his pistol into the crowd at a game in New Westminster after they pelted him with rotten eggs.

Al Larwill and lacrosse players at his shack on the Cambie Street Grounds, 1896. Photo: Bailey Bros, City of Vancouver Archives SP P2

Hockey legend and former lacrosse player Fred “Cyclone” Taylor recalled that the violence extended to the fans as well. “If you sat in a New Westminster section and cheered for Vancouver,” he said, “you were taking your life into your own hands … The ladies were extremely emotional and used to fight all the time.”

Two-time Stanley Cup winner Fred "Cyclone" Taylor was also a lacrosse player and fan.

Although Lige Scurry contributed more than his share to the sometimes vicious competition on the field, that same rivalry saw him barred from the game. With Victoria and New Westminster holding the balance of power on the BC Amateur Lacrosse Association, the organization passed a resolution to not “allow the playing of Indian or colored athletes in any match” at its October 1892 meeting. It was a decision motivated by stiff competition rather than racial hatred, and one that conveniently ended the lacrosse career of one of Vancouver’s best players.

Lacrosse teams, in Ontario at least, circumvented the colour bar by recruiting “ringers,” Mohawk players who could pass for white.

After Scurry was booted out of the game, New Westminster became the dominant lacrosse team in BC in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Vancouver’s lacrosse fortunes returned through the efforts of Con Jones, a major figure in the local sports scene who successfully undermined the amateur status of the game by luring top lacrosse players from the east with lucrative contracts. Probably the most famous was another hockey legend, Newsy Lalonde, who reportedly received $3500 to come to Vancouver. The strategy worked, and in 1911, Con Jones’s dream team won both the Minto and Mann cups.

Newsy Lalonde, Con Jones, and Leo Dandurand, 1912. Photo: Stuart Thomson, reprinted in the Vancouver Sun, 11 January 1956

Somewhere along the line, the colour bar was dropped or forgotten. By the 1930s, a new team on the BC lacrosse scene, the North Shore Indians, was routinely beating established white teams under the leadership of Andy Paull.

Lige Scurry’s contribution to lacrosse, meanwhile, had been completely forgotten by the 1950s. The Vancouver Sun reported in 1952 that the signing of 17 year-old Ivan Stewart to the New Westminster Commandos lacrosse team was a first. Old timers searched their memories, Merv Peters wrote in 1952, and “they all came to the same conclusion: Stewart will be the first of his race to play senior lacrosse in Canada.” Peters no doubt had simply never heard of Lige Scurry. Nevertheless, this omission allowed him to present the story as one of a young negro finally rising to unprecedented heights in the world of lacrosse instead of one in which whites actively kicked non-whites out of the sport.

Ivan Stewart, Vancouver Sun, 18 March 1952

So what became of Lige Scurry? He worked as a barber and tobacconist, and in 1904 opened the Railway Porters’ Club on the second and third floors of 107 East Hastings. It was intended as a social club for blacks in the city, many of whom worked as sleeping car porters. There was a bar, dining room, and rooms upstairs that could be rented out.

Unfortunately for Scurry, his club opened just at a time when the City was getting suspicious of clubs that weren’t necessarily functioning as they were supposed to. Chief Constable Sam North toured the clubs on 22 March 1904 so that he could report back to City Council on the situation. About Scurry’s club he wrote:

We next visited the quarters of the Railway Porters’ Club on Hastings street east and found that everything was torn up about the building and the club not running at present until their new quarters will be fit to occupy. It seems to be merely a home for the railway porters while at this end of the line, beds, room and board being furnished.

Police again visited the Railway Porters’ Club in September, this time declaring it a fake. It was a nice enough place, according to the Province: “Its dozen or more handsomely-fitted rooms include billiard and card parlors, and a bar sumptuously furnished. It is said to be the headquarters of a large number of the colored population of the city.”

Detectives Waddell and Jackson, however, weren’t as impressed with the clientele. They visited the club because a man they charged with being a “loose, idle person, living without employment, etc.” had been living there. Waddell told the court that the Railway Porters’ Club “is a place well known as the resort of sporting women … Some of the women who were before the court recently and fined are parties who frequent this club, as they call it.”

Detective Jackson chimed in claiming to have obtained the names of railway porters from the CPR and that he wasn’t able “to find one that goes near this club … Why, I’ve seen women, colored women, too, going up and down those stairs, dozens at a time. I know men who stay around Dupont street who hang around there and go up and down.” (At the time, Dupont Street, today’s East Pender, was the red light district; “sporting women” was a euphemism for prostitutes).

The Vancouver Province cartoonists take on the police raid of the Railway Porters Club, 9 December 1904

And so at 4 o’clock on the morning of 9 December 1904, “a large posse of police smashed in the front and back doors simultaneously and twenty-one inmates were arrested, four of them being women, all colored,” according to the Victoria Daily Colonist. “The police claim the club is a resort of tough characters.”

The “tough characters” found at the Railway Porters’ Club were all released because there was no evidence that they had committed any crimes on the premises. Lige Scurry, on the other hand, was tried for keeping a disorderly house.

Scurry’s lawyer, JA Russell, based his arguments on the seemingly obvious point that immoral people are not illegal, only immoral behaviour. Just because prostitutes frequented the club didn’t make it a house of prostitution since no prostitution actually took place there. In fact, neither the police nor anyone else were suggesting that the club operated as a bordello. Men rented rooms on the top floor, but women were not allowed up there.

Hastings looking east from Columbia, 1906. The Railway Porters Club was in the second building from the left. The same site would later be home to another operation that was deemed morally dubious, the Smilin Buddha Cabaret. Photo: Philip Timms, Vancouver Public Library #5258

Moreover, Russell explained, if it wasn’t okay to allow prostitutes in the club, the police could have just told Scurry that instead of kicking in his doors at four in the morning.

The women went to Scurry’s premises merely for the innocent purpose of getting their meals in a house that was open to colored people and to colored people only … All classes of people in Vancouver had their various resorts. For the well-to-do there were the better class clubs. For those who liked that sort of thing there were various tea rooms, and for those who were inclined that way there were the Y.M.C.A. and the Y.W.C.A.

The need for a blacks-only club was because “there was a prejudice against colored people in the restaurants and hotels of the city,” Russell argued, “for which reason they were led to establish such institutions as the Railway Porters’ Club.” The judge said he wasn’t aware of any such prejudice, and in any case, “the court drew no such distinction.”

The judge refused to get bogged down on whether or not prostitution actually occurred at the club. Instead, he ruled against Scurry and sentenced him to three months hard labour and a $50 fine. Although the charge was keeping a house for the resort of prostitutes, the basis of his decision was that prostitutes rather than railway porters were the main customers at his club, and that he was selling liquor there without a license:

I am firmly of the opinion that the place complained of is a resort for prostitutes, and also that it is kept by Scurry. I do not think it is at all necessary that prostitution should be actually carried on there. It seems to me that it is a flagrant abuse of privileges. Scurry has kept that place under certificate as a club, and has allowed prostitutes to come there, and besides that has been selling liquor there without a license, and so interfering with the business of others who pay large fees for that privilege.

It’s impossible to gauge exactly how much race influenced the judge’s decision. However, other clubs were also shut down that year for not functioning according to their club licenses. The Vancouver Chess Club, for example, was allegedly a gambling den with no chess boards in sight. In that case as well, the decision to shut it down was informed at least in part by the fact that “the Club was frequented by all classes of men and by men of different races, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Negroes.”

Elijah Scurry died in Vancouver on 12 May 1924 at the age of 52. His obituary noted that he was “one of the fastest men the game of lacrosse ever saw” and “an undoubted star” when he played for Vancouver in the 1890s.

The Other Relief Camp Strike

Aerial view of Hastings Park, ca. 1919. The park had been used as a barracks for soldiers during WWI, a relief camp in the 1920s, and an internment camp for Japanese during WWII. Photo: Stuart Thomson, Vancouver Public Library #1798

Aerial view of Hastings Park, ca. 1919. The park had been used as a barracks for soldiers during WWI, a relief camp in the 1920s, and an internment camp for Japanese during WWII. Photo: Stuart Thomson, Vancouver Public Library #1798

The winter of 1922 was called the “third winter of unemployment” in Vancouver. The city was plagued with chronically high unemployment in the years following WWI, especially in the winter months when the itinerant workers in BC’s forestry and mining sectors returned to the city in the off season. The City’s response was to set up a relief camp – a concentration camp for the unemployed – at Hastings Park.

In exchange for two days labour at various relief projects, unemployed men were given room and board at the camp, and could thus avoid starvation. Not surprisingly, they weren’t too happy about the arrangement, especially since many of them were Great War veterans who felt their wartime sacrifices warranted better treatment in peacetime. The government, on the other hand, viewed large numbers of angry unemployed men as a potential threat to the social order through much of the early 1920s.

The head of Vancouver’s Relief Department, George D. Ireland, sparked a protest after he reported to the Civic Harbor, Industries, and Employment Committee that there were a number of dope fiends and moral degenerates at the camp. If these deviants were kicked out of the camp, Ireland pointed out that they would “prove a menace to the community, [but] while stationed where they were their influence was dangerous to the younger men” in the camp. Ireland said he couldn’t back up his allegations with sufficient evidence to have them removed by the police.

The Carnegie Library and City Hall (left), the destination of several unemployed protest marches in early 1922. Photo circa 1920, VPL #10439

Mayor Tisdall and Chief Constable Anderson were concerned enough by Ireland’s claims that the police did investigate. Sure enough, Detectives Sinclair and Ricci found out that 28 year-old Ernest Hamilton was selling morphine at the camp. Detectives Ellice and Knox busted six other men at Granville and Robson, not for dope peddling, but for vagrancy. These six were also camp inmates, and had been delegated by a committee to solicit donations to help the 20 men who had been kicked out for insubordination and the 150 others who elected not to live in the camp. Police said the camp committee “had no right to authorize the men to beg.”

The men in the camp did not feel that a lone drug dealer out of 700 camp inmates justified Ireland’s smearing them all as dope peddlers and degenerates. Then on 25 January 1922, one of the camp leaders was kicked out for conducting a meeting in the recreation area, which was strictly against the camp’s militaristic rules. In response, 232 men marched from Hastings Park for what the papers called an “indignation meeting” at the headquarters of the Canadian National Union of Ex-Servicemen (CNUX) at 61 West Cordova Street (CNUX was likely an initiative of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, which was listed in city directories as the occupant of 61 West Cordova).

The Sun reported that the “mob” was in “an ugly humor” and were threatening to riot, though they offered zero evidence to back up that claim. In fact, nothing in their report indicated that the procession and meeting were anything less than orderly. Just to be sure, Chief Constable Anderson pulled 15 constables off their beats and had them standby along with ten detectives at the police station. One of the marchers told a reporter that the source of their “ill humor” was Relief Officer Ireland’s allegation of degeneracy in the camp. “We may not be very high socially,” he said, “but the stigma of degenerate is going too far.”

The marchers were branded “deserters” for leaving Hastings Park. City Council took the position that they would support Ireland in however he decided to deal with the deserters if they chose to return to the camp. Some of them slept at the CNUX hall, and others found alternative accommodations. The next day they marched to City Hall, then located at Main and Pender streets. A delegation met with Mayor Tisdall and put forth their demands, which were that Ireland be fired; that they be paid in cash instead of in kind; and that they be permitted to stay downtown. The Mayor refused.

Mayor CE Tisdall, 1922. Photo: VPL #3492

The next day, the unemployed again marched to City Hall, this time to ask for a permit to hold an open-air meeting at Hastings and Abbott. They marched with a red flag flanked by two Union Jacks, as required by a City by-law (and perhaps as a reminder of the flag many of them fought under during the war).

This time their numbers were augmented by unemployed from Burnaby, North Van, and South Van (still a separate municipality in 1922). It was a Saturday, and they learned that the Mayor was spending the weekend at his ranch. Alderman Pettipiece, the token labour rep on Council, told the protesters that only the Mayor could authorize an outdoor meeting. They decided to meet anyway, and marched off to the Cambie Street Grounds. The meeting and the marching were orderly, but arrangements were being made to have the RCMP brought in as back-up for a follow-up meeting expected the next day.

Chief Constable James Anderson. Photo: AJ Selset, CVA #A-30-12

The next day, Chief Anderson and about 150 police were on hand to break up a meeting of about 600 unemployed men and their supporters at the Cambie Grounds. “The police were prepared to meet trouble,” according to the Sun, “but there was none.” In a speech to his men, Chief Anderson said it was time for a “showdown … Law and order must be upheld and if there is any trouble make it decisive.”  Motorcycle cops were patrolling the vicinity and reserve constables were waiting at the police station in case things got out of control. Police surrounded the grandstand, including one column that “shut off escape from the south end of the stand.” Anderson interrupted the speaker to inform the crowd that a permit had been denied, and that he would give them a few minutes to disperse. “Without hesitation a motion was put that the meeting adjourn to be continued at the CNUX Hall, where a permit would not be necessary.”

But before they headed back to Cordova Street, one of the leaders called on Mayor Tisdall to address the crowd. To everyone’s surprise, the mayor had been sitting in the bleachers listening to the speakers. He got up and announced that he would not “address an illegal meeting,” though attending one didn’t seem to pose a problem. The unemployed and the police then marched back to their respective headquarters in military fashion.

Another parade of about six hundred unemployed marched to City Hall the following day in yet another attempt to press for Ireland’s dismissal and for relief workers to be paid in cash rather than in-kind and be allowed to live downtown to better enable them to take advantage of work opportunities. A delegation of nine was allowed in council chambers, while the rest mulled around Main and Hastings for a few hours trying to keep warm. A crowd of spectators also gathered. Apparently “much comment was aroused by the display of the red flag.”

City Relief Office, ca. 1924. Photo: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives #99-3427

City Relief Office, ca. 1924. Photo: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives #99-3427

One delegate told council that they refused to retreat one step … We will not go back to the park and we demand wages for our labor.” Another delegate said that they “object to being called lazy, lousy, moral degenerates and dope fiends.”

City Council gave Relief Officer Ireland discretionary powers in re-admitting any camp “deserters” who applied to return. At the request of Alderman Pettipiece, a special meeting of the Harbor, Industries, and Employment Committee was scheduled to review the situation of the unemployed.

Meanwhile, Chief Anderson continued to plan for mass violence. He kept the whole police force on call during the unemployed’s visit to City Hall. A flying squad waited at the police station and “other reserves [were] being rushed into action.” Police were pulled from their beats from around the city and the unemployed “malcontents” were kept under surveillance “so that any attempt on their part to hold unlawful assemblies or cause violence may be reported at once.”

But again, there wasn’t even a hint of violence, and upon being informed of Council’s decisions, the unemployed again marched off peacefully.

By 6 February 1922, almost all of the camp strikers returned to Hastings Park. The Sun reported that with their strike experiment now concluded, the men couldn’t been happier to be back in camp and that “the daily routine goes on with the smoothness of a happy family.” Mayor Tisdall claimed that the strike wasn’t the result of any bona fide grievances the men had, but rather that they had been “badly advised” by the men “chosen to represent the unemployed.”

More likely, the unemployed felt that although their immediate demands were refused, their activism helped keep the plight of the unemployed a political issue, not just in Vancouver, but across the province and the country. On 5 February, a meeting between Premier Oliver and representatives from Lower Mainland representatives resulted in Oliver promising to press Ottawa for funding for the public works projects that would ultimately alleviate unemployment in Vancouver. Federally, a parliamentary committee had been struck and was weighing recommendations from the Great War Veterans’ Association (GWVA) for the federal government to make investments in social housing and other projects that would attack the root causes of unemployment.

The 1922 relief camp strike foreshadowed many of the issues that would come up again in the much larger and more dramatic 1935 relief camp strike that culminated in the On-to-Ottawa Trek. The public and the unemployed were not convinced that militaristic relief camps were the best way to deal with the unemployment crises, nor did they share the paranoia of government officials that demanded the unemployed be kept out of city centres. Like the unemployed in the depression, the 1922 men simply wanted to work for a wage. Their other demand – that George Ireland be dismissed as head of the relief department – would be realized in the 1930s, after he was caught lining his pockets with relief funds and thrown in jail.