Reflecting on Vancouver’s ‘New’ Left, 1970s/1980s.

Capitalism arrived along the eastern Pacific shores via small sailing vessels based in Europe and the eastern seaboard of the US in the late 1700s. Within a century an industrial resource extraction form of capitalism was fully entrenched. Many of my Indigenous ancestors worked hard in these new (to us) industries, but our labour power was not sufficient to fuel the insatiable desire of capitalist expansion. Soon peoples from the far flung reaches of the globe started to arrive in number and this place became British Columbia. By the early 20th century my ancestors were no longer the majority in our own lands. Rather, we had gone from being part of the economy to becoming apart from the economy. This is the backstory to the project I am embarking upon.

The extension of capitalist relations of production to British Columbia occurred in the context of a colonial expansion that brought people here from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and other parts of the Americas. Some were advantaged by their class location, others shared in the experience of having value expropriated from them through the theft of their labour time. This project is about those who realized this theft and took action to change things in the 1970s and 1980s. The geographic focus is on the city and region commonly called Vancouver.

Drawing in part upon my experience as a member of an extra-parliamentary left grouping in the early 1980s I wish to seek out others who were involved in political activism that sought to bring into existence a radical post-class society. While I intend to include activists from across the time between 1968 (that bookmark year of radical uprisings) and 1983 (the start of the neo-liberal triumph) I will include activists whose life experiences extend before and after this central moment.

 Vancouver in the 1970s and 1980s was a site of intense radical-left activism. The space of activism included a vibrant anarchist milieu (including Direct Action, and the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade), neo-Troksyism (Revolutionary Workers League, International Socialist), remnants of an earlier 1960s Maoism (Workers Communist Party) and the traditional soviet influenced Communist Party of Canada, a host of Latin American support coalitions with links to the wave of revolutionary upheavals in Central and South America, Anti-Apartheid and African Liberation support groups linked to the disintegration of the racist colonial states of South Africa, Rhodesia, Mozambique, and Angola. Activists in this political scene believed in the possibility of a radical societal transformation based in a praxis of class struggle.

Forty and fifty years later the vision of radical societal transformation has been replaced by ideologies that prioritize individual transformation, no less radical, but radically different nonetheless. This project seeks out activists like myself to ask them to reflect on their life’s experiences, their moment of radical activism, how it may have shaped their lives and their choices they made, and then to reflect on their ideas now about what is seen as today’s radical left.


A Good Question

The idea here is that if one can generate a ‘good question’ from ones readings, listening to lecture or podcast, or watching video, one is well on the way toward effective learning.  If one is able to pose a question, a question that engages with the material at hand, that integrates it across domains of thought, then one is really moving forward with understanding and being able to use the knowledge one gains.


The good question exercise is one I often use in teaching. But more than that, it is an approach to learning and research that I use myself.

I try first to understand a piece of writing, say on a subject that is new to me or one that I might have a divergent perspective from the author. I am a strong believer in the efficacy of comprehension before critique.   It is so easy to create a shopping list of all the things wrong with something I disagree with.  It is more intellectually challenging to try and understand the logic, perspective, data, and argument of an author first. It will ultimately make any critique (positive or negative) more effective and nuanced in the long run. In my blog post ‘What does the prof want?‘ I discuss this approach in a bit more detail with an eye toward effective study technique.

Here is a standard set of instructions that I often use as the basis of a group activity in a class.

  • Each group is to generate two or three ‘good’ questions based on the reading assignments. Take a few minutes -no more than five- to brainstorm ideas within the group. Write them down so that you can consider them. These ideas should not be fully formed questions.
  • Next, review the ideas and begin to design questions from them. Ask yourself if the questions challenge you to think through the issues of fieldwork or do they help you understand the context of the two research sites. Be mindful that the answers must be in the readings and/or film. Also, the questions should not be designed to elicit opinion; they should require reference to information from the readings listed above.
  • After everyone in the group has asked and discussed the questions revise and winnow the questions to two or three that you would be interested in presenting to the class.
  • As part of this process you should also sketch out a brief answer to each of the questions.
  • After finalizing the questions each group will present one question to the discussion group. At the end of this session hand in the questions and answers.

Whether used as a group activity, or an individual learning technique, the idea behind the good question draws upon a variation of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is a kind of hierarchy of learning and knowledge. Imagine that the first step is simple memory and recall. Then we start to build comprehension. We apply our knowledge in some way. From there we start to analysis novel situations with our knowledge, link it together synthetically with other types of knowledge and then finally are able to evaluate (or critique our knowledge).

The good question approach is based on an idea of active learning – go beyond memory work- integrate the knowledge into one’s one understanding and make use of it. Doing it this way is one effective way to become a more proficient learner and ultimately a better researcher.



A Fathers’ Day Reading List for the New Year

When my own sons were young my partner gave me a copy of Patrimony by Philip Roth for father’s day. A little while later I came across an unexpected book by ecological anthropologist Ben Orlove, In my Father’s Study. These are books that have stayed with me.

The first is a tale of a son’s journey with a father at the end of his life.

The second is a story of a son coming to learn about his father, to come to an adult appreciation of him, after the father’s death.  It’s a touching memoire.  I’ve used it a few times in my teaching but my 20/30-something students respond to it rather differently than I. For them it is simply one more book on a reading list while for me it led me to think about my life as a father and as a son.

I’ve spent a great many hours with my own father. As a child following him around as he worked on his fishing boat. As a young adult working with him on the same boat. And later in life visiting with him, keeping each other company sometimes talking about the past, often about his health, and occasionally about my own work. Coming across Orlove’s book, almost by accident, has led me to gather over the decades an eclectic little library of books reflecting upon fathers and sons. Here, in sense of order, is a selection of my favourites.

  • In My Father’s Study. Ben Orlove. U.Iowa Press. 1995
  • A Life in the Bush: lessons from my father. Roy MacGregor. Viking, 1999. A loving tale of a northern Ontario father by one of Canada’s favourite journalists.
  • Waterline: of fathers, sons, and boats. Joe Soucheray. David R.  Godin, Publisher. 1996(1989). A memoire about restoring a boat, but its far more than that.
  • For Joshua. Richard Wagamese. Anchor Canada. 2003(2002).
  • To See Every Bird on Earth: a father, a son, a lifelong obsession. Dan Koeppel. Plume. 2006.
  • Lost in America. Sherwin Nuland. Vintage. 2004.
  • Patrimony. Phillip Roth. Touchstone. 2001.
  • My Father’s Wars. Alisse Waterston. 2013.
  • Fatherless. Keith Maillard. 2019.

There are more – but this is more than enough for a start.