Ginger Goodwin, hero

I’m just back from a lovely break on Vancouver Island. I visited my cousin Jane at her paradisal oceanside cottage in the Courtenay Regional District, along with her friend and mine, the excellent Claudia. During that visit, we went to Cumberland, a nearby town, and spent an instructive hour in the Cumberland Museum and Archives, where we encountered many remembrances of someone whose name I recognized, Ginger Goodwin (his original forename was Albert), but about whom I knew very little.

I had only the vaguest ideas about him. I knew he had been shot, and so thought he must have been some kind of criminal. In a technical sense he was: he had failed to report to the military authorities to be drafted for service in WWI. But law and justice can be very different things. His original draft exemption (bad lungs and bad teeth) had been cancelled through the influence of certain capitalists who objected to his efforts to support union organizing, and, worse than this, to to his characterization of the War as an activity in which the ruling classes of the two sides sent the working classes of their respective side to kill the working classes of the other side. In the feverishly patriotic atmosphere of the time, this was heresy, sacrilege and treason.

Born in England in 1887, and a coal miner all his life, he arrived in Cumberland, where there were five coal mines, in 1910. The working conditions were hideous. By the time the mines closed, over 300 miners had died in accidents, and hundreds of others had had their lives shortened through various lung conditions. He was one of the organizers of the coal miners’ strike (1912-14), as a result of which he was blackballed by the Cumberland mine owners.

In 1916, he moved to Trail, and worked as a smelterman for Cominco–the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company. There he joined the Socialist Party of Canada, and ran as a Socialist candidate in the 1916 provincial election. Cominco’s general manager was Selwyn Blaylock, a man whose name–he was always spoken of as “Mr Blaylock”–was still one to be conjured with when I was living in Trail (1963-67), even though he had died in 1945. Then an executive of Cominco, though not yet general manager (which he became in 1919), he and Ginger Goodwin exchanged a series of letters in which Goodwin argued for the eight-hour day, and which Blaylock resisted. Even so, Blaylock was regarded as supportive of the workers, which suggests that it was probably not he who had Goodwin’s draft exemption cancelled. Who might have done that remains a mystery.

After organizing a strike in Trail in 1917, Goodwin returned to Cumberland. Unwilling to accept the death sentence of enlisting, he took refuge in the Cumberland bush, where he was supported not only by his fellow unionists but by the local police. However, the military authorities engaged Dominion Police Special Constable Dan Campbell, by whom he was shot and killed on July 27, 1918. At the time, curiously, Goodwin was in possession of a gun, although as a pacifist, he had always been unwilling to use one. Two theories: he was holding the gun for a friend who was nearby, or he may have used it for hunting. A folk song recalls his death.

Ginger hid from cops and soldiers in the hills near Cumberland. / Miners fed and sheltered him; they knew he was their friend. / So the bosses hired special cops; their power was at stake. / Dan Campbell murdered Goodwin at the head of Comox Lake.

In recent years the memory of his legacy has flourished. Since 1986, an annual pilgrimage to his gravesite, commemorating not only Goodwin, but all the other miners who died. In 1989, the mountain where he was killed was named Mount Ginger Goodwin. In the 1990s, a nearby section of Highway 19 was named “Ginger Goodwin Way” by the NDP government, then in power. On Labour Day 2001–surely “the unkindest cut of all” to do it on that day–the new Liberal government had the signs of this dedication removed.

The goals he sought–healthy working conditions, fair wages, international solidarity and resistance to exploitative employers–remain valid. In a society in which some CEOs are paid more than a hundred times what their workers are paid, Ginger Goodwin’s work is not yet done.


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One Response to Ginger Goodwin, hero

  1. Meguido Zola says:

    Thank you for your fine reportage of a moving story—which resonates with the story of the slaughter of 800 Newfoundlanders on July 1st, 1916, at the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, commemorated every Canada Day.
    As the French Consultant for School District 72, between 1969 and 1972, I taught in the old mining village of Cumberland—with its used car-lot type bunting on permanent display across the streets—as well as in adjoining Royston, Courtenay, Comox, Tsolum, etc.,
    The 40 boys and girls of grade 7 at Cumberland Elementary School were distinctive in this way: there were many more of them in a class than in any other school in the District; they tended to have a number of older, larger, ‘slower’ children (clearly they were repeating a year or two); and they were the most polite, well-mannered, good-spirited and enthusiastic students I encountered in all the District’s 13 elementary schools.
    As I came into the classroom three times a week for my 40-minute lesson, they would stand at their desks and cheer me; when I left at the end of class, they would stand at their desks and clap me.
    In a sad, tired, impoverished looking village, these children were the glory of Cumberland…and they taught me much.

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