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[Editor's note: The book Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960 tells us the story of the down 'n dirty years of Vancouver, the city's bootleggers and the bank robbers, its gambling underground and stranger fringes. We learn about racketeer and all-around bad guy Joe Celona, Vancouver's own Al Capone, and the 1953 Babes in the Woods double homicide in which skeletons of two young children covered in a fur coat were found in Stanley Park, one of Vancouver's oldest cold cases. There are accounts of the wildly popular nudist village and freak shows at the National Exhibition, the 24-hour diners and cheap beer parlours where the non-elite spent most of their time, and the Depression days when the unemployed filled the streets in collective protest on a daily basis chased by cops with nightsticks on horses.

Authors Purvey and Belshaw describe the perverse efforts of the city's cops, politicians, and moral crusaders to win their "wars on vice," razing neighbourhoods to the ground for being unsightly, and banning Chinese restaurant owners from conversing with their white female waitresses in an effort to prevent prostitution of young white women. Vancouver Noir presents a city divided, where self-styled "Canadians" demonized immigrants and extreme poverty existed alongside civilized entertainment and smoke-filled supper clubs. At times those conflicts literally combusted. Black and white photos depict clouds of oily smoke rising from one of the many fires of Vancouver's piers, murder victims lying in pools of blood, newspapers ablaze in the streets. Click through the photo essay at the top of this story to sample some of those images.

Excerpted here is Purvey & Belshaw's account (without the book's ample footnotes) of Vancouver social protest and unrest during the Depression era.]

City Hall had two responses to unemployment: the dole and the nightstick. Of the latter, it has to be said that the City tried to use some finesse in its application. All public marches required a permit, and the City used its exclusive control over the permit system to ban many an outdoor protest. But that also meant that any event that took place without a permit was effectively illegal. Charges of civil disobedience were generously bandied about. Chief Constable W.J. Bingham was never shy of sending in whip-swinging mounted police, and he often leant a hand. He also mounted an undercover operation, sending agents into more than a hundred unemployed workers' and "Communistic" meetings in 1930 alone. Although he was satisfied that "Soviet Agents" were ineffectual, by June 1931 Bingham was seeing an increase in demonstrations involving between two thousand and five thousand protesters.

A few months later, with more than 15,000 unemployed registered with the City, hundreds living in the hobo jungles, and with fears of typhoid on the rise, the City and the Provincial Government successfully pressed Ottawa to evacuate the non-resident unemployed to mountain camps in the Interior. As the Depression stretched on the City responded with tighter requirements for financial relief to the local unemployed as well as the transients. The principal prerequisite was "destitution," not mere joblessness. In 1934 alone nearly 53,000 investigative calls were on the homes of Vancouver's unemployed by a special division of the City's relief office, some of which resulted in deportations and criminal convictions where fraud was indicated.

The spring of 1935 saw a renewal of conflict between the working class and the Vancouver police force. The Vancouver Club witnessed a gathering of the city's wealthy and powerful. There, they heard a call to arms against the communist menace. The response of the city's elite was not for the faint-hearted. The "Committee of 66" was a who's who caucus gathered under the banner of the Shipping Federation. Their "mouthpiece" was local radio personality Tom McInnes "who made no distinction of any kind between unions and communists." A further outcome was the establishment of the Citizen's League, led by ex-military types and Colonel C.E. "Doc" Edgett, who had served as Chief Constable. The League raised money for 750 special constables to aid in the struggle against the "Red Menace," described by The Sun as "nameless vagabonds of chaos." Their efforts were paralleled by the City and individual employers who put into the field a cadre of detectives, private investigators, informants, infiltrators, and spies. Cloak and dagger work became a management tool and a feature of the growing tension in the Eastside.

Reading the Riot Act

These developments proceeded parallel with uprisings in the city centre. In April 1935 some 2,000 unemployed men who had earlier been packed off to relief camps in the province's hinterland returned to the city to engage in demonstrations downtown. On the night of the April 22, Mayor Gerry McGeer enjoyed a meal in the company of Nazi government representatives on board a German warship in the harbour. The next day he confronted several thousand protesters in the streets of his city with the Riot Act in hand. One eyewitness recalled, "I was the person that stood closest to him when he read the Riot Act... He had three police force representatives with him: one city policeman, one provincial and one RCMP. The other person next to him was his bodyguard, a city detective sergeant. McGeer didn't articulate, he mumbled. The only thing anyone actually heard was the last phrase, 'So help me God.'"

Although the crowd peaceably cleared the streets that afternoon, subsequent VPD raids on the offices of Left and labour organizations catalyzed a street battle around Hastings and Carrall that night. This was hardly the end of things.

The unemployed bolstered the numbers of longshoremen during the 1935 Ballantyne Pier Strike. "We are up against a Communist revolution," claimed McGeer, "and we are going to wipe it out without delay." Much of the muscle necessary to launching a successful strike was, however, on its way out of town: the "On-to-Ottawa Trek" was just getting underway, taking hundreds and hundreds of unemployed east inside and on the roofs of boxcars. Defending the CPR's port facilities on June 18 were three dozen mounted RCMP, others in sniper positions with machine guns, some 40 provincial police with billy clubs, twenty mounted City police, and fifty on foot. When a procession of smartly dressed, respectable working men and women marching behind a Union Jack were tear-gassed and charged by baton-swinging mounted police, the "Battle of Ballantyne Pier" began. The tide quickly turned against the strikers, motorcycle police rode through the East End, ferreting out hiding rioters by hurling tear gas bombs liberally into stores and homes.

That's not to say the strikers turned tail and ran: among the dozens injured during the battle were cops who found themselves separated from the main body of police. One of the casualties was a young constable, Len Cuthbert, who was dragged from a smashed up police car by an angry mob of men who beat him to a bloody pulp. (Cuthbert would reappear in another Noir tale in the late 1950s.) The waterfront protests were echoed in Vancouver's freshwater twin, New Westminster, where the level of conflict rose to what one newspaper called a "miniature reign of terror" that included vicious assaults by the police, gunplay between strikers and strikebreakers, and attempts by the organized dockworkers to burn out the scabs.

These confrontations constitute a classic Noir moment, when the East End, its citizens and their organizations were decried as "non-British" and foreign. Not only were they disloyal and deviant, they were told that they were simply not part of this society.

The spring of 1938 would see further demonstrations and pitched battles. In the three years that followed Ballantyne, discontent continued to grow, particularly in the Relief Camps of the interior. By 1938 the unemployed workers' movements and the Left generally was strong or desperate enough to make another stand. On May Day more than 15,000 demonstrators again took to the downtown streets, parading from downtown to uptown and on to Lumberman's Arch in Stanley Park. The unemployed and their supporters continued to organize. Meetings were held, public support was rallied in and around the big department stores (particularly The Bay), and they stood on street corners "tin-canning" for change. Finally, it was decided that the strikers would occupy three buildings in the uptown neighbourhood.

The Georgia Hotel, the Art Gallery, and the Post Office were systematically overrun with protesters who began a peaceful sit-in. These three spaces -- respectively, one privately owned, one a city building, and the third a federal office -- saw very different responses from their owners. The Georgia Hotel was the first to clear, the sit-downers having won the promise of about $500 in relief to the unemployed. The government-owned buildings, however, witnessed a month-long siege that gripped the city. Although the sit-downs didn't stop business, they embarrassed the authorities. The VPD took on the Gallery protest with uncharacteristic restraint but on June 20 lobbed in tear gas canisters and cleared out the strikers. The RCMP, for their part, waded into the Post Office without warning at the crack of dawn, flushing out the strikers in a rain of tear gas and truncheon attacks. The leadership of the sit-down was specifically targeted by the Police: Steve Brodie, for one, was viciously beaten and hospitalized. As the strikers and their supporters raced down Hastings and Cordova Streets, the police in hot pursuit, a window-smashing campaign got under way. One mounted cop even chased a suspect into The Only Seafood Cafe.

A crowd of 2,000 people besieged the VPD headquarters near the Four Corners, demanding the release of those protesters who had been rounded up by the tear-gas-tossing, club-swinging VPD. Loaded rifles in hand, the police stood their ground. After this crowd dispersed another, five-times larger, gathered at the Powell Street Grounds a few blocks away. What the cameras saw was the frontlines -- the tear-gassed strikers, the police billy clubs raining down on the heads of protesters, the smashed store windows down Hastings Street. These were powerful images of a city looking over the precipice.

The Left

The vitality of the Left in Vancouver during the Noir era was remarkable. Annual May Day marches would start at the Cambie Street Grounds and head down Georgia to Stanley Park, with banners, floats, and marching bands as part of the procession. When the City stepped in to stop the march -- it effectively tramped from working-class Central School right through the heart of the middle-class West End -- the parades and demonstrations carried on through East Van, from the Powell Street Grounds to Hastings Park. These events carried on from the Depression through the 1950s.

Con Jones Gambling Hall was reckoned by the VPD to be a hangout for "idle left-wingers." Andrew Parnaby provides a list of residences used as meeting rooms for the Communist waterfront organizers in the early 1930s -- all of which were in the Downtown Eastside: "the Victory Rooms on Powell, Glen Apartments on Hastings, and the World Hotel on Cordova Street were particularly alive with talk of waterfront politics." But the whole of the downtown hummed with talk of a new hard-left union to fight the disfigured capitalism of the depression. All along the waterfront, in cafes and trams, beer parlours and shoeshine shops, shore workers heard the call to a more militant challenge to the established order.

The Right

If the authorities in Vancouver persecuted and marginalized the Left, they were no less rigorous in punishing the Right. Fascism found a following in the Italian communities and National Socialism ("Nazism") had supporters among the local Germans and Austrians, but the booming economies of Italy and Germany caught imaginations outside of the Eastside. In 1933, a meeting of the Workers Unity League at the Royal Theatre was disrupted by a bomb that destroyed the lobby and shattered windows in the buildings across Hastings Street; local lore has it that fascists were involved.

The movement certainly had its followers in the years before Dunkirk. According to one account, the editor of The Province newspaper took the stage at the Rex Theatre in the late 1930s and lectured the audience about the economic benefits of fascism. An Italian-Canadian source from East Van claimed that, in the same period, the civic government welcomed club applications for Fascist or Nazi parties and clubs.

The internment of Japanese-British Columbians is a well-known story but when it is set beside the internment, as well, of Italian-Vancouverites, its anti-fascist context becomes crystal clear. The rounding up of suspected spies among the Italian community in the Eastside began in 1940, spurred in part by the Italian consulate's sponsorship of a Vancouver fascio. Nearly 200 Italian-Vancouverites were exiled to Ontario for the better part of two years, a far cry from the Japanese internment and dispossession but, since most Italians and Japanese lived in the East End, these moves against suspected fifth columnists was also a move against East Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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