Pre-WWII industrial relations in Vancouver often reads more like military history than it does social history. Anti-labour forces found the Beatty Street Drill Hall to be a convenient base from which to mobilize their strikebreaking efforts. It was an especially busy place in 1935, when anticommunist forces were preparing to put down a proletarian revolution. Local Communists were not actually planning an armed insurrection, but they were attempting to coordinate a full-scale general strike, set to begin on the waterfront in the spring.
A two-month relief camp strike that would become the On-to-Ottawa Trek in June 1935 added nearly 2000 unemployed and angry young men to the mix, making it seem that the Communists might succeed in their general strike scheme. Police intelligence, however, revealed that the plan faltered as early as April, although the presence of camp strikers in the city kept the situation volatile. A showdown did occur in what became known as the “Battle of Ballantyne Pier,” but only after the unemployed strikers left for Ottawa.
The Drill Hall was the base of operations for the BC Provincial Police and RCMP units called in for the anticipated battle. Vigilantes and hundreds of special constables were also being whipped into shape here by General Victor Odlum and former Vancouver police chiefs Colonel C. E. Edgett and W. J. Bingham.
The line being fed to the public was that the Vancouver Police Department was training new recruits for the first time in its history in an attempt to turn it into a “modern” police force. In reality, the new recruits were both part of an anticommunist army as well as a pool of non-unionized police specials working at a fraction of a city policeman’s wage. The intention was to send a strong message to the Vancouver police rank and file that they could be easily replaced if they got any uppity ideas. And even though the police union showed absolutely no sign of militancy, the very fact that the force was unionized meant – to police management at least – that they could not be counted on to put down a labour revolt.
Another group being trained at the Drill Hall was the Legion of Frontiersmen. This was an ultra-patriotic paramilitary movement founded by an ex-Mountie in 1905, similar to the Boy Scouts, but for grown ups. The Frontiersmen had very active chapters throughout the British Empire, but given their eagerness to put their lives on the line in defence of the Empire, the movement was not surprisingly decimated by WWI.
The Communist menace provided the occasion to revive the Vancouver chapter in the spring of 1935, and by the end of the decade, the Legion of Frontiersmen was an auxiliary of the RCMP. Their proudest moment on Canadian soil was in providing security for the 1939 Royal visit. But in 1935, the Vancouver chapter was still a rag-tag outfit and most of them couldn’t afford the Mountie-esque uniforms. Most likely, the Legion of Frontiersmen helped fill the ranks of the special police, along with fascists recruited by the Citizens’ League and Canadian Guard at the Lumbermen’s Building. To the Communists, the 700-plus specials that trained at the Drill Hall were nothing more than “blue shirts.”
The anti-union history of the Beatty Street Drill Hall extends at least as far back as 1919, during the strike held in sympathy with the Winnipeg General Strike. During that strike, machines guns were mounted on the roof and were aimed at the Labour Temple, just down the street at 411 Dunsmuir.
Some daring Vancouver police officers secretly held meetings at the Temple in 1918 and organized the Vancouver City Policemen’s Union. Chief Constable McRae fired the union organizers as soon as he discovered what they were up to, but not before the the majority of the police rank and file had come around to the idea of a police union. The mayor over-rode the chief after Victor Midgely of the Vancouver Labour Congress warned that failing to recognize the police union would spark a general strike. The matter was put to a vote of the police rank and file, who overwhelming voted in favour of a union.
The catalyst for a general strike did come the following month after a Dominion Police special shot and killed labour organizer Ginger Goodwin on Vancouver Island. Canada’s first general strike was a short, one-day affair, but was by no means peaceful. A mob of returned soldiers was mobilized to attack the Labour Temple. They ransacked the VLC’s office, twice tried to defenestrate Victor Midgely from a second story window, and forced him to kiss the Union Jack.
One of the tanks parked outside the Beatty Street Drill Hall is a Sherman tank, named after General William Tecumseh Sherman, famed general of the American Civil War. Sherman probably would not have approved of many of the goings on in the Drill Hall. During the 1856 civic coup d’etat carried out by vigilantes in San Francisco, Sherman resigned his post as head of the militia stationed in the city. In his memoirs, he wrote:
As they [the vigilantes] controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but their success has given great stimulus to a dangerous principle, that would at any time justify the mob in seizing all the power of government; and who is to say that the Vigilance Committee may not be composed of the worst, instead of the best, elements of a community? Indeed, in San Francisco, as soon as it was demonstrated that the real power had passed from the City Hall to the committee room, the same set of bailiffs, constables, and rowdies that had infested the City Hall were found in the employment of the “Vigilantes.”
In some ways, interwar Vancouver wasn’t all that different from San Francisco during the Vigilante period. With the resurgence of private policing in recent years, it’s not unthinkable that those wild west days might return during hard times in the post-Olympic future. At least no less unthinkable than PIVOT Legal Society and the Vancouver Police Union being on the same side of an issue. Happy May Day everyone.