Black sheep of the tribe

Amanda Hale (right) digs for buried treasure in her WW II English family history to tell the “fictional memoir” of a socially shamed father and the impact it had on his wife and children. FULL STORY

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#570 Rolf Knight Obituary

June 30th, 2019

Born on March 4, 1936, the son of an itinerant cook, Rolf Knight grew up in B.C. logging camps, gained his M.A. in anthropology at UBC in 1962, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1968. For decades Knight was a brave and under-heralded historian and a steadfast enemy of the notion that there exists such a phenomenon as the common man. He received the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. He died on June 22, 2019.

While he taught at both Simon Fraser University and the University of Toronto, Knight remained angry about stereotypes, romanticization of labour and other invisibilizing forces of mainstream history. Knight’s career path changed when he collaborated with his Berlin-born mother in A Very Ordinary Life (1974) to trace her difficult life from Germany to goldpanning in Lillooet and on to a succession of upcoast logging camps. His mother Phyllis died in Burnaby at age 76, shortly after their book called An Ordinary Life was finished. After its release, Knight left his teaching job at SFU in 1977, disaffected by the narrowness of his fellow academics and the ignorance of his students. Knight drove a taxi in Vancouver, simultaneously producing a string of books that dignify, and show the complexity and sophistication of, the so-called working class.

Rolf Knight

Rolf Knight then wrote or co-authored Work Camps and Company Towns in Canada and the United States (1975), A Man of Our Times: A Life-History of a Japanese-Canadian Fisherman (1976), Stump Ranch Chronicles and Other Narratives (1977), Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Indian Labour in British Columbia 1858-1930 (1978), Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront (1980), Traces of Magma: An Annotated Bibliography of Left Literature (1983), Voyage Through the Mid-Century (1988) and Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing (1992).

Knight’s writing often bristles with impatience at shallow or conventional attitudes. “One of the great misconceptions of native Indian history in B.C.,” he wrote in 1978, “is the vision of a golden past age. In this view, indigenous societies on the North Pacific coast existed in a veritable Garden of Eden where ready-smoked salmon flanks launched themselves, glittering, from the streams into trenches of salalberry and oolichan sauce, where a superabundance of foods was always and everywhere available with the merest of effort; a veritable land of Cockaigne. In such accounts, wars and raids were mainly rough games for prestige, slaves were not really slaves, chiefs were the servants of their people, all necessities were shared, and settlements were rife with co-operation and equity. Spiritualism and traditions reigned supreme and almost everyone was part of one big family. . . . Popular conceptions generally disregard or gloss over considerable evidence of suffering, hardships, and oppression between and within the indigenous Indian societies. While this is not a justification for the varied inequities which followed in the wake of European settlement, it should remind us that native Indian societies did not witness a fall from natural grace at the arrival of Europeans.”

Possibly Knight will be remembered most for his Indians at Work, a wide-ranging study, with an excellent bibliography. The book bristles with Knight’s impatience with shallow or conventional attitudes. “It is time that the generations of Indian loggers, longshoremen, teamsters, cowboys, miners (farmers), fishermen and others who labored in virtually every primary industry…were recognized,” he wrote in Indians at Work. “Wage work in the major industries…has been an intimate feature of Indian lives for five and more generation.”

Some of his opinions would not pass muster in the 21st century. “One of the great misconceptions of native Indian history in BC,” he writes, “is the vision of a golden past age. In this view, indigenous societies on the North Pacific coast existed in a veritable Garden of Eden where ready-smoked salmon flanks launched themselves, glittering, from the streams into trenches of salalberry and oolichan sauce, where a superabundance of foods was always and everywhere available with the merest of effort; a veritable land of Cockaigne. In such accounts, wars and raids were mainly rough games for prestige, slaves were not really slaves, chiefs were the servants of their people, all necessities were shared, and settlements were rife with cooperation and equity. Spiritualism and traditions reigned supreme and almost everyone was part of one big family…. Popular conceptions generally disregard or gloss over considerable evidence of suffering, hardships, and oppression between and within the indigenous Indian societies. While this is not a justification for the varied inequities which followed in the wake of European settlement, it should remind us that native Indian societies did not witness a fall from natural grace at the arrival of Europeans. Given the fantasies about the native past which now pervade the mass media, and even public education, the above point cannot be made strongly enough.”

In 1992 Rolf Knight received the Canadian Historical Career Award for Regional History. He returned to print with a biography about Homer Stevens, leader of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union. With nine books to his credit, he remains one of the most under-recognized historians of B.C.

[For other authors writing about labour in British Columbia, see abcbookworld entries for Bains, Hardial S.; Baird, Irene; Belshaw, John Douglas; Bennett, William; Bergren, Myrtle; Bernard, Elaine; Braid, Kate; Brodie, Steve; Brooks, Carellin; Culhane, Claire; Diamond, Sara; Doherty, Bill; Dunaway, Jo; Edge, Marc; Griffin, Betty; Griffin, Harold; Hanebury, Derek; Hill, A.V.; Hinde, John R.; Hoar, Victor; Homer, Stevens; Howard, Irene; Howard, Victor; Latham, Barbara; Lazarus, Morden; Leier, Mark; Lembcke, Jerry; Liversedge, Ronald; Lowther, Bruce; MacKay, Charles Angus; Magee, Catherine J.; Mann, Geoff; Mayse, Susan; McEwan, Tom; McMaster, Lindsey; Merkel, Robert; Munro, Jack; North, George; O’Hara, Jane; Palmer, Bryan D.; Parnaby, Andrew; Perry, Adele; Phillips, Paul; Robin, Martin; Schwantes, Carlos A.; Seager, Allen; Stanton, John; Stewart, Mary Lynn; Stonebanks, Roger; Swankey, Ben; Sykes, Ella; Tranfield, Pam; Tyler, Robert; Waiser, Bill; Warburton, Rennie; Wayman, Tom; Wejr, Patricia; White, Bill; White, Howard.] @2010.

John Douglas Belshaw’s perceptive but almost exclusively denigrating review of Rolf Knight’s re-issued autobiography for BC Studies in 2014 reveals the extent to which academics could be keen to dismiss Knight by criticizing his manners and attitudes, thereby disregarding the value of his work. Belshaw concludes: “Knight presents himself in this book and in everything else he has written as an advocate for workers’ movements, common people’s rights, and liberty in thought and action. His memoirs, however, reveal a man whose company on a barricade it might be prudent to avoid.” Much the same treatment was accorded to the country bumpkin W.P. Kinsella whose politics and caustic remarks were frequently cited in order to distract from the obvious fact that he was a far superior storyteller. Both of these uncouth men received the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for B.C. literature for their books, not for their personalities.

Rolf Knight received Woodcock Award flanked by sponsor Yosef Wosk and VPL’s Sandra Singh.

Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront
Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing
Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Labour in British Columbia, 1858-1930
Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Indian Labour in British Columbia
Voyage Through the Past Century

BOOKS:

Knight, Rolf & Phyllis Knight. A Very Ordinary Life (New Star, 1974).
Knight, Rolf. Work Camps and Company Towns in Canada and the United States (bibliography, 1975).
Knight, Rolf & Maya Koizumi. A Man of our Times: A Life-History of a Japanese-Canadian Fisherman (New Star, 1976).
Knight, Rolf. Stump Ranch Chronicles and Other Narratives (New Star, 1977).
Knight, Rolf. Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Indian Labour in British Columbia 1858-1930 (New Star, 1978, 1996).
Knight, Rolf. Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront (New Star, 1980; Re:release New Star 2011).
Knight, Rolf. Traces of Magma: An Annotated Bibliography of Left Literature (Draegerman, 1983),
Knight, Rolf. Voyage Through the Mid-Century (New Star, 1988; Re-release New Star 2013).
Knight, Rolf & Homer Stevens. Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing (Harbour, 1992).
Knight, Rolf. Voyage Through the Past Century, Non-Fiction, (New Star, 2013)336 pages, 6×9 inches. $24 9781554200689

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