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Culture
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Rights + Justice
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Labour + Industry

In Northwest BC, He Fought for Socialism, Working People and the Environment

Union activist John Jensen’s memoir looks at the battle for local control over the future of the region. An excerpt.

Rod Link 30 Jul 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Rod Link is a former editor and publisher of the Terrace Standard in Terrace, B.C., and is the editor of No Compromise, the memoir of northwestern B.C. labour leader John Jensen.

Danish immigrant John Jensen, a skilled craftsman, had no trouble finding work when he arrived in Kitimat in the mid-1960s, a town dominated in all respects by the massive Alcan aluminum smelter.

Jensen also had no trouble finding causes. He quickly established himself within the unionized working community, beginning a career with the carpenters’ union that placed him in the top tier of northwestern B.C. labour politics for decades.

Jensen brought something else with him from Denmark. He was a socialist, a philosophy acquired in his early years during the Nazi occupation of his home country then taken into the workplace and the Danish navy.

This was not the socialism of books and higher learning. His was a practical socialism in a world where there was, as he would often say, a working class and a ruling class.

Jensen’s rise in union ranks came just as northwestern B.C. was being positioned to be an industrialist’s paradise.

There were hopes for a Japanese-financed steel mill in Kitimat and talk of copper smelters. Kitimat competed with Prince Rupert to be the export point for coal from still undeveloped mines.

The forest industry had long been a regional mainstay, with sawmills in small towns and pulp mills in Kitimat and Prince Rupert. But there were plans for more logging to feed more mills. Dams would capture the waters of large rivers, forcing the flows through power-producing turbines.

When the citizen group Victims of Industry Changing the Environment, or VOICE, emerged in the late 1960s under the umbrella of the Kitimat-Terrace and District Labour Council, Jensen provided its philosophical base.

“Are the inhabitants here, other than landowners and merchants, going to gain anything? Considering the amount of timber removed from the Kitimat and Nass valleys the last 10 to 15 years, are our timber resources big enough to sustain the increased demand of proposed supermills, and for how long?”

Kitimat’s newspaper, the Northern Sentinel, was quick to respond to anyone questioning large-scale development. “Much of the leadership of the most vociferous kind happens to come from activist groups led by self-identified Communists. This is embarrassing to nearly everyone but the Communists themselves.”

Through VOICE, Jensen fleshed out the core position of organized labour in Kitimat and Terrace for decades to come.

Ownership of industrial developments must be at least 51 per cent Canadian. Plants must adhere to strict pollution controls, determined locally as well as in Victoria. Local social services must be planned and started before an industrial complex gets underway. Local residents should not have to pick up the tab for the increased need for services and facilities to accommodate the increased population. And industrial development should not proceed without first gaining local approval.

Jensen was also committed to bringing communities together — from First Nations to union activists to environmentalists to women’s groups.

In this excerpt from his memoir No Compromise, Jensen, who died at age 90 in 2019, recounts a first gathering to explore Northwestern grassroots democracy.

*****

When Dave Barrett and the NDP were elected in 1972, we assumed things would change in the north country. But we forgot that he, along with most politicians, did not understand people who did not live in the big city.

Those of us who lived outside of the Lower Mainland, in places where most of the wealth of the province was created, expected major changes on how raw materials were collected and profits distributed. But very little changed. We were still producing the wealth and all we received in return was wages.

The NDP did introduce a labour relations code and, most importantly, brought in regulations protecting productive farmland. At the time, there was enough land to produce fruit and vegetables for all of B.C., right here in B.C., without having to import much from California and Mexico.

As for forest practices, we pressured the government for a rational system. Forests minister Bob Williams got in a helicopter and circled the Northwest, then declared everything was fine, with no need to change practices. He did not mention the huge clearcuts, or our concerns about logs being shipped overseas without being processed here.

It became clear that progressive people will always need to struggle, no matter what party is in power. And that was the spark in 1975 for the first study conference in the Northwest. The goal was to give ordinary people a chance to explore new ideas. The focus would be on how they visualized the future and how the region should be managed for the benefit of all.

A steering committee was established. Contacting close to 100 organizations and collecting funds was a huge undertaking. In the end, about 200 delegates and a like number of observers attended, including the Dene people from the north, and others from the Yukon, as well as from Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Burns Lake and Haida Gwaii.

Such a gathering over three days in Terrace had never happened before. You could find commercial fishermen and fly fishers, foresters and tree huggers, seven First Nations and union members from the three Northwest labour councils. In addition, there were women’s groups, farmers and delegates from churches. It was a meeting attended by what Corporate Canada calls “special interest groups,” but, in truth, it was the diverse group that was community in the Northwest. Provincial MLAs were invited as guests only, with no voice or vote. To their credit, three of them did attend.

The logistics of putting this conference together—arranging the transportation and sleeping arrangements — were mind boggling. Larisa, my wife, baked 300 muffins. Our entire residence was covered in muffins.

I opened the conference with these remarks: “Welcome brothers and sisters of the mushroom society. You know how they treat mushrooms don’t you? They keep them in the dark and feed them lots of manure, so let us shed some light on how to get a development that serves all and damages no one.”

Through the workshops and plenary sessions, a participant might find themselves seated next to someone whose ideas and issues were completely different. The hope of the steering committee was that people left the conference with an understanding of the varied obstacles facing different groups, but also with ideas for, and determination to, preserve and enhance our small part of the globe.

Over three days, there were workshops on issues like First Nations rights, local control of decision-making, employment and education, health, human rights and social development.

A clear consensus emerged of what needed to be done to ensure that the residents of the Northwest could continue a sustainable way of life, while protecting the environment from destruction by multinationals.

It was remarkable to see how this many people from such diverse backgrounds could make unanimous decisions, agreeing on how to make the Northwest a better place. Sustainable development that protected the environment and respected First Nations rights was a central theme. The most important accord was an agreement between unions and the seven First Nations.

The steering committee was assigned the task of following up and acting on conference resolutions. For some time, we did a good job, but as years went by committee members, all of whom had busy lives, became less energetic. We all faced individual struggles on behalf of our organizations, including me. I should have worked harder for more action.

Nevertheless, that first study conference in 1975 and the two that followed in 1980 and 1982 planted the seeds. Northerners, even today, so many years later, have a foundation for how to live in and preserve our environment.


With a foreword by provincial Environment Minister George Heyman, 'No Compromise' is the 13th book published by Vancouver-based Walhachin Press. It’s available at the People’s Co-op Bookstore in Vancouver and at Misty River Books in Terrace, B.C.  [Tyee]

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