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Soviet Princeton: BC's radical history

Review by Glen Truax

May 4, 2016

No, not that Princeton. This is a story of the little town in British Columbia’s Interior Region, which suffered from such easily identifiable woes during the Depression that the town is almost a Platonic Ideal of Depression-era class conflict

Soviet Princeton should be purchased by any left-wing human being currently living in Vancouver, considering the sheer lack of interest/resources to tackle the greater province’s history. Left-wing history in Canada in general is fairly limited, with a few key events (the Winnipeg General Strike, the March to Ottawa, the language revolution in Quebec) highlighted, while seemingly nothing else happens in this country.

The turmoil in Princeton has a depressing regularity to anyone familiar with the patterns that follow a strike in a company town. Princeton had one major industry (a mine), as well as a handful of commercial businesses that served the needs of the miners and the ranchers who lived in the sweeping fields that surrounded Princeton.

As has always been the case, monopoly capitalism (in the form of one major employer in Princeton), recognizing just how desperate people were willing to work, lowered wages and turned a blind eye to severely dangerous conditions in the workplace. The workers went on strike, which was quickly followed by what could be termed as sympathy strikes in neighboring towns. Organization was handled by “Slim” Evans, a Communist and member of the Workers Unity League, the arm of the CPC which directly dealt with labour strife.

The middle class naturally turned to the police for strike-breaking power, and when the RCMP was deemed insufficient, they formed a Concerned Citizens Alliance, which was uniformly made up of thugs (the irony that this “Citizens Alliance” only constituted and represented a small minority of townspeople seems to have been lost).

Slim Evans was run out of town by vigilantes, and the mine was essentially shut down – it seemed like the strike conflict had managed to kill the town, but Princeton was kept alive by trade with the ranchers, who never cared one way or another about the strike.

All of these historical points are covered in Soviet Princeton, and the patterns mentioned above can be applied to many, many different cases throughout the late 1800s and the 20th Century. What makes this volume so interesting is the sheer amount of lore that would otherwise be unknown.

The fact that the Ku Klux Klan even had a presence in Canada is astonishing, let alone their role in attacking “reds” like Evans and strikebreaking in general. The specific conditions of the working class in a province which was still considered as straightforward Crown Property are also eye-opening. Everything from labour camps that resembled concentration camps, to a police force that was suspicious of anyone foreign (including and especially white people from Eastern Europe and Italy), to the grid of rail-riding which made migrant work possible, are all conditions which are brought into sharp focus by the volume.

These are all reasons why Soviet Princeton is required reading for the Canadian leftist who is curious as to what exactly was going on west of the Rockies during the worst of the Depression: the history also provides almost unclassified information which deals with the very specifics of what was occurring in Princeton, as well as providing an archetype of the mass strike in the early 20th Century.

But most important of all, at least from a historical point of view: it gives voices to the voiceless and forgotten men and women who fought, struggled, lived and died during this period. If it was not for the care and research that the authors provide, Princeton’s strike would a historical footnote, if anything at all. Come and see the hidden history of the province that time has seemingly forgotten.

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