Friday, 26 March 2010

Communists in Lethbridge

I have been researching the role of the sugar beet industry in the development of southern Alberta. For various reasons I have focused of late on the union and strike in the sugar beet industry here in southern Alberta in the 1930s. The sugar beet workers, whose wages had been severely cut, formed a union and worked to negotiate en masse with the growers to achieve a better payment per acre. While successful the 1st year, the strike failed miserably in 1936. As there have not been many unions (or strikes) in agriculture in Canada, this story greatly intrigues me. However, as many researchers know, it is all too easy to get off track when you research and this has happened to me this past week.

From looking specifically at labour in the sugar beet industry (which has to still be my focus because I'm presenting on it in September and I have lots of work to do), I have found myself all too often wondering about broader issues.

One of the accusations thrown at the union was that it was communist. The only full time organizer of the union Bill (William) Repka was later interned by the Canadian government as a Communist during the Second World War.

So that started me thinking about communism in Lethbridge in general. A lot has been written and discussed about communism in the Crowsnest Pass and there was a lot of interaction between the different mining communities so it comes as no real surprise that there was communism in Lethbridge. Also, as I’ve written earlier in this blog, Lethbridge had the 1st labour person ever elected to the legislature of Alberta. Workers and workers’ issues played an important part in the development of Lethbridge. (Certainly, though, not all labour organizers, unions or workers were communists.)
Lethbridge even had a “Red Square”. This was the name given to a meeting place between 1st and 2nd Avenue South behind the Arlington Hotel (later Bridge Inn). Protest meetings and speeches were held here. The workers had marches. Regular May Day meetings were held. This photograph from our Galt Archives (20011020734) shows one of these meetings in "Red Square" in the 1930s.

Very little of this did I find surprising. But what I did find surprising was a mention in one of the papers about the work the union had to do to get a Diamond City miner released from prison in 1919 for possessing banned literature. This was something I wanted to know more about. And what I found was that, including Diamond City miner Thomas Shannon, several people in Lethbridge in 1919 (and across Canada) were arrested for having banned literature. In Lethbridge -- Several Bible students were arrested. A piano player at the Empress Theatre was arrested. And several Mennonites were arrested. Interestingly, it seems banned literature could be that considered Communist/Soviet or, oppositely, in the case of the Mennonites, also that written in German. Punishment for having banned literature could be a fine, prison time or deportation.

I’m going to have to do something quite difficult for a researcher – file the articles and information I found on the 1919 banned literature cases and get back to the research I need to be doing. Hopefully, though, either someone else out there will take the opportunity to look more deeply into these banned literature cases (and, if you do, let me know and I can send you the newspaper articles I’ve found to date) or I’ll add it to the list of one more interesting thing I’d like to research when I get the time (or when I win the lottery and can devote my life only to research).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, it is amazing how much of our history as workers goes untold!

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