Memories of 64 years as political junkies

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I'm a "political junkie." The Wikipedia definition of a political junkie is, "One who is obsessed by all things political and votes in every election." So, yes, that's me, but I'd like to add that I believe political junkies also need to get involved in politics as party members, volunteers, as well as candidates.

My interest in politics started early. I was a Second World War child: the war was never very far from our minds. We children had to wear our gas masks at school for two hours every day; when there was an air raid, my sister, Doreen, and I were moved from our beds and slept with our parents on a mattress under the stairs because the stairs were often the only things left standing after a house was bombed. When at home we huddled with the adults around the radio every night, intently listening to war news; the war was discussed or argued at every gathering.

Also, I literally learned about politics at my grandfather's knee: when my father died, my sister and I looked to our beloved Granda for support, and he told us stories about the North East of England where we were born, about the poverty, about the lack of jobs, about the strong labour movement and about the Jarrow Crusade where 200 pitmen and shipyard workers marched from Jarrow, in Durham, to London in protest of the lack of employment and of the horrible working conditions in the North East.

In 1946, my mother, my sister and I immigrated to Canada: by 1950 we had relocated to British Columbia. At the age of 17 I was offered my first full-time job as the receptionist on the front desk of the Martin Inn, Ocean Falls' only hotel.

My position wasn't a union one, but a situation soon arose that would illustrate to me union loyalty. I was asked if I would take on a task in the hotel cafeteria that was outside my job description. The task required me to sit near the cash register and tally all the meals and extras that went through. Meals were 67, 77 and 87 cents each but all extras, even a pat of butter, were to get an additional charge. I turned up for my first shift and was puzzled at the cool reception I received from the cafeteria staff. It only took me a couple of days to realize the reason for my job: I was a stool-pigeon, a Mata Hari, a fifth columnist. I had a quiet word with the shop steward, explained that I was not prepared to be an informant and ask her if she would come with me to talk to the hotel manager. Well, a whole delegation of unionists accompanied me, and while I didn't exactly lose my job, I was told that if I liked the union workers so much, I could join them. That was how l found myself working in the hotel cafeteria where I kept running into Monty Alton, the man I would eventually marry. Turns out he was a political junkie, too.

At that time, B.C. was governed by a Conservative/Liberal coalition, formed with the specific intent to stop the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party, which had a larger majority, from forming a government.  Also, a new party had surfaced called the Social Credit. A provincial general election was called for June 12, 1952: it was the first election to use the preferential ballot: there were the three parties and voters selected the parties in order of choice; any deviation from that resulted in a spoiled ballot.

I had joined the CCF and was now able to vote. Monty was also a member of the CCF. Our riding was Mackenzie and our CCF candidate was Tony Gargrave. In order to defeat the coalition, we reluctantly voted CCF, Social Credit and then Conservative/Liberals. The result: our candidate was elected, but so were the Social Credits.

In the next couple of years, I went to work for the Canadian Bank of Commerce (it wasn't the CIBC then), Monty became a certified machinist, and we got married. So, when all kinds of jobs became available at the Alcan smelter in the "world-class community" of Kitimat it seemed like too good a chance to pass up and in 1954 we moved there.

In Kitimat, the CCF was a fairly active group: there were many familiar names connected with the party: Lynn Williams, Wally Ross, Chris Trower and Frank Howard. We became active members also, taking executive positions and working hard to sign up members.

In 1956, the Steelworkers became the sole certified bargaining agent at Kemano, which provides energy for the smelter and town site of Kitimat, and Monty was hired as the staff representative.

In 1960, Monty obtained permission from the Steelworkers to run for the CCF in the provincial election: the election date was September 12; so was our wedding anniversary; and so was the expected birthdate of our third child. This all looked promising, but it was not to be. Monty lost by 112 votes to Dudley Little, the Social Credit candidate; Guy Williams was appointed to the Senate. However, the excitement of the 1961 Convention when we became founding members of the New Democratic Party lessened our disappointment.

In 1962 Monty was transferred to Vancouver, and we bought a house in Richmond. At that time, Richmond was highly agricultural and one of agriculture's greatest advocates is Harold Steves, a descendant of a pioneer Richmond family. Steves served with Dave Barrett and the NDP government of 1972-1973, and was one of the founders of the Agricultural Land Reserve. It was an honour to be members of the Richmond NDP and to work with and be inspired by the people around us.

In 1971 we decided to move to Vancouver. Our family had barely settled into our new home and I had just finished a year at UBC when the 1972 provincial election was called. We were in the constituency of Vancouver-Point Grey. The NDP led by Dave Barrett won that election and in the following election Social Credit signs blossomed all over our area.

We're living in Burnaby now -- have been for 32 years. We have an NDP MP, an NDP MLA, an NDP council and school board and our family is strongly NDP. About 10 years ago, Monty and I were made NDP Honorary Life Members.

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

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Keep Karl on Parl

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