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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.