Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Happy Anniversary

June 5, 2017

This year is a busy one for centenaries, and sesquicentenaries: Vimy, the Russian revolution, Canada 150, to name but three.

Here in BC we are commemorating a couple of hundredth anniversaries: women's suffrage and prohibition. Both came into effect in 1917. On the face of it they are an unlikely pairing. What were voters thinking? The vote for women was one of the most significant progressive reforms of the 20th century, while prohibition was probably the worst attempt at social engineering in Canadian history. Yet in BC -- and in some other provinces as well -- they were introduced at almost precisely the same time.

Both women's suffrage and prohibition were approved by popular referendum during the BC provincial election of 1916 and introduced the following year. The fact that they were linked suggests that, like womens’ suffrage, prohibition was considered a progressive measure. At the time it was supported by many of the most forward-thinking elements in society. Yes, it was promoted by what today we might call the religious right, the hellfire and damnation crowd. But it was also favored by social reformers who were concerned at the human and social costs of alcohol abuse. The two issues were also linked because many prohibitionists expected that women, if given the vote, would vote in favor of going dry.

As things turned out, of course, prohibition was not the reform its proponents hoped it would be. It may have reduced drinking – the jury is still out on that – but it definitely encouraged political corruption, crime and hypocrisy. In BC it lasted less than four years before it was repealed as a bad idea.

No such second thoughts about women’s suffrage, of course. Making the centenaries a bit of an odd couple, commemorating as they do one of the landmark achievements in women’s equality and one of the most notorious public policy failures in provincial, even in North American, history. 

May 29, 2017

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In case you've been waiting for the news,  the ballots have been counted and my history of North Vancouver, Where Mountains Meet the Sea, has won the community history prize awarded by the BC Historical Federation at its annual meeting, this year held in Chilliwack.

The Federation threw a great banquet on Saturday night and Sunday morning I got a chance to have breakfast...

May 24, 2017

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Next week, May 29-June 4 is Bike to Work Week in Vancouver. 

Everything old is new again, including bike commuting. The inaugural bicycle in the city was owned by Dr. Robert Mathison, a dentist, who imported it from Ontario in 1887. According to the first archivist, Major James Matthews, by 1900 a bicycle "craze" had swept the city. "Almost every family...

May 22, 2017

Congratulations to Rolf Knight who has been named this year's winner of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for a BC writer with a long and meritorious career.

I keep two of Knight's books close to hand. His Indians at Work is a compendious account of the Aboriginal labour force in BC, pathbreaking when it first...

May 18, 2017

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I’ve recently been poking around the history of squatting in Vancouver. Issues of homelessness and transiency go right back to the origins of the city. Gassy Jack himself was a squatter and of course you could argue that we are all squatters, on native land.

During the Dirty Thirties the men in the photograph were among the thousands of single unemployed who arrived in the...

May 15, 2017

I've been thinking about adding to the din about cultural appropriation but since I've written an entire book that is mostly about the subject I thought I'd leave it at that.

Except to recommend that if you want to educate yourself about the issue, watch Jesse Wente's interview on CBC television, or listen to...

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