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It’s a minor miracle that labour historian Mark Leier’s revised edition of his original 1999 book on labour rebel Robert Gosden even made it into print. A fire bombing at Vancouver’s New Star Books in 2012 delayed publication, but we can be grateful that it did not deprive readers of this lively biography-cum-provincial labour history.
As Leier notes in the introduction to the first edition, BC history tends to dwell on the rich, famous, and powerful -- the coal and robber barons whose lives fill volumes. But hidden stories like Gosden’s “deserve to be told if we are to understand the history of the province” (1). Like many of British Columbia’s early labour movement personalities, Gosden fits several labels. Leier painstakingly probes him first as a Wobbly revolutionary, then a mystic, and finally and perhaps most mysteriously, as a labour spy. Gosden was a man with many secret rooms and Leier provides the keys to unlocking them as he guides us through the exploits of this “shadowy figure” in the first few decades of the twentieth century (back cover).
As a revolutionary, Gosden called for violent action to counter the deprivations caused by capitalism. A member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), he assisted in the formation of the Prince Rupert Industrial Association in 1911 to demand better working conditions. Controversy followed Gosden, who forcefully argued in articles published in the IWW’s Industrial Worker that a revolutionary’s most effective tools were “direct action and sabotage” (24). Those views landed him in jail more than once.
Disillusioned with BC socialists, and observing so-called socialist and labour supporter Parker Williams’s shift to the Liberal party, Gosden was also soon siding with the Liberals and was embroiled in the “plugging scandal” of 1916, involving fraud, political payoffs, and illegal voting. The deeper the scandal, the deeper Gosden was implicated.
As a mystic, Gosden embraced the tenets of theosophy, a blend of spiritual beliefs promoted by Russian émigré Madame Helena Blavatsky, and he followed the teachings of British mystic Annie Besant. His relationship with Ethel Cuthbertson, a poet and temperance advocate, may also have led him down this path. As a spy, he contradicted all that he had previously represented as an impassioned voice of workers. At Gosden’s funeral in 1961, labour leaders knew that “he had been a fiery radical,” writes Leier. What they did not know was that “he had been a labour spy for the RCMP” and that he had advocated “measures ranging from political reforms to the ‘disappearing’ of trade unionists and socialists.” (7).
All labour historians have to dredge through various archives, old labour press reports, and obituaries to find evidence of lives that have made a difference for working people. Leier has done us a service by describing his own experiences in those trenches. Through a combination of luck, digging, and help from friends, as he puts it, Leier has given us more than a biography: a rich examination of a radical era that students of labour history will benefit from.
Rebel Life also provides moments for political reflection on the value of labour history today. At the risk of diverting readers from the main story, Leier offers numerous sidebars on the political parties of the day, radical unions like the Wobblies and the One Big Union, famous strikes, and personages such as labour martyr Albert “Ginger” Goodwin, to name but a few. It is these sidebars, combined with Leier’s efforts to weave Gosden’s story into a modern-day context, that on the one hand frustrate readers interested in a straight biography and on the other speak evocatively to those wanting to make connections with today’s broader geopolitical concerns.
Following the eighty-year old tracks and trails of Robert Gosden was clearly enjoyable and exciting for Leier. He has shared the details of that life with the imagination of a mystery writer and the documentary knowledge of one of our most seasoned labour historians. Let us be grateful for failed fire bombings.
Long a supporter of history through graphic novels, it should come as no surpise to find Leier’s name on the back cover blurb to Laura Ellyn’s Ginger Goodwin: A Worker’s Friend, which he describes as an “accessible, deeply moving, and inspiring book.” Like Leier with Gosden, Ellyn blends the story of Goodwin’s shooting death on Vancouver Island in 1918 with contemporary issues, for example the Alberta tar sands and Canada’s military role in Afghanistan. She relies on “the emotional truth of oral histories,” while acknowledging the work of conventional historians in sorting out the Goodwin story through documentary research (106). This boldly illustrated volume makes a welcome visual companion to the standard Goodwin biographies by Susan Mayse (Ginger, 1990) and Roger Stonebanks (Fighting for Labour, 2004).
Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden
Vancouver: New Star, 2013 . 183 pages. $21.00 paper
Ginger Goodwin: A Worker’s Friend
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016. 114 pages. $29.95 paper