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R.I.P Irene Howard (1922 – 2023)

November 28th, 2023

Historian and author Irene Howard, who was born in Prince Rupert to Scandinavian parents on November 19, 1922, has died.

Howard grew up in mining camps around Smithers and the Bridge River area where her father worked as a miner. She consequently wrote a great deal about labour and immigrant history.

After graduating from UBC with an M.A. in English, Howard taught at UBC and Capilano College, broadcasted talks for CBC, and wrote articles and essays for Canadian magazines and journals.

Howard’s first book, Vancouver’s Svenskar: A History of the Swedish Community in Vancouver (Vancouver Historical Society, 1970) narrates the tales of numerous Swedish immigrants who journeyed from distant homes to reach the small frontier town located at the terminus of a rail line on Burrard Inlet that grew to become the City of Vancouver. This book was presented to King Carl XVI Gustav and Queen Silvia when they visited the city in 1988, on behalf of the Swedish Cultural Society of Vancouver.

Her second book, Bowen Island 1872-1972 (Bowen Island Historians, 1973) also includes accounts of Canada’s first Filipino immigrants. This was followed by Howard’s biography, The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge, The Unknown Reformer (UBC Press, 1992) about the first woman to be elected to Vancouver City Council, which earned the UBC Silver Medal for Canadian Biography, and was shortlisted for a City of Vancouver Book Award and the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.

Perhaps her most moving and monumental publication was a memoir about her own family’s roots. “I had to commemorate their labour, their monumental labour. I had to tell their heroic lives,” Howard wrote in the introduction to her book, Gold Dust on his Shirt: The True Story of an Immigrant Mining Family (Between the Lines, 2008). She vividly recounts the experiences of her Scandinavian immigrant family that was engaged in hard-rock mining from the late 19th century to World War II. Drawing from compelling historical research, the narrative portrays the journey to “Amerika” and the world of immigrant workers, while shedding light on their struggles and the emergence of unions like the Wobblies. Beyond the family saga, this book serves as a thought-provoking exploration of broader social and political issues, offering a rich tapestry of a bygone era.

“Possibly forged by the hardships of her childhood, Irene grew up with an indomitable spirit and a cheerful outlook on life that kept her going through all these years,” says Howard’s nephew, former labour reporter for the Vancouver Sun and senior writer for the Globe and Mail, Rod Mickleburgh. “She relished her move to assisted living. ‘I no longer have to worry about anything, I just have to keep on living,’ she said.”

Irene Howard died from a fall and resulting fractures on November 2, 2023, just short of her 101st birthday.

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