“The King of the Waterfront”

Pte. Michael James O’Rourke, VC, in 1917.

Michael James “Mickey” O’Rourke came to BC from Ireland and worked as a hard rock miner and logger. In 1915 he was on the construction crew building the CPR’s Connaught Tunnel at Revelstoke when he decided to enlist with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In 1917, at the age of 42, he became the oldest person ever and the first British Columbian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

During the war, O’Rourke worked as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines. He was awarded the prestigious Military Medal at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 for when

in the absence of order he initiated a counter attack against the advancing army, who had arrived within bombing distance of our trenches. He led the men in his immediate sector over the parapet [i.e., the “top” of the trench], maintained his position well in advance, successfully bombing the enemy from several points of vantage. He endeavoured to hold on to No Man’s Land.

For his role in the Battle for Hill 70 in August 1917, O’Rourke was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration offered by the British Empire. The following is the official account in the London Gazette:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during prolonged operations.

For three days and nights Pte. O’Rourke, who is a stretcher-bearer, worked unceasingly in bringing the wounded into safety, dressing them, and getting them food and water.

During the whole of this period the area in which he worked was subjected to very severe shelling and swept by heavy machine gun and rifle fire. On several occasions he was knocked down and partially buried by enemy shells. Seeing a comrade who had been blinded stumbling around ahead of our trench, in full view of the enemy who were sniping him, Pte. O’Rourke jumped out of his trench and brought the man back, being himself heavily sniped at while doing so. Again he went forward about 50 yards in front of our barrage under very heavy and accurate fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, and brought in a comrade. On a subsequent occasion, when the line of advanced posts was retired to the line to be consolidated, he went forward under very heavy enemy fire of every description and brought back a wounded man who had been left behind.

He showed throughout an absolute disregard for his own safety, going wherever there were wounded to succour, and his magnificent courage and devotion in continuing his rescue work, in spite of exhaustion and the incessant heavy enemy fire of every description, inspired all ranks and undoubtedly saved many lives.

After the Battle for Hill 70, O’Rourke continued to serve despite the pain he suffered from sciatica, a medical condition he acquired on the battlefields of France. In the Battle of Ypres, he was subjected to poison gas attacks and hit by shrapnel. He was finally given a medical discharge in July 1918 because of his sciatica and overall deteriorating health after 27 months of service.

The Haddon Hotel (now the Drake), 606 Powell Street. According to city directories, O’Rourke lived here for over a decade in the 20s and 30s.

O’Rourke spent time in the US and worked as a fruit vendor in Victoria, but eventually ended up settling in Vancouver’s East End. He was diagnosed with “nervous irritability due to service,” or shell shock, what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because the doctor mentioned that his condition was exacerbated by heavy drinking, O’Rourke was initially denied a $10 per month pension until General Byng, the Governor General of Canada, intervened on his behalf.

Because of his poor health, O’Rourke had difficulty returning to work back in BC. He eventually ended up working on the waterfront in a granary and then as a longshoreman, but was unable to work steadily because of various health problems, which included chronic bronchitis, emphysema, cholecycitis, and gastritis in addition to post traumatic stress and alcoholism. His monthly pension was eventually increased to $11.25, but because pension amounts were derived from wage rates for unskilled labour, it meant that O’Rourke lived in extreme poverty when he couldn’t work.

Spokane Rooms at 561 East Hastings, Mickey O’Rourke’s home in 1938.

O’Rourke played a key role in the 1935 waterfront strike. Longshoremen and their supporters attempted to march down to Ballantyne Pier, where scabs were unloading cargo under the protection of special police. Organizers of the demonstration expected police would try and stop the march, and wanted to project an image of striking longshoremen as a respectable lot that included men like O’Rourke who fought and sacrificed in the Great War and now deserved a fair shake. This was to counter the image painted by politicians and the fascist Citizens’ League of striking longshoremen as troublemakers and the dupes of Moscow. The lone surviving photo of the march (below) shows that the protesters were dressed in suits, ties, and hats, with O’Rourke at the front carrying a Union Jack flag.

Striking longshoremen marching to Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935. City of Vancouver Archives #417-1

Striking longshoremen marching to Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935. City of Vancouver Archives #417-1

The police attacked the parade after the marchers refused to turn back at the foot of Heatley, and what became known as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier followed. Sixty-one year old O’Rourke didn’t stick around for the full riot, but managed to get in a parting shot: “When I saw we were beat, I beat it. I heaved a brick at a mounted policeman’s head though,” he recalled.

Little is known about O’Rourke’s political leanings or motivations after the war, but his role in the waterfront strike and his irreverence towards the pomp and circumstance surrounding his military honours suggest that, like many other Great War veterans, he was unimpressed with the conditions that working class veterans faced upon their return to civilian life, which led to questioning the value of their wartime sacrifices.

On three different occasions, O’Rourke was invited to leave his skid road life and shmooze with royalty. The first was a banquet in London, England hosted by the Prince of Wales in 1929 for surviving Victoria Cross recipients. O’Rourke reportedly attended the event, but only after selling the new suit he was given for the trip and disappearing for three weeks.

During Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Canadian tour in 1951, O’Rourke declined an invitation to meet the royal couple at Vancouver’s City Hall. “They wouldn’t want to meet an old blatherskote like me,” he said. “Besides, my legs aren’t so good and I wouldn’t be able to stand up for the whole ceremony.” And finally: “the seabag with all my clothes in it is being held at my last rooming house and I can’t get it.”

Mickey O’Rourke did finally meet Elizabeth, back in London in 1956. She was now the Queen of England and the occasion was the centenary of the Victoria Cross. At first, O’Rourke refused the invitation, claiming it was a ruse to have him committed to Essondale, a psychiatric hospital. He eventually changed his mind, but by then the Department of Veterans Affairs told him it was too late, all the spaces had been booked. Finally a fellow veteran, a doctor who had his leg blown off at Dieppe, offered to pay for O’Rourke’s trip. According to news reports, O’Rourke had a good time in England but complained that he couldn’t get a Canadian beer.

Mickey O’Rourke the year before his death. Windsor Daily Star, 26 April 1956

Mickey O’Rourke died the following year at the age of 83. Although most of his life was spent in poverty, O’Rourke was given a hero’s funeral. The Province reported that it was a unique event because the motley crowd included seven Victoria Cross recipients, judges, aldermen, and generals alongside “Mickey’s old pals from the 7th Battalion … grey and grizzled dockworkers, and homeless old-timers from Powell and Main streets.”

For a more in-depth biography of Mickey O’Rourke, see Michael Kevin Dooley, “‘Our Mickey’: The Story of Private James O’Rourke, VC.MM (CEF), 1879-1957,” Labour/Le Travail, No. 47 (Spring 2001).

Chemical Warfare Comes to Vancouver

Riots of 1934

Lake Erie Chemical Company brochure. City of Vancouver Archives, Vancouver Police files, series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

After the First World War, chemical weapons manufacturers looked to law enforcement as a new market for their wares. Writing in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1935, Seth Wiard explained that research and development of chemical warfare munitions had shifted to weapons designed for use against “civilians under conditions where only temporary blocking of their activities would be required, rather than the permanent removal of such civilians from the scene of action.” In other words, police needed weapons that would neutralize strikers and protesters without killing them. 

Seth Wiard was the Technical Director of the Lake Erie Chemical Company. Even though it appeared in a scholarly publication, his article was part of an aggressive marketing campaign to sell police departments on the idea that tear and nauseating gases were effective alternatives to clubs and guns for quelling strikes and riots. Lake Erie and its competitor in the tear gas business, Federal Laboratories Inc., were already making handsome profits selling their wares in Latin America. One salesman confessed that “the unsettled conditions in South America has been a great thing for me … we are certainly in one hell of a business where a fellow has to wish for trouble to make a living.” The wave of labour unrest in depression-era North America represented a potentially lucrative peacetime market for chemical weapons and the Vancouver Police Department was the first in Canada to oblige.

Federal Laboratories

Federal Laboratories metal tear gas canisters, from a display at the Vancouver Police Museum.

During San Francisco’s 1934 “Big Strike,” representatives from Lake Erie and Federal Laboratories were on the scene demonstrating the effectiveness of their weapons in an actual riot situation in order to try and drum up business. 5 July became known as “Bloody Thursday” because two workers were killed that day. One of them was killed by the Federal Laboratories rep, who reported back to his bosses: 

I might mention that during one of the riots, I shot a long-range projectile into a group, a shell hitting one man & causing a fracture of the skull, from which he has since died. As he was a Communist, I have had no feeling in the matter & I am sorry that I did not get more. 

Even though the final tally reached six dead workers in San Francisco, Chief of Police Quinn felt confident that the body count would have been much higher if tear gas hadn’t been used.

Vancouver Police Museum tear gas display

Tear gas gun and projectiles, from an exhibit at the Vancouver Police Museum.

Tear gas was supposed to be a non-lethal alternative to firearms. The problem with police using guns against crowds of civilians, according to Seth Wiard, was that “whatever the provocation may be [use of firearms] is always accompanied by a very severe amount of criticism even if justifiable.” Tear gas was therefore a more PR-friendly weapon for police than guns.

Moreover, while gunning down strikers could bring a protest march or demonstration to a quick halt, it was hardly an effective conflict resolution technique. This revelation dawned on the authorities during a Communist-led strike of furniture workers in Stratford, Ontario in 1933, the last time the military was called out for strike duty in Canada under its “aid to civil power” mandate. Short of shooting the workers, there was nothing they could do to resolve the situation and so the strike just dragged on. 

The Vancouver Police Department was undergoing an extensive “modernization” in 1935, and incorporating WWI technology such as machine guns, tear gas, and intelligence systems into the police arsenal was an integral part of the process. 

Besides tear gas, police also used more traditional methods during the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1127

Under the leadership of Vancouver’s new chief constable, Colonel W. W. Foster, the immediate goal of police modernization was to rebuild the city police into a force that could be used to put down strikes, protests, and, if necessary, insurrections. Previously, the RCMP, BC Provincial Police, militia units, private police, and vigilantes were looked to for this purpose rather than city police. Since unionizing in 1918, rank-and-file police were not trusted by higher-ups to police strikes because it was presumed their loyalty ultimately lay with their fellow workers. 

The impetus for Colonel Foster being brought in to reform the police department was the fear that the spectacular 1934 maritime strike that shut down San Francisco as well as ports all along the American coast was going to be repeated in BC, beginning in Vancouver in the spring of 1935.

A woman jeers police during the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1126

A woman jeering police during the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1126

Local Communists had been elected to the leadership of the longshoremen’s union, and had taken the lead in organizing the unemployed in relief camps across the province. Labour spies reported that the Communists’ strategy was to try to orchestrate a general strike that would include longshoremen and unemployed workers and which could become be a catalyst for revolution. But when the 1700 unemployed workers who had been in Vancouver for two months protesting relief camp conditions left on the On-to-Ottawa Trek in early June, it was obvious that the general strike scheme wasn’t going to materialize any time soon. The newly equipped Vancouver Police Department, along with back-up units from the RCMP and BC Provincial Police, would have to settle for a demonstration of striking longshoremen on 18 June to show their stuff. 

At a mass rally two days before the demonstration, Ivan Emery, one of the Communist leaders of the longshoremen, outlined the union’s plan:

We have heard the rattle of machine guns. I believe we have enough ex-servicemen on the waterfront who are prepared to listen to them again. We are going to elect a delegation and we are going to send it down to Chief Foster, asking permission to go to Ballantyne Pier peaceably to talk to the strikebreakers. If they [the RCMP] will turn their guns on us; if they will shoot us down, then you will know that fascism in Canada has taken off the mask and we are up against a stark reality

En route to Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935

Longshoremen and their supporters en route to Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935. Victoria Cross recipient Mickey O'Rourke is on the bottom left carrying the Union Jack.

Respectably dressed and led by WWI hero Mickey O’Rourke, protesters headed down to the waterfront where scabs were busy unloading cargo. When they reached the police line at the foot of Heatley, Colonel Foster ordered the demonstrators to turn back. They refused and Foster signalled his forces to attack, triggering what became known as the “Battle of Ballantyne Pier.” 

Police line guarding the entrance to Ballantyne Pier at the foot of Heatley, 18 June 1935.

Heatley Street, 18 June 1935

Demonstrators being dispersed by tear gas on Heatley Street, 18 June 1935. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1132

Machine guns were ready, but were not used against the initially peaceful crowd that day. Instead, police on horseback chased protesters around the waterfront district in the East End, beating them and firing tear gas canisters anywhere they saw demonstrators taking cover.

Hastings Bakery, 1935

Hastings Bakery at 716 E Hastings during the Battle of Ballantyne. The gas cloud likely indicates protesters ducked inside the store to evade police. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1128

The longshoremen’s headquarters at 633 East Hastings was targeted for special treatment, and was raided and gassed twice that day. BC Workers’ News reported that female supporters of the strikers had set up a makeshift first aid station there. Soon after, the longshoremen’s union moved their strike headquarters to the Bow and Arrows Hall at Heatley and Powell.   

633 East Hastings

633 East Hastings was the headquarters of the longshoremen's union in 1935. It was raided and gassed twice during the Battle of Ballantyne Pier, even though it was being used as a first aid station. The police had their own first aid station at the Coroner's Court on Cordova Street.

Protesters retaliated with rocks and whatever other projectiles they could find to throw at police. The fighting lasted for about three hours and ended with dozens of police and protesters in the hospital and several arrests. Leonard Binns, a 21-year-old who happened to be making a delivery in the area, was hit in the back of his legs with birdshot from a police shotgun. Chief Foster insisted that the only guns fired that day were tear gas guns, but Binns was nevertheless paid compensation for his injuries. 

Cops chasing protesters, 18 June 1935

Police chasing protesters, 18 June 1935. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1125

The Province headline the next day blared “Tear Gas Bombs Halt Strikers”: 

When the tear gas bombs were shot it had an immediate effect on the rioters. Many were seen wiping their eyes as they ran. Few in the crowd had seen tear gas bombs used before and they were certainly effective … Royal Canadian Mountain Policemen and city police on horseback were located on Alexander Street, one block from the pier and, following the throwing of the bombs, they swept down on the crowd using their sticks. Many were knocked down. The crowd retaliated by hurling bricks and stones. The police were hooted and jeered at. 

The use of chemical weapons was not without its glitches for the police. Even before the riot, a tear gas canister was accidentally discharged in the police station. During the riot, several officers were forced to dismount when their horses were affected by the gas. 

Mounted police, 18 June 1935

Mounted police going after demonstrators, 18 June 1935. City of Vancouver Archives #371-1131

Prior to the battle, Colonel Foster had sent some of his officers to Seattle for training in tear gas use. He no doubt had knowledge of the lessons learned by police in California in 1934 regarding tear gas use, and as a WWI veteran, he would have had at least some familiarity with chemical warfare. He may have also been swayed by the Lake Erie Chemical Company brochures that can still be found in the police files at the City of Vancouver Archives. The Vancouver Police Museum has a display that includes Federal Laboratories Inc. tear gas canisters that appear to be from the same era. 

Lecco 4

Lake Erie Chemical Co. brochure, pitching their weapons to police departments. City of Vancouver Archives, Series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

Lake Erie Chemical Co. brochure. City of Vancouver Archives, Series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

Lake Erie Chemical Co. brochure. City of Vancouver Archives, Series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

In his history of the Great Depression, Pierre Berton describes some other tear gas moments in Canadian history that followed the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. In the Regina Riot, which crushed the On-to-Ottawa Trek less than two weeks after the Battle of Ballantyne Pier, protesters threw tear gas canisters back at police. This wouldn’t have been possible if police used Lake Erie’s throwback-proof Jumper-Repeater Instantaneous Chemical Warfare Gas Candles. This is what police in Vancouver used to clear the Art Gallery and Post Office of unemployed sit-downers in 1938, according to Berton. During the 1937 auto worker strikes in Ontario, Premier Hepburn was in possession of the same Lake Erie brochures Colonel Foster consulted two years earlier. 


Lake Erie Chemical Co. brochure. City of Vancouver Archives, series 197, 75-E-7, file 3.

As violent as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier was, it was not as bloody as the American strike the year before. Although the Vancouver strike was eventually defeated, longshoremen in both countries continued to organize, and eventually formed into the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) under the leadership of an Australian Communist named Harry Bridges

Tear gas has since become a mainstay in the police arsenal, along with other “less lethal” weapons such as tasers and pepper spray, as well as the VPD’s latest aquisition, an MRAD sonic gun that doubles as a public address system. In light of controversies over the use of tasers, the zealous use of pepper spray at the APEC conference, and the massive tear gassing of protesters at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, it will be interesting to see what weaponry police in Vancouver will favour for crowd control and demonstrations during the 2010 Olympics.