Delegates at the 2019 BC Labour Council conference held in Prince Rupert were the first to try out the new interactive historical labour tour walk around the city. (Photo courtesy of Bailey Garden, BC Labour Heritage Center)

Tour recognizes Prince Rupert’s rich labour history

Epic story of the Battle of Kelly’s Cut put Rupert on the labour radar

Prince Rupert was chosen, out of all other B.C. cities, to be the site of a recently created historical walking tour. The interactive tour was designed to shed some light on the dark days of labour resistance issues and illuminate the progress of Prince Rupert in the years since.

For those who don’t know it, Prince Rupert is a rich hotbed of labour history, and the BC Labour Heritage Centre wants you to know all about it.

Prince Rupert is the third location to have an historical walk developed by the BC Labour Heritage Centre, after the 2010 walk designed for Vancouver and the 2017 walk for Victoria. Province-wide tours under development are part of a provincial mandate to highlight significant issues in labour history in various regions.

“When Prince Rupert was mentioned, it made perfect sense to develop a tour because P.R. was a resource town. There was a large number of employees in fishing and it highlights the early days of long-shore workers. With unionized railroads brought the pulp and paper mill industry,” Bailey Garden project manager at the BC Labour Heritage Centre, said.

“There is new development happening in the region. Some of the old industry is dying so it is important to capture that history and to make sure we tell the stories,” Garden said.

Starting at the Highliner Hotel, the 11-stop tour is created to be an easy 1.5 km walk, leading participants to various stops around the core of the city. The tour may take 30 minutes at a steady walking pace, and time spent at historical sites is a personal choice.

A tour map can be downloaded through a free online app. Each stop has facts to read on a phone or tablet and some sites have videos detailing the significance of the stop. For those who want to complete the tour from the comfort of their own home, they can follow the virtual tour also through an app.

Stops around along the tour include sites like Longshore Hall the original home to the IWW or ‘Wobblies’; Grand Trunk/CNR Railroads where the first train arrived in Prince Rupert in 1914; Canadian Fishing Co. where a 1972 cannery fire destroyed the jobs of hundreds of workers.

The historic Federal Building is a site repeated in history, where cherry trees were planted to honour the lives of Japanese immigrants who were forcibly removed and had their belongings seized in the early days of Prince Rupert history. More recently, in 2018, there was a pubic outcry when The Northern View first reported that some of the remembrance trees were mistakenly cut down by work crews.

Labour heritage is often overlooked because it tends to be discluded from the mainstream heritage radar, Garden said. Many major events happened which are not taught in school, but affect us today.

“If you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it,” Garden said. “It’s become a cliché, but it’s just true.”

“A lot of issues are relevant today, even issues of the past can teach us lessons, for the present and the future. One of the most striking things I find is people say, ‘wow, that issue is happening today’. It’s important to remember where privileges we experience came from, like the eight hour work day, and the two day weekend. Those were not freely given. They were fought for, like at the Battle of Kelly’s Cut,” Garden said.

READ MORE: B.C. museum releases more than 16,000 historical photos of Indigenous life

The Battle of Kelly’s Cut put Prince Rupert on the labour radar.

“This has become a crazy legendary story. It’s one of the most epic stories, but by far not the only story in Prince Rupert’s labour history,” Garden said.

In 1911, when the railroad was being built, a radical, anti-capitalist labour group known as the ‘Wobblies’ or the Industrial Workers of the Word (IWW) would organize among the docks, city, and railway workers. At the same time city work crews were disputing wages, so the IWW called the several hundred constructions workers to strike.

Wanting to get the job done, the City of Prince Rupert brought in private ‘scab’ workers from Vancouver. This quickly fraught tensions and escalated into a bloody battle.

The two sides fought hand-to-hand, fists to faces, beat each other with clubs, hit with rocks and battled with bullets on the precipice of a dangerous cliff. Three people were shot, two police officers were injured leading to 50 strike workers being arrested.

The city jail was too small to hold all of the combatants. The irony is the local carpenters union was brought in to construct a temporary pen to house its union brothers.

In the end, 10 people were charged with infractions from intimidation to attempted murder. The strike was lost, but the humour of the situation was not — at least the jail was built by union hands, they said.

“There are tons of other stories we could not tell because they are not in walking distance of this tour,” Garden said citing Pacific Mariners Memorial Park. There a monument pays tribute to those who have lost their lives at sea.

A second tour may be developed for Prince Rupert, Garden said.

“We can’t cover all of Prince Rupert’s vast and deep labour history in just one tour. We want to give a taste and hopefully spark interest.”

“Our current goal is to continue to develop walking tours in different locations around British Columbia. We want to continue to highlight labour history around the province,” Garden said.

“All of our work is geared towards creating an understanding of where we came from,” Garden said.

BC Labour History tours are free to download from the app store under ‘BC Labour History Walking Tours’.

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K-J Millar | Journalist
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