Working class heroes
The early 20th century pro-unionist and worker activist, Ginger Goodwin is still considered by many as a hero; so are the people of Kitimat who voted no to Big Oil in 2014.
December 23rd, 2023
How does a person like Ginger Goodwin decide to risk his life for the good of others? Is it safer to be a land defender, or engaged in a labour action? Elaine Ávila deals with these questions, and more, in her new book of two plays.
Ginger Goodwin (1887 – 1918), one of BC’s controversial labour activists, is credited with getting Canada the eight-hour workday. Goodwin also opposed military conscription during World War One, and was shot and killed by a police constable while he was evading conscription in the wilderness near Cumberland, BC. Several books have been written about Goodwin and now Elaine Ávila of New Westminster has added to this list with The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin & Kitimat: Two plays for Workers (Talonbooks $19.95). Ávila’s second play is concerned with another kind of social justice … how the residents of an industry town (Kitimat) had to decide between economic prosperity and environmental protection when they came together to vote yes or no to a proposed oil pipeline in 2014. Many of the workers in the town were descended from Azorean immigrants who had come to Kitimat to find work and the good life in the early 1950s when it was emerging as an “instant town” with hydroelectric facilities and an aluminum smelting industry. Here is BCBookLook’s interview with Elaine Ávila.—Ed.
BCBookLook: How did you first discover Ginger Goodwin? What about his life attracted you to write a play about him?
Elaine Ávila: I learned about Ginger Goodwin in the Cumberland Museum and Archives. They had a display, featuring Goodwin’s fly-fishing rod and tackle. It detailed his assassination, which led to Vancouver’s first general strike, Canada’s first general strike, and to Canadians getting the 8-hour day. People came from as far away as Chile to lay wreaths on Goodwin’s grave, yet few Canadians have heard of him. Goodwin’s fishing gear was such an intimate object, showing his love of life, poignant against the massive historical struggles which led to his death. After my play’s premiere, the Cumberland Museum and Archives displayed my play, poster and production photos in their exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of Goodwin’s death, which won the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Community Programming. Much deserved! They certainly know how to inspire.
BCBL: Did Ginger Goodwin really have a love interest (Anna Petroni, a launderess) in Trail, where he was led a labour strike before fleeing to Cumberland? Why did you feel it was important to include this romance? Was it a way to include the story of other immigrant labourers?
EA: While his biographers mention that Goodwin had many female friends and that there were many Italians and laundresses in Trail, Anna Petroni is fictional. Yes, she is a love interest, but she is also an adversary. Anna is actively anti-union at the start of the play. She changes, becoming Goodwin’s friend and confidante. Writing the character of Anna helped me explore Ginger Goodwin’s psychology. How does a person like Goodwin decide to risk and then lose his life for the good of others? He could have focused on his own needs—such as the need for love, the desire to make a family. But he didn’t. Writing Anna also gave me a chance to explore how immigrant, working class women found ways to become educated. Over the course of the play, both Goodwin and Anna’s employer, Selwyn Blaylock, help Anna in her quest to read and write.
BCBL: Through the character, Luigi Petroni, Anna’s brother, you are able to represent the story of young men fighting in World War I. Why did you want to include this?
EA: Like our recent pandemic, the war impacted everyone at the time, so it drives the events of the play. Anna Petroni wants to learn to write so she can send a letter to her brother Luigi, who is on the front lines. She wants to learn to read so she can see if his name is in the death notices in the newspaper. The manager of the smelter in Trail, Selwyn Blaylock, does his patriotic duty by giving young men gold watches for going to fight in the trenches. When Luigi returns home blinded by the war, everyone in the community must help care for him.
BCBL: The managers and owners of mines and smelters don’t come off well in your play (for example Selwyn Blaylock, smelter assistant manager). You paint a picture of entitled and arrogant upper classes who manipulate and mistreat working people. Was this borne out in your research?
EA: In this particular play, I don’t presume to represent all managers and owners of mines and smelters, or the upper classes. My play focuses on the history of the working people in our province, and yes, it is borne out by extensive research. I do write about Selwyn Blaylock (1879-1945), a celebrated Canadian geologist, gardener and smelter manager. His main actions in the play are well documented, including his refusal to meet the labour mediator from Ottawa, and that he served on the draft board which, during the strike, suddenly switched Ginger Goodwin’s status from Category D, unfit for duty (because of ill health as a coal miner and years of strikes, ulcers, terrible teeth) to Category A, ready for the front lines. The poisons from the smelter Blaylock managed are also well documented: the airborne toxins disintegrated leaves, made holes in laundry if it was on the line, and killed dogs. During Blaylock’s leadership, this toxic smoke led to a landmark trans-boundary pollution case: the “Trail Smelter Dispute,” settled in 1941, in which citizens in both the U.S. and Canada complained that their crops were dying due to the fumes from the smelter. Blaylock also built a second mansion in Nelson which is now a bed and breakfast, a tourist attraction, and a popular site for weddings.
BCBL: You incorporate old labour songs in the play about Goodwin. What was the purpose? Or do you just like to have music in your productions?
EA: Because Ginger Goodwin and his friend, Joe Naylor (featured in the BC Laboour Heritage Centre’s new podcast series) were from Yorkshire and the Petronis were from Southern Italy, I instinctually felt I would know them better if I learned to sing the songs they sang. Folk songs from Yorkshire (like “Old Grimy”) and Calabria (like “Tarantella”) were in their hearts, minds and mouths, so I included them in the play. Adding the labour songs became a natural extension of this impulse. People sang much more then than they do now, and they drew great inspiration from it. I love modern interpretations of labout songs, so, while writing the play, I listened to Wayne Horvitz, Robin Holcomb (who came to the play’s premier), and Bill Frisell’s recording :Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Orchestra, Voices and Soloist,” which premiered at Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival.
BCBL: You obviously did quite a bit of research about Ginger Goodwin. What is your opinion of how he died? And is there evidence of him writing a last letter to his mother in England that you use in the play (“Dear Mum.” Now they are upon me, I hear the branches crack. It’s time I must surrender. It would do no good to run. I would rather face a prison term than a bounty hunter’s gun. I remain your affectionate son…”)? … Also, were you surprised by what you discovered about Ginger?
EA: Yes, the letter is Ginger Goodwin’s actual last writing, to his mother. It was discovered in his cabin after he was assassinated. It’s incredibly moving, isn’t it? In the play, I also quote directly from Ginger Goodwin’s actual speeches. Regarding his death: you touch on something vital here, thank you! For a long time, I considered writing a courtroom drama. The circumstances around his death are hotly contested and covered extensively by his biographers but (purposefully or not) there isn’t a great deal of evidence. There were no witnesses. Meanwhile, Goodwin’s decisions during the Trail strike are dramatic, little discussed, well documented and reveal so much about his character, as well as what he was up against. I was surprised by all the hope in Ginger Goodwin’s speeches. He so believed in a day where we could find a way for people to live without misery, want and war. He believed in education, that we are all capable of better. I find his hope deeply sustaining and inspiring.
BCBL: You dedicate this play to “workers” but also to the late Bill Clark Sr., former president of Telecommunications Workers Union (and your father-in-law). What did you learn from Bill Clark about contemporary labour union strife? Is it any safer now to engage in labour action than in Ginger Goodwin’s time? Or for that matter, is it even safe to write about labour activists (you were threatened while writing this play)? Any particular reason you combined The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin with Kitimat, the latter being more particularly about social justice than labour strife?
EA: Bill Clark Sr. and I discussed the pivotal strikes he led in BC during the 1970s and 1980s. He received death threats during those strikes. Regarding safety, I suppose it depends on your racial and cultural background, on your specific situation. Internationally, I’m not sure it is safer to be a land defender, or engaged in a labour action. Both involve putting yourself physically in the way of something unjust. As you can see from the “Trail Smelter Dispute” and from my other play in the book, Kitimat, these issues quickly become intertwined. Recently, David Dodge, former Bank of Canada governor, said of the Transmountain pipeline: “There are some people who are going to die in protesting the construction of this pipeline. We have to understand that.” This is why Ginger Goodwin’s story is inspiring now. This is why I wrote a play inspired by the events in Kitimat (one of the first municipalities in North America to vote on whether or not they wanted an oil pipeline). I approached Talonbooks and my fabulous editor Charles Simard with these plays because they are epic and based on true events which happened in B.C. with international implications. Women who’d won the Nobel Prize made a point of travelling to Kitimat before their vote. News outlets across Canada, the U.S. and Britain covered the story. Both plays brought me closer to communities in our province. Kitimat is my first play inspired by my ancestral islands, the Azores (Kitimat’s population was 40-50% Portuguese), which is why many residents opened up to me during the process of writing the play. 80-year-old women sang me the first Azorean songs I’d heard, taught me to cook with them in the Luso Hall, shared their immigration stories. Because plays are written to be embodied by actors, to inspire designers and directors to create a world, these moments are vital, corporeal, experiences I will always treasure. 9781772014471