Goodwin’s Way: An interview with director Neil Vokey

By Daniel Tseghay

On May 1st, Vancouver’s Rio Theatre will premier a documentary, Goodwin’s Way about Albert “Ginger” Goodwin, an early-20th century labour organizer. It’s a story of workers organizing BC’s coal mines and resisting the war effort, and Goodwin’s untimely death for leading both.

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The film centers on Ginger Goodwin. Can you tell me about Goodwin and what he struggled for?

Ginger Goodwin was an English immigrant who came to Canada at the age of 18 and landed in Nova Scotia. Right away he was encountering labour strife. He came from a mining town in England and even his family had encountered labour strife when he was a child. He ended up moving out west to Cumberland on Vancouver Island because he was blacklisted in Nova Scotia for participating in this strike. When he moved out to Cumberland, he met an organizer named Joe Naylor and together they they began organizing. Naylor became a principal organizer in the 1912 great strike on Vancouver island that lasted two years. With massive upheaval for many families in multiple island communities, including Cumberland, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, he was once again blacklisted and left Cumberland about a year after the strike ended and moved into the interior to Trail. This is where Goodwin started to become a principal organizer himself and became the secretary of the Smelterman’s union. This was at the height of the First World War.

He was a socialist and anti-war. He used his position within the union to subvert any efforts the company was making in support of the war. He also ended up leading a recognition strike for smelter workers, causing armament production to be stopped during the height of the war. It was a lead and zinc smelter and the work stoppage included over a thousand workers in Trail and ended up stopping work for workers south of the border too. Miners and everybody connected with the armament production declared it an illegal strike.

During that strike he also worked in the mines most of his life and he was suffering from poor health and for that reason he was considered unfit for conscription. It was during this strike that he got called to the draft board and reclassified as fit for service. His attempt to fight the draft was unsuccessful. After this, he quietly left Trail and returned to Cumberland where he had friends. That’s when, in the summer of 1918, he hid out in the mountains behind Cumberland for about two or three months. One day, July 27th, 1918, the police were looking for Goodwin and his fellow draft evaders. Campbell eventually came upon Goodwin and shot him to death. It was decried not only by Goodwin’s friends but the entire labour movement in BC because Goodwin was an officer, and a vice president at one point, of the BC Federation of Labour. I think the labour movement in BC was well-primed against conscription due to evading conscription it ended up triggering workers in Vancouver to call a general strike. A few days later, on August 2nd, they staged what is widely recognized as Canada’s first general strike.

What brought you to this story?

I grew up in the Comox Valley in Courtney, which is the next town over from Cumberland, and had heard this story growing up. I came to Vancouver to study film at Capilano University and was taking the documentary program in 2011 when I was just casually recounting this story to one of my instructors. He thought I should make a documentary about it and I thought “yeah, maybe that would be a good idea”.

You mentioned the international aspect to his organizing, that he was anti-war. BC was a multicultural province from its early days. What was his approach to non-white workers?

Goodwin was an ardent socialist – and I think part of the socialist international, from my understanding – and it didn’t matter to him what background you were from, or race or gender for that matter. It was supposed to be an inclusive movement. During the 1912 strike on Vancouver Island, under Joe Naylor’s leadership, they had convinced the Chinese and Japanese miners in Cumberland to join the strike. The story goes that the police marched in to Chinatown which was segregated from the white part of Cumberland and they basically blocked off all the entrances and the next day the Chinese and Japanese miners were going back to work. They were threatened with deportation. That caused a major rift in the strike effort. The practices of how Asian miners were brought in and basically indebted and they came into the country and forced to work for less. In the mainstream labour movement that caused rifts as well.

The last coal mine in Vancouver island, the Quinsam mine, was shut down.

With the Quinsam mine closing, I was crowdfunding for the film last summer. I went to a meeting of the Courtney and Campbell River District Labour Council. There were folks from the union who represented coal miners. I was a bit hesitant to present the film as it was because it might have been interpreted as anti-coal in someway. But I think everybody there understood the story I was trying to tell and were very supportive. I don’t think the film is really anti-coal or anti-coal mining. It’s not even about the industry itself. It’s more about being pro-worker and pro-community and kind of highlighting the forces that work against individuals and communities.

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