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You had to laugh when you read the news that two separate Vancouver protest marches collided this summer, but really, we shouldn’t have been surprised such a thing could happen: Vancouverites have been marching, rioting, striking and protesting since its earliest days. It’s practically a part of our DNA, says Kate Bird, author of the new City on the Edge: A Rebellious Century of Vancouver Protests, Riots and Strikes, which chronicles the city’s history of taking to the streets through archival photos. “People think of it as a genteel place, but there’s this underbelly of being this rough and tumble port city that it started as,” she says.Bird spent 25 years at the Vancouver Sun managing a huge photo and digital archive, so she’s been inadvertently researching this topic throughout her career, and with all the political and social turmoil that’s firing up modern Vancouver residents, it might just be the perfect time to look back and embrace our history as agents for change—for better or for worse.
Why is Vancouver history so packed with protests and riots?Because Vancouver was a port city and resource-based, there was a lot of union activism in longshoreman and fishing and logging over the years, and that sparked a lot of protests, including a lot of anti-government protests. And then there’s the environmental movement, which in a way is the flip-side of the resource industry. There were many anti-logging protests, and protests to protect Clayoquet Sound…it goes on and on. Peace activism was very strong, too. Greenpeace started here. Activism at the university, UBC, I think was often allied more with California and social movements there and felt disenfranchised by Ottawa; that was the case then and is still the case now. A lot of themes that came out of the research were common over time. Photo: Greg Kinch, The ProvinceWhat kind of themes are you still seeing today?An issue like housing has been in Vancouver for a long time. In the ’30s, it was a problem for these relief camp men; during the depression it was a problem; in 1946, 2nd world war vets occupied the Hotel Vancouver because they couldn’t afford housing.It feels like more recently people are getting active again.There was period when getting out on the streets became less common, and it was more about signing online petitions and speaking up through social media, but I think recently after Trump, people have been much more actively getting out on the street and that’s more effective than just signing an online petition. I saw that in the fall with the Kinder Morgan protests of 5,000 people, and the Women’s March. I feel like there’s been a return to getting out on the street. There used to be these huge peace walks in the ’80s with 60,000 people from all walks of life, and now we’re seeing that wide swath of people again. Photo: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun and ProvinceAnd what about rioting?We’re rather famous for those. It is a feature of Vancouver and it goes way back. In the ’40s and ’50s, there were Halloween riots and park gang riots, and there went on to be concert riots with Elvis, and the Rolling Stones, and Guns and Roses. There were many sports riots, too. The first Grey Cup was in 1955 and the BC Lions weren’t even playing and there was a riot. It’s a thing. Photo: Arlen Redekop, PNG photoWhere did all the photos come from?Almost all the photos were from the Vancouver Sun and Province. A few early photos came from the city archives but most are from the newspapers. In the early days, there weren’t really very many in the papers: many strikes and protests and riots were covered and not pictured. I knew about certain riots and tried to find the photos, but couldn’t find them because they just weren’t published. For instance, I couldn’t find any suffragettes in Vancouver, much as I tried. There were also anti-First World War or anti-Second World War protests by the pacifist Dukhobors, and I couldn’t find pictures because that was an unpopular opinion at the time.What surprised you during your research?The participation of women in so many protests, including labour protests. I found some real support by women in the depression. There were relief camp men who descended on Vancouver and were complaining about the conditions and the women really rallied for them. They provided food and raised money and had a women’s march. I was heartened by the women. Photo: Ralph Bower, Vancouver Sun Photo: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver SunAn accompanying exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver opens September 28 and runs to the end of February, including photos not featured in the book as well as video and sound clips.