Vancouver Was Awesome: A Temple for Labour

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A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.

Entrance to the Labor Temple, 411 Dunsmuir Street. Photo by Lani Russwurm

While the destruction of old buildings gets most of the attention in Vancouver these days, it’s good to sometimes stop and notice the ones that survive and the stories they tell. The recently renovated Labor Temple at 411 Dunsmuir Street is one splendid old building with a dramatic history.

Designed by architect Thomas Hooper, the building opened in the spring of 1913 at a cost of about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It included meeting halls, a large billiards room in the basement, a lounge for unemployed workers, a print shop, a cooperative store to provide low cost goods to workers, and offices for the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC), the Socialist Party, and individual unions. It was designed so that a couple more floors could be added in case the need arose.

The Labor Temple was a stop for many prominent and sometimes notorious union leaders passing through town. Mother JonesIWW co-founder Big Bill Haywood, and Lucy Parsons, the outspoken widow of Haymarket Riot martyr Albert Parsons, are perhaps the most well-known. But it wasn’t just radicals who made use of the Labour Temple; the conservative Vancouver Police Union also got its start there when it became one of the first police unions in the country in 1918.

Architect’s drawing of the Labor Temple. Vancouver Daily World, 11 March 1911

Canada’s first General Strike broke out Vancouver in 1918 following the police killing of union organizer Ginger Goodwin. As part of their strikebreaking effort, employers sent a mob of soldiers to the Temple to intimidate and harass union organizers. The soldiers trashed the place, threw documents out the window and attempted to do the same with two union leaders.

During another general strike in 1919, tensions were heightened by the placement of machine guns atop the Beatty Street Drill Hall a few blocks to the east, which strike supporters complained were aimed at the Labor Temple to intimidate strikers. (More realistically, the guns were well within range of the Cambie Street Grounds, a popular site for rallies across the street).

Mob attacking the Labor Temple during a one day general strike in 1918. “Scene of the clash,” Vancouver Daily World, 3 August 1918

Ultimately the Temple became a casualty of this militant period in Vancouver’s labour history. A factional split in the VTLC  paralyzed its ability to meet the financial obligations of the Labor Temple. The provincial government purchased the building and repurposed it as the first home of Van Tech high school in 1921.

The province retained ownership until a few years ago when it sold the Temple to the current owners. Labour’s Vancouver temple is now the Maritime Labour Centre on Victoria Drive, an unsightly but functional headquarters for the Vancouver District Labour Council (the VTLC’s current name) that features a fabulous 1940s mural by Fraser Wilson

A longer version of this post can found here.

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